The Dunn Ranch
From the Padre Island National Seashore photo archives
Patrick Dunn was born in Corpus Christi in 1858 and began working with cattle on the open range as a teenager with his brother. In the 1870's, after the invention of barbed wire started putting an end to open rangeland on the mainland, many small ranchers were forced to either move elsewhere or to go out of business. Dunn decided, along with his brother, to establish a ranch on Padre Island.
The island had several advantages over the open range as pastureland. First, it was bordered on all sides by water and thus, for the most part, no fences were needed. The only exception was the southern border of Dunn's property. Because he did not own the entire island, Dunn had to erect a fence across the island in the vicinity of the the present Mansfield Channel. Another advantage was that there was then, as there is today, very little brush on the island. Brush was a place where cattle were often lost and the cowboys (then usually called "brush whackers" or "brush poppers") would have to ride through the brush to find them. They would then be cut by thorns or risk riding into rough branches. Another advantage was that water was easy to find on the island. Dunn had learned, reportedly from the local native Americans, that water could be found practically anywhere on the island by simply digging down a few feet. He therefore created small wells on the island throughout his time here, by digging at the foot of a dune and inserting a wooden frame about 2 feet by 8 feet in size (about the size of a watering trough). In his later years, Dunn once estimated that about 75 wells were located throughout the island.
Dunn leased a portion of the island's north end in 1879 from two Corpus Christi gentlemen, John McCampbell and Stanley Welch, and brought out 400 cattle, which he had purchased from a man named Rachel in White Point. Bad weather during the first winter severely damaged the herd, and Dunn was not able to make his first payment on the note owed to Rachel. As a result, he signed on to a firm called the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Company to herd 1,000 head of cattle to Webb County. That money enabled him to make his payment. That was the only time Patrick Dunn was unable to make a living on the island.
So that cattle could be worked all over the island, Dunn built a series of three line camps at 15 mile intervals: Novillo, Black Hill, and Green Hill. The 15 mile interval was the distance cattle could be rounded up and driven in one day (a day starting at 4:00 a.m. and lasting until dusk). Each line camp consisted of a large trap, a bunkhouse for the vaqueros (cowboys), a private bunkhouse for himself, an outdoor kitchen, and smaller traps and corrals. Furniture and building materials for the camps came from driftwood and shipwreck debris found on the beaches. Operations were uneventful for 10 months of the year, but during May and October cattle were rounded up for branding, vaccination (in later years), and yearling selection for market. The round-up started at the southern boundary of Dunn's property and moved north as the vaqueros drove the cattle from line camp to line camp and ending at the Dunn's headquarters on the northern tip of the island.. Usually the entire round up took about three weeks to a month. Those cattle sent to market were herded across the Laguna Madre near the present location of the JFK causeway.
During the early years, Dunn lived with his family in Corpus Christi. In 1884, Dunn had firmly established his ranch and decided to move his family to the island. They lived in a settlement about twenty miles south of the northern end. About five to six years later, one of his daughters became partially paralyzed from a case of scarlet fever. Dunn believed conditions on the island had contributed to his daughter's illness and consequently moved his family back to Corpus Christi. For the next sixteen years however, Dunn continued to live at the settlement or at one of his line camps. In 1907 Dunn built a two-story house on Packery Channel using drift lumber found on the beaches. Reportedly, after the Nicaragua wrecked on the southern end of the ranch in 1913, Dunn used furniture from the ship to furnish his house. During these years the family spent several months of each year on the island, while maintaining their permanent residence in town. In 1916 a hurricane demolished the house and Dunn replaced it with a smaller house, which was reportedly still standing as of 1971, but which had been remodeled several times.
On February 1, 1926, Pat Dunn sold all his holdings on Padre Island to Colonel Sam Robertson, who envisioned developing the island into an attraction for the growing tourism industry. However, Dunn retained the mineral and grazing rights so his use of the island was effected little if any.
After Patrick Dunn died in 1938, ownership of the ranch passed to his son, Burton, who introduced several changes into ranch operations. One of the first was the purchase of a four-wheel-drive truck following World War II. Instead of driving the cattle from line camp to line camp, the vaqueros simply drove the cattle to the nearest line camp where they were loaded onto the truck and shipped north. Burton also introduced vaccinations into operations as well as incorporating salt and minerals into the cattle's diets. Previously the cattle had gotten their salt from any source they could. Apparently it was not unusual for visitors to the island to see a cow walking down the beach chewing a saltwater-soaked rope or a fish. Another innovation, albeit unsuccessful, was the use of windmills to pump water to the cattle troughs, but these were found not to work any better than the traditional wells and were not replaced after hurricanes blew them down.
An innovation that Burton Dunn was forced to make came as a result of the building of the Intracoastal Waterway in the 1940's. Cattle could no longer ford the Laguna Madre to go to market. Burton Dunn had to drive them to the northern end of Mustang Island where they were ferried to the mainland. This problem ended in 1951 with the construction of the Padre Island causeway, which made it possible for tractor-trailer trucks to go to the Novillo line camp, where the cattle were loaded.