In late February, we headed to the Rio Grande Valley of southern Texas.

We had visited Texas a number of times during the last several years, but hadn't traveled to this region of the state in more than a decade. It wasn't a coincidence the Rio Grande Valley typically offers favorable temperatures this time of year. Summer is another matter.

During the drive south from San Antonio, we scheduled a couple of nights in the town of Kingsville to allow time for a tour of the King Ranch. We were somewhat familiar with the ranch, but hadn't taken time for a tour during previous trips to the area.

The 825,000-acre ranch played an important role in Texas history and continues as a major contributor to the state's agribusiness economy. Although the ranch remains a major cattle producer and even has its own feed lot, management long ago diversified into farming with large fields of cotton, milo, sugar cane and citrus.

Additional acreage is devoted to sugar cane, turfgrass and citrus. The ranch is also engaged in tourism, publishing and several retail businesses. It partners with Ford Motor Co. in the manufacture of a King Ranch Edition of the F-series truck.

Today's vast business empire was birthed by Richard King, a New York City boy who at age 11 escaped the city as a stowaway on a ship headed for Mobile, Alabama.

A hard worker and quick study, he became a steamboat captain on the rivers of Florida and Alabama before moving to Texas where he and a partner started a steamboat company along the lower Rio Grande River.

During an overland excursion in South Texas, King happened onto a creek that he realized could provide water for domestic stock as well as wildlife.

In 1853, he and a partner purchased a 15,500-acre Mexican land grant that included access to the water.

The initial purchase was the beginning of an empire that would eventually grow to nearly a million acres. Richard King died in 1885 and ranch ownership passed to his wife and their five children.

King's lawyer and friend, Robert Kleberg, who had become the ranch's manager and married King's youngest daughter, embraced innovations in ranch management including drilling for water and clearing portions of the land for farming.

He also began cross-breeding to produce cattle that were able to tolerate the heat of south Texas.

Subsequent land acquisitions and improvements have resulted in today's King Ranch.

We arrived in Kingsville during the early afternoon and decided to scout out the ranch and its visitor center before our tour scheduled for the following day.

This was fortunate because we were able to visit with 88-year-old ranch resident Beto Maldonado in the ranch visitor center where he spends four hours each Wednesday and Saturday.

Beto is a life-long ranch resident who enjoys an excellent memory of the early years of ranching.

As a young boy, he and his brother received $5 a month for feeding the calves by bucket each morning before they walked a mile to school.

Beto followed in his father's footsteps and became a master showman for the King Ranch.

The relatively small visitor center includes an information counter where tour tickets are sold plus a sales area for books, videos and ranch-related clothing.

An excellent 30-minute film gives the history of the ranch and adds up-to-date information on current operation.

Of particular interest during our own visit was Poncho, a large longhorn grazing in an adjoining field. Poncho is quite impressive and seems to enjoy the attention of visitors.

The ranch offers several types of guided tours including ranching and a variety of special birding tours. Private tours can be arranged around a particular interest.

We chose the daily narrated tour that covers ranch history and operations.

This 90-minute tour occurs three times daily Monday through Saturday, and twice on Sunday. It is the most popular of the King Ranch tours and covers only a section of one of four large parcels of land that comprise the ranch.

Our friendly tour guide, Peggy Hayes, pointed out the Santa Gertrudis and the Santa Cruz cattle that are bred on the ranch.

We also saw beautiful quarter horses and some wildlife, the ranch house, commissary, stables and other buildings. The only stop was in an employees housing area where we explored a building containing a weaving display.

Following our ranch tour, we drove into town to visit the King Ranch Museum and its collection of saddles, guns, vehicles and historic photographs.

The nearby ranch Saddle Shop offers a variety of beautiful leather goods.


David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). Visit them at

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