Valley Beneath The Sierra Vieja:
A Texas Border Ranch History

 

By
Glenn Justice

 

 

Rimrock Press
 

 

Historical Research & Publishing
P. O. Box 13292
Odessa, Texas 79768


 

www.rimrockpress.com
Copyright 2004
All Rights Reserved


A Texas Border Ranch History
By

 

Glenn Justice


Located in far west Presidio County some ten miles north of the Rio Grande
village of Candelaria, Texas, the land of today’s Circle Dug Ranch has a long and colorful
past. Bounded on the east by the Sierra Vieja Mountains, the Circle Dug is situated some
five miles east of the Rio Grande River and Chihuahua. It lies in a broad and rugged
desert valley bordered on the west by the vast Sierra Madre Mountain range of Mexico.
Locally known as the Candelaria Rim Rock, the Sierra Vieja comprise the southernmost
tip of the Southern Rocky Mountains in North America. Capote Peak, at 6,212 feet above
sea level overlooks the rim rock on the southeastern edge of Sierra Vieja. The Vieja rim
rock has long been a barrier separating the outside world from river valley and the Circle
Dug. Although the Rio Grande the official boundary, in many ways, the Vieja rim is the
true boundary and the river valley is more like Mexico than the United States. Spanish
language and customs continue to prevail west of the rim and the remoteness of the area
give one the experience of having gone back in time at least a hundred years.

 

Although the Circle Dug lies in the Chihuahuan Desert, two important
watercourses cross the ranch. The spring-fed Capote Creek flows continuously over the
rim rock forming the highest waterfall in Texas. Capote Falls drops some 175 feet a few
miles east of the Circle Dug boundary and runs until it reaches its mouth in the Rio
Grande approximately two miles upriver from Candelaria. Walker Creek rises in the
Sierra Vieja to the north of the Circle Dug and flows intermittently for twelve miles until
it intersects Capote Creek. The name Capote is said to have come from the Spanish word
Capote meaning a “cape” describing the clouds or fog that sometimes cloak Capote Peak.
A rock formation on the mountain is also said to resemble the Spanish cape. In addition
local folklore recounts that the name may be related to the Lipan Apache Chief Capote
who lived in the region about 1850.

 

 

Archaeological evidence on the Circle Dug Ranch indicates a long history of
human presence. When Cabeza de Vaca, the first European to explore the Big Bend in
1535, trekked up the Rio Grande a few miles east of the Circle Dug, the intrepid explorer
encountered a large Native American population that later Spaniards called Jumano
Indians. The name Jumano is, at best, vague and elusive but refers to the native people
who lived have along the Rio Grande and in far West Texas for centuries. It is the
moniker the Spanish gave these Indians and is certainly not a name that these Native
Americans would have called themselves or even recognized. Although few
archaeological investigations have been conducted on the Circle Dug Ranch, the
extensive number of Indian sites along Walker and Capote Creeks imply human
occupation from Archaic times or roughly as late as the time of Christ. In later years, the
Apache lived along the Rio Grande, in the Sierra Vieja with many making camps on
Circle Dug land. In 1583-84, the Spaniard Antonio de Espejo’s entrada passed by and

probably camped near the mouth of Capote Creek. In 1850, an expedition led by U. S.
Army Lieutenant William Henry Chase Whiting reached approximately the same point
on Capote Creek. Lieutenant Whiting found many Apache lived in the immediate vicinity
including the Lipan Apache Chief Gomez for whom Gomez Peak in northern Jeff Davis
County is named.

 

Indian presence on the Circle Dug hindered cattle ranching until the final years of
the nineteenth century. The first known individuals to attempt ranching on the Circle
Dug property were Felix, Febronio and Trinadad Calanche. The Calanche family had a
tragic past in the Big Bend bedevilled by what has been described as the “Calanche
Curse”. The Calanche family ranched before the dawn of the twentieth century at the
Viejo Ranch atop the Candelaria Rim Rock some fourteen miles outside Valentine. They
built three or four houses at the Viejo Ranch, kept cattle, goats and sheep and raised
vegetables in two large gardens. Cresendo Calanche and his esposa, Materia, lived in one
of the houses. For unclear reasons, the couple got into an argument one morning and
Cresendo killed his wife in a fit of rage. Following the murder, Calanche put Materia’s
body on a burro and took her to the graveyard in Valentine where he buried his wife.
In 1907, Cresendo’s brother, Febronio, ranched and built a house on today’s
Circle Dug near the only windmill on the ranch. Calanche called his place the Capote
Ranch. In 1910, Pancho Villa, the Mexican Revolutionary took up arms in Ojinaga across
the river from Presidio, Texas. Villa’s call to arms came as a result of attempts by the
Terrazas and Creel haciendados to displace peons from their lands to profit from the
construction of the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway across the Mexican state of
Chihuahua. For the next decade a terrible civil war decimated Mexico, one that claimed
as many as a million lives. Pancho Villa, who gained a reputation as the “Lion of
Chihuahua”, fought a desperate fight. For ten years, Villa roamed Chihuahua’s Sierra
Madre sometimes not far from the Circle Dug. An arms for cattle trade fueled Villa’s
uprising. Between 1910 and 1920 as many as a million and a half cattle came across the
Texas border. These were, in many cases, highbred Hereford cattle stolen by the various
Mexican revolutionary factions from the vast haciendas of Chihuahua.
The revolution in Mexico brought considerable profits to Texas cattlemen. Driven
by the arms for cattle trade, more than a few Big Bend ranches got their start only to
have their hopes dashed by the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Mexican cattle were
cheap and sold for as little as $5.oo a head. These cattle could be exchanged for guns and
ammunition at premium prices. Following an arms embargo put in place by U. S.
President Woodrow Wilson, Pancho Villa paid $1.00 for each round of any sort of
ammunition. Guns brought a considerably higher price. Gunrunners sprang up all along
the Big Bend border. Between 1910 and 1920 the border arms for cattle trade prospered
not dissimilar to today’s arms for drugs deals. During this decade of destruction,
ranching on the border became more dangerous than even in the days of the Apache.
And the Calanche curse seemingly continued. In late 1914, a former Texas Ranger turned
outlaw by the name of Horace L. Robinson leading some twenty bad men shot and killed
Febronio Calanche and Rodrogo Barragon. Calanche and Barragon were murdered on
the Texas side as they slept on the riverbank acoss the Rio Grande from Los Fresnos,
Chihuahua. Three years later in March 1917, Crescencio Calanche’s only daughter met a
similar violent death. When Villista raiders struck the Nevill ranch located six miles
upriver from Porvenir, Texas they shot and killed Glen Nevill and Rosa (Clara) Calanche
Castillo. Other Calanche family members met also sudden brutal demises. Not long after
these murders the Calanches gave up their ranching operation at the Capote Ranch.

For a few years a man by the name of McGee ranched the Capote Ranch. Little is
known about McGee. It is likely that his short time at the ranch probably came as a result
of falling cattle prices after World War I and poor rainfall that led to drought like
conditions. Drought has always been the ruin of Big Bend cattle ranchers. During the
early 1920’s, Owen Curtis Dowe and Harry Andrews purchased the Capote Ranch from
McGee. Unlikely partners, O. C. Dowe was a colorful, hard drinking Texas lawman and
Andrews a wealthy business man from Detroit, Michigan. Born in Cuero, Texas in 1883,
O. C. Dowe left school in the eighth grade in 1904 after he got into a fight with a bully
that beat up his younger brother. After the fight, O. C. tangled with his teacher and never
returned to the classroom. The young Dowe then got a job as a cowboy on the Cox Ranch
seven miles outside Organ, New Mexico. The job paid $25.00 a month plus room and
board with the promise to be raised to $30.00 per month after six months if he “worked
out”. Rancher Cox was a hard man to work for and expected much from his men. The old
rancher rang a bell in his hand’s bunkhouse to roust the hands out for work at 3 a. m.
every morning. The cowboys usually worked in the horse pasture until dawn before they
could even eat breakfast. Evidencing his cowboy skills, O. C. Dowe got his first monthly
check from Cox for 30 dollars. While at the Cox Ranch O. C. Dowe got to know Pat
Garrett who made a name for himself by gunning down the infamous outlaw, Billy the
Kid.
O. C. knew horses and while at the Cox Ranch learned how to make money
buying and selling them. He found a way to purchase a small herd and drove the horses
to Texas to sell in Cuero. The venture proved profitable and the following year, Dowe
made a second horse drive from New Mexico to Texas. On the way home he stopped in
Del Rio to visit his uncle, Luke Dowe who was Deputy Collector of the U. S. Customs
Service. Luke offered his nephew a job as a customs inspector. In 1907, O. C. Dowe took
the oath and was sworn into the customs service at Eagle Pass as a mounted inspector
working in the Saluria Customs District. O. C. Dowe got his first assignment at the Big
Bend border village of Lajitis. He recalled the day he arrived in the town and the
Mexicans welcomed the startled new river rider by shooting their guns into the air. “I
went outside and sat with my Winchester under a little brush arbor and waited for them
to shoot close enough to me so that I could fire back, but they kept firing up in the air
and there was nothing to it.”

 

But not of Dowe’s border adventures as a mounted customs inspector ended
amicably. At some point during his time at Lajitas, Inspector Dowe got word that a group
of smugglers intended to cross the Rio Grande with a load of illegal Mexican liquor.
Dowe and some fellow federal officers responded and took up a position overlooking the
river where they waited with their rifles ready. The contrabandistas started across the
Rio Grande packing their illegal sotol and mescal on the backs of mules. When the
smugglers reached the middle of the river, the lawmen opened fire without warning.
Dowe recalled that he only shot to frighten them aiming to shoot over and behind the
terrified smugglers. According to O. C., “It sure was a funny sight watching those
Mexicans run, stumble and fall into the water trying to get back to their side.” The
officers managed to confiscate the booze but at least gave the frightened booze runners
an opportunity to escape back to Mexico.

 

In 1909, O. C. married Delia Gourlery from Marathon, Texas. Delia died a short
time after the marriage following the birth of a daughter. By the summer of 1914, O. C.
Dowe had left the Customs Service and taken a job for a short time as a Texas Ranger.
That year O. C. and some fellow Rangers were trailing a group of smugglers in Pinto

Canyon southwest of Marfa. The lawmen tracked the Mexicans from the Rio Grande but
somehow the smugglers eluded them. The Rangers found a high vantage point and
carefully looked over the countryside as a group young people the officers thought to be
contrabandistas approached. Below, unaware of the danger, several adolescents from
the Wilson Ranch were enjoying an afternoon hike. Among the girls was nineteen-yearold Millie Wilson, daughter of rancher J. E. Wilson. Born in 1895 in Pass Christian,
Mississippi, Mille Wilson was a very pretty young woman known on her father’s ranch as
being cheerful and friendly. Ranger Dowe drew a bead on Millie’s head with his rifle
before he realized that the group of kids below him in the desert were not outlaws but
“only children playing”. O. C. later recalled, “When I first saw Millie, I almost shot her.”
The near tragedy gained the Rangers a chilly reception at the Wilson Ranch. The
officers camped outside the Wilson Ranch but only had meager provisions. They went to
a nearby ranch and bought a cow and calf. O. C. returned to the Wilson Ranch later and
courted Millie. The couple married in April 1915. Dowe later bought the Wilson Ranch.
Although O. C. Dowe was a lawman, he had no reservations about buying cheap Mexican
cattle and bringing them into the United States, an offense he jailed more than a few
other men for. Several Texas Rangers and Customs officers of the time also engaged in
this questionable practice. In those days, Customs Inspectors only made $150.oo a
month and Texas Rangers even less. Yet O. C. Dowe bought two large West Texas
ranches and a considerable amount of livestock.
Buying Mexican cattle also could be a very dangerous undertaking. Pancho Villa’s
men brought the cattle to the Texas border to sell for money or exchange for weapons
and ammunition. This meant that in order to buy the cattle, someone had to be bold
enough to ride across the Rio Grande and go to a Villista camp to make a deal. Two such
individuals with the fortitude to do this were Dawkins Kilpatrick and his brother Jim.
The Candelaria Kilpatrick brothers made a fair amount of money in this business.
Sometimes Texas Ranger Joe Sitters took part in the deals. It is not clear if Dowe
personally accompanied the Kilpatricks to Mexico to buy cattle but his correspondence
reveals that he bought cattle from the Kilpatricks on several occasions at very good
prices. And this was also during the time when he worked as an U. S. Customs officer.
Certainly O. C. Dowe could not afford such large financial transactions with a
lawman’s paycheck. Dow’s letters, however, make clear that he had several very wealthy
financial backers from Detroit, Michigan. These included Joseph E. Boyer, Harry
Andrews and James (Jim) S. Smithwick. The president of the Burrows Adding Machine
Company, Joseph Boyer, got in on the ground floor of an early twentieth century
technology boom. In 1885, William Seward Burrows invented and patented the first
workable adding machine. Burrows died in 1898 and Joseph Boyer became president of
Burrow’s enterprise, the American Arithmometer Company in 1902. In 1904, the
American Arithmometer Company moved its headquarters to Detroit where they built a
70,000 square foot manufacturing facility. In 1905, the company was renamed the
Burrows Adding Machine Company and 1,200 employees produced 7,804 adding
machines. The company marketed their machines to banks and businesses that
previously had to calculate account balances manually with pencil and paper. The
following year, the Ford Motor Company produced a business car equipped with a
special large rack large enough to carry a Burrows Adding Machine. The called the new
Ford the “Burrows Special”. By 1907, Burrows had produced 50,000 adding machines.
In 1911, as a bloody civil war raged in Mexico, the Burrows Company offered for sale the
first subtracting-adding machine much in demand by banks wishing to automate their

check posting operation. By 1920 Burrows sold 800,000 machines and had twelve
thousand employees. Four years later, the prosperous company issued stock and became
listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1925, Burrows machines were being sold in
sixty countries and the company sold their one-millionth calculating machine.
It is not clear how O. C. Dowe came to know his wealthy partners. Perhaps it took
place when Dowe and eight other Texas lawmen journeyed to Michigan in May 1919. An
article in the Detroit News headlined “Lounge Lizzards Pop-Eyed When Cowboys Stroll
In” presents an intriguing clue. According to the Detroit News, the Texans had been
summoned to Detroit to testify about border conditions in “Henry Ford’s Libel Suite
against the Chicago Tribune”. Dowe and his fellows packed their pistols to Detroit and
made quite an impression on several city dwellers. The article recounted an observation
by a hotel bellboy who saw the Texans. According to the bellhop “them gents are 100%
sure enough [cow] punchers. They got guns as big as cannons strewed all over the bed
and the dresser and everywhere else. And believe me, they is loaded. The guns I mean.”
Following Dowe’s trip north, his correspondence documents his personal and
business relationship with Boyer, Andrews and Smithwick. On several occasions Dowe
hosted hunting trips in the Big Bend and in Mexico for his partners. They hunted deer
and bear on these expeditions. Dowe kept his eye out for ranch investment opportunities
that on three occasions resulted in the purchase large ranches. In addition, O. C. took
Joseph Boyer’s son under his wing in an attempt to help the troubled young man. Myron
Boyer drank excessively and stayed in trouble most of his life. As president of the
Burrows Adding Machine Company Joseph had little time to spend with his son and
finally turned to Dowe for assistance. Joseph set up a trust fund for his son and Myron
Boyer stood to inherit a considerable fortune from his father. Spoiled and rebellious,
Myron had been kicked out of several private schools by the time he turned eighteen. His
father thought it might be a good idea to send the boy to Texas in an attempt to dry him
out or at least get him out of the elder Boyer’s hair. In a 1925 letter Dowe wrote, “I have
Myron Boyer of Detroit here and have been running around with him. His father is head
of the Burrows Adding Machine Company of Detroit, and is paying me big wages to try
and do something with this boy. He has been drinking very hard for several years and I
am trying to get him on his feet. I get $600.00 per month and want to try to get this boy
straightened out if I can.” Considering O. C. Dowe only made $150 per month with the
Customs Service at the time, the money he was paid for his help with Myron Boyer must
have been a considerable sum.
At first Dowe tried to keep Myron on the ranch and teach the young man how to
be a cowboy. Certainly O. C. could not have been much of a role model for Myron since
Dowe himself had a reputation for heavy drinking. Myron hated the ranch and ran away
several times. Dowe corresponded with James Boyer about Myron’s progress saying at
one point in 1926 he thought Myron had not taken a drink in three weeks and seemed to
be doing better. Then Myron ran off again and demanded his father buy him a new
Lincoln automobile. Dowe wrote the elder Boyer about the demand and received the
following reply. “I note what you say about Myron’s wanting a Lincoln, which is very
characteristic of him. He would want a Rolls Royce if he happened to think of it. A
Lincoln would not be nearly as satisfactory a car for that place as the Buick, Dodge or
Nash. I have done a great many things to give Myron a start. For instance, I bought him a
small farm at Flint one time and he lived there only a short time when he became tired of
it because there was no running water. I have frequently bought him cars. The last one, I
think, cost $2,500 or more. It seems to me he sold it for about $500 after making use of

it for less than a year. I want him to be in Texas for a longer time before there is anything
of that kind done.” A month later Joseph bought Myron another new car.
After he got the car, Myron threatened to run off to Mexico but instead went to
Marfa where he got drunk and caroused for several days with some soldiers from the
army camp. Venting his frustration Dowe again wrote Joseph Boyer asking the monthly
allowance be increased so that Myron could take a hotel room in Marfa. O. C. got the
following reply from Myron’s father in May 1925. “I realize that it is not an easy job to
handle Myron, but I also know that there has always been more trouble with him
whenever I increased or raised his allowance. It seems as though the more money he has,
the worse off he is. I bought a car for him and supposed that everything was arranged for
him to have a pleasant time, but he cannot have that any other way than by spending a
large amount of money I think you had better turn him loose and let him shift for
himself. If he comes up here and does the same kind of business that he did before I will
have him confined in some institution where he will not have any liberty.” Joseph Boyer
went on to say that he had already made arrangements with a Detroit judge to have
Myron confined, “in an institution” if he returned to Michigan. Myron Boyer died five
years later at the age of twenty-six.
In 1922, O. C. Dowe and his Detroit friends entered into a partnership agreement
that led to the purchase of the Wilson Ranch, the Capote Ranch, a farm at Ruidosa and a
candelilla wax factory. They named their new business venture the Pinto Canyon Cattle
Company. The Wilson Ranch consisted of six sections of land, a ranch house, 220 cattle,
25 saddle horses, 240 head of sheep and goats, and a Dodge automobile. The Capote
Ranch apparently, at the time, contained as many as twenty sections of land or possibly
more with the only structure on the property being the Calanche house. The Dowe letters
indicate the value of the Wilson holdings to be some $21,000 in 1922. No figure has
been found as to the 1922 value of the Capote Ranch. But the Dowe correspondence
reveals that O. C. knew Presidio County land prices quite well at the time had discovered
the existence of a buyers market for the partnership. Also, during this time, Dowe wrote
that he had “gotten on the water-wagon” and not taken a drink of booze for at least a
month. In addition to the Wilson and Capote ranches being for sale several other upper
Big Bend ranches were offered for sale to the Pinto Canyon Cattle Company including the
Wood Ranch, the Shannon Ranch and the Mitchell Ranch. Mr. Wood had offered to sell
5,120 acres for $6.00 per acre but O. C. Dowe declined the offer writing his partners “he
is so high that we could never pay it out”.
In addition to his duties as ranch manager and attempts to “dry out” Myron
Boyer, Dowe continued his work as a mounted inspector of customs well into the 1920’s.
In January 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution went into
effect making the importation; sale, transportation and manufacture of intoxicating
liquor illegal by the U. S. The Constitutional Amendment signaled the beginning of the
Roaring Twenties in which crime in the United States skyrocketed. Although it had been
illegal to smuggle liquor from Mexico previous to this time, illegal booze came to be in
great demand simply because it had been prohibited. Smuggling greatly increased on the
Mexican border and the U. S. Customs was charged with the duty of preventing it. O. C.
Dowe soon earned a reputation as a booze buster but he approached the job in much the
same way he had with cattle smuggling. He worked both sides of the law for his personal
profit. Some of his adventures were published in newspapers of the day and others live
on in local folklore.
8
Dowe even wrote about some of his seizures and other accounts appear in Big
Bend newspapers. One evening during the twenties O. C. rode his horse in Pinto Canyon
and came upon a Model T Ford stalled on the big hill coming out of the canyon on the
road to Marfa. Although Inspector Dowe was off duty at the time, he stopped to help the
driver of the Ford. He tied a rope to the front bumper of the automobile and pulled the
car up the hill. Dowe could not help but notice that the driver seemed nervous and by the
time they got to the top of the hill, O. C. smelled booze. According to the Marfa New Era
newspaper, Inspector Dowe searched the Ford and discovered 110 bottles of Mexican
liquor. O. C. arrested the smuggler and sent the man to El Paso for trail. In January 1922,
Dowe wrote his business partners that he had “made several booze catches” the previous
December including one lot of “fifty gallons”. In February 1922, Dowe recounted another
seizure in a letter to his Detroit partners. “I just returned form El Paso, again yesterday,
have had to make two trips there in a bootlegging case. They are the ones that came near
to putting me out of business, one of them pulled a six-shooter, and then I beat him to it,
and disarmed him, and didn’t have to kill him but he got killed about thirty minutes
later. I had Harry Leonard helping me and this soldier [the smuggler] struck Harry with
a Dodge crank and knocked his shoulder out of place. Leonard then pulled a gun and
killed the soldier. I carried the other three men and 44 quarts of Tequila on into town.
You all might send me two or three thousand as I can buy some cattle pretty cheap.”
In 1924, O. C. Dowe started building a large modern three-bedroom rock ranch
house at the former Capote Ranch. The construction is said to have gone fairly quickly
thanks to the efforts of a large Mexican work force from San Antonio, Chihuahua. Dowe
brought in numerous wagon loads of doors, windows and lumber from Marfa. These
building materials had to be transported over the Sierra Vieja rim rock on the steep old
stagecoach trail. The rock for the ranch house came from Capote Creek. Dowe pressed
his OC cattle brand into the fresh concrete floor in one of the rooms of the house. The
workers used the cornerstone dated 1907 from the Calanche house in the southwest
corner of the new ranch house. Seemingly a final demonstration of the Calanche Curse,
the earlier ranch house had caught on fire and burned to the ground previously. In
addition to the new ranch house, the Mexican workers also built a bunkhouse with an
attached schoolroom and a somewhat mysterious rock room with steel bars on the
windows that became known as the “jail house”. Near the old Calanche house, Dowe had
water well drilled and a new Areomotor windmill installed. It is said when the water well
driller arrived, he asked O. C. where he wanted the well. Drunk at the time O. C. replied,
“Hell put it where ever you want”. Little is known about the schoolroom except that a
ranch school operated in the schoolhouse room for several years. Today a blackboard
still hangs on the wall. In the early part of the twentieth century, the State of Texas paid
the salaries for teachers at ranch schools that had at least six students. Presumably the
school served the children of the Dowe Ranch cowboys. Local folklore recounts that the
“jail house” room never saw use as a jail. Instead O. C. Dowe used the room to secure his
confiscated liquor. Perhaps he wanted to keep Myron Boyer out of the booze stash.
During prohibition, the Dowe Ranch became widely known on the river as good place to
purchase bootleg liquor with no questions asked.
The O. C. Dowe correspondence shows that all during the 1920’s Dowe urged his
Detroit partners to move the ranching operation to Mexico where he thought it would be
more profitable. At one point, O. C. Dowe approached Joseph Boyer about the possibility
of purchasing a huge ranch in Arizona. O. C., however persisted in trying to convince his
partners to move the ranching operation to Chihuahua. In 1922, the customs inspector
wrote “Some time in the future we will have to sell this place and get a larger place over
9
there, and when this country recognizes Mexico things will be safer there, I think. When
you all come down this year we will take a trip further down into Mexico and look
around.” About 1926 Dowe bought and his partners bought a large heard of cattle for
$85.00 per head. In 1927, O. C. Dowe resigned from the U. S. Customs Service. The
onset of the Great Depression caused cattle prices to plummet to less than $10.00 per
head. In 1929, O. C. Dowe moved his cattle and the Pinto Canyon Cattle Company to
Mexico. Little is known about O. C. Dowe’s ranch in Mexico. Apparently his daughters
joined O. C. and Millie at the ranch in Mexico in 1933. It is said that by this point, O. C.
Dowe and his family had “built up a prosperous life” and “lived well in Mexico until
1949”. About that time O. C. and Millie came back to retire in El Paso. The old Texas
lawman and rancher O. C. Dowe died on June 6, 1970 and is buried in El Paso. Millie
joined O. C.’s wife the Ranger “almost shot” in death on October 27, 1977. Following O.
C. Dowe’s departure from the Capote Ranch, at least two ranchers attempted to make it
by cattle ranching today’s Circle Dug land. Pat and Francis Rooney lived in the Dowe
rock house for several years. Then Bill Middleton made the Dowe house his home for
better than twenty years while he ranched the present day Yelderman Ranch.
About 1945, Albert Chambers and his son, Ronald Boyd, moved to the Coal Mine
Ranch in the upper Big Bend. A World War I vetran, Albert hailed from Marathon, Texas
where he married Troxie Chambers and started his family. Boyd was born in 1927 in
Marathon and cut his teeth riding a horse. After ranching at the Coal Mine for several
years, the Chambers moved their ranching operation to Rancho Viejo located just north
of the Circle Dug. In 1959 Boyd married Johnnie Lois Slaughter Tucker. Like Boyd,
Johnnie had been born in the Big Bend, her father being a miner in Brewster County.
Johnnie and Boyd met in Presidio and the couple moved into a small ranch house they
called the “white house” at Rancho Viejo. Johnnie had two children from a previous
marriage; Theresa and Robert and soon the Chambers family began to grow. In 1960, the
couple had their first son who they named Boyd Chambers Jr. Three years later another
son, John Trox, was born to the couple. In 1964, Boyd and Johnnie began ranching the
Circle Dug property and moved into O. C. Dowe’s rock house with their four children. It
was the beginning of a ranching operation that lasted until the end of the twentieth
century.
Johnnie graduated from Sul Ross State Teachers College and started teaching
school at Candelaria in 1971. The first year she had six students in the two-room
schoolhouse. After teaching two years at Candelaria, Johnnie taught at the Ruidosa
School for four years and then returned to the Candelaria School where she taught until
the little school closed in the 1990s after being in operation for almost a century.
Initially, Boyd and Johnnie raised sheep and goats on their ranch and by the 1970’s their
herd had grown to about 2,000 head. Predatory animals including coyotes, mountain
lions and Golden Eagles, however, took a heavy toll on the herd killing and injuring large
numbers of the goats and sheep. Despite attempts to control the predators and protect
the herd, the problem almost put the Chambers Ranch out of business by the 1970’s. As a
result, Boyd and Johnnie sold their goats and sheep and took up cattle ranching.
For many years each spring, Boyd and Johnnie hosted an annual meat-cutting
and ranch barbeque event that eventually grew into a fairly well known Big Bend
tradition. It began as a simple and practical way to slaughter and process ranch cattle to
feed the Chambers family and their ranch hands. It was a vital ranch task and one that
required the help of quite a few neighbors and friends to accomplish. Usually a cow and
sometimes a hog or two were killed and everyone pitched in to cut up, process and

freezer wrap the meat. While most of the helpers worked cutting up the meat, others dug
a barbeque pit north of the rock house and started a big fire. Part of the beef, including
the entire head, usually complete with horns, then got wrapped in wet burlap toat sacks
and placed in the coals before being buried in the pit to cook overnight. This is true pit
barbeque ranch cooking and a method that produces the finest, most delicious and
tender barbecue possible. No part of the animals went unused. The pork skin got fried in
a huge iron kettle in lard, producing homemade pork skins or chicharonis as they are
known on the border. Boyd prided himself making “son of a gun” stew from the various
remaining animal parts. According to Boyd, his stew was known as the “gentleman from
Marfa” since it had been produced west of the rim rock. The stew was seasoned with
liberal amounts of cayenne pepper and eagerly consumed by many who had no idea of its
true ingredients. It gained the reputation of being a first class hang over remedy.
The Chambers’ meat cuttings drew a quite mixed and always interesting fun
loving crowd that sometimes grew to as many as hundred people. In addition to
ranchers and an assortment of Big Benders, lots of city folks got to try their hand cutting
up meat ranch style for the first time. The meat cutting attracted Austin hippies and
yuppies, Houston oilmen, teachers, professors, writers, lawmen, musicians and just plain
folks. People came from all over the state and some foreign countries. For many it
became an annual event, one that each year always took precedence over anything else
during spring break. No small amount of the crowd caught the “Big Bend bug” and
eventually left the cities to live on the border. As Boyd’s mother, Troxie Chambers put it,
“Once you get a taste of the Rio Grande, you always want to come back for another little
drink”. The Chambers meet cuttings continued for many years with the last one being
held in the spring of 2000. The turn of the century also saw the last of the Chambers
cattle being driven over the rim rock and sold. An important era in the history of the Big
Bend came to an end.
Boyd and Johnnie’s contributions to the Big Bend community are many. Boyd
Chambers was a master storyteller and a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about
horses, cattle, ranching, history, wildlife and the land. He was a man of his word and
always the mediator on both sides of the border. No one, even strangers, went hungry or
without a job on the Chambers Ranch. In addition Boyd served for as a Presidio County
Commissioner, sat on the Candelaria Water Board and conducted countless elections in
the Candelaria School as election judge. Johnnie spent many years teaching and was one
of the only female Boy Scout Masters in the United States. Even after her recent
retirement for teaching, she continues to be active in her church and sits of the board of
the Big Bend Regional Medical Center. Boyd passed from this life in 2001 and the Big
Bend lost one of its finest ambassadors.

 



 

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