Forked Lightning Ranch - Tex Austin; the Fogelsons
Photo by Patricia Lenihan
When 20-year-old Clarence Van Nostrand left home in 1908, he reinvented himself for a life of adventure. He changed his name to John Van Austin, but everyone knew him as "Tex." Although born into a strict St. Louis household, he claimed to have been born and raised on a cattle ranch in Victoria, Texas.
After working on New Mexico and Texas ranches and briefly joining the Mexican Revolution, Tex Austin started producing rodeos. From his first in El Paso in 1917 to his last in London, England in 1934, Tex was known for his generosity and showmanship. When he produced the first Madison square Garden Rodeo in 1922, the prize money was a record $25,000. Tex had other "firsts":
Everyone agreed that Tex possessed "tremendous charm and bluff" and "spent his last dollar like it was a leaf and he owned the forest." Tall and lanky, he was not considered a decent working cowhand by his cowboys, but "he did learn to wear a big hat and to sit his saddle as if born to the leather."
In 1925, Tex bought up parcels of land on the old Pecos Pueblo Grant and called his 5,500 acre holdings the "Forked Lightning Ranch." The remains of Kozlowski's Stage Stop and Tavern on the Santa Fe Trail (1858-1880) became part of his new holdings, which Tex converted into ranch headquarters and a trading post.
He hired architect John Gaw Meem to design and build the main ranch house on a bluff above the Pecos River. (The assignment was one of Meem's first. He later became famous throughout the Southwest for his "Pueblo Revival" buildings.) All rooms in the rectangular house faced a grassy patio. Its defining touch was a huge, specially sculpted steer head mounted outside on the chimney.
When Tex decided to run a dude ranch at the property, he advertised it as "the most complete, modern and comfortable ranch house in the West. The life of the romantic West is at its doors."
"Way Out West an' a Little Bit South"
Tex hoped for a share of the growing East Coast tourist market to New Mexico. The ranch, after all, was less than two days by train from Chicago: "Thirty-four hours, and you're out where the West is--and will be for some time." Train travelers disembarkedat Rowe, just a few miles down the road.
For $125 a week, 18 guests sharing nine bedrooms received "all proper service...to insure the comfort and friendly atmosphere of a country home...Feed--and how!...served ranch style...in big heaping dishes. Pitch till you win and no one keeps track of the helpings!" A highlight? "Pack and chuck wagon trips to the high peaks."
The Forked Lightning was a working cattle ranch and, for a time, a dude ranch. The dude ranch only operated for seven years; the last guests left in May 1933. Tex had heavily mortgaged the ranch and couldn't pay the debt. A year later, his attempt to produce another London rodeo fell on hard times--British animal rights groups tried to stop the show on the grounds that steer-wrestling was cruel. Tex lost more than $20,000.
After losing the ranch, Tex moved to Santa Fe and opened the Los Rancheros Restaurant near the Plaza. In October 1938, Tex committed suicide. Rumor at the time was he had been told he was going blind. Tex Austin, the "Daddy of Rodeo," was named to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1976.
A New Breed
In 1936, W. C. Currier bought the Forked Lightning Ranch, and five years later sold it to E. E. "Buddy" Fogelson, a Dallas oil man and rancher. Over the next 25 years, Mr. Fogelson purchased land to the south, expanding the ranch to 13,000 acres. The Forked Lightning became a small cattle ranch and Tex's ranch house the Fogelson summer home.
After Mr. Fogelson married the actress Greer Garson in 1949, the ranch house became a center for gracious entertaining. Active in ranch life, Mrs. Fogelson unsuccessfully tried to raise white Shorthorns imported from her native Scotland. While attending a cattle auction in 1958, Mr. Fogelson impetuously purchased a purebred Santa Gertrudis bull named "Gee Gee" which, with three heifers purchased at the same auction, became the foundation for the Forked Lightning Santa Gertrudis herd.
Santa Gertrudis, the first officially recognized American breed of cattle, was developed on the famous King Ranch in Texas. A cross between a Brahma and Shorthorn, the breed resulted from an effort to produce good beef animals better suited to the heat, humidity, and range conditions of South Texas. When Mr. Fogelson brought Santa Gertrudis to the Forked Lightning it was the first time the breed was wintered at high altitude. A tireless promoter of the breed, Mr. Fogelson was the first to exhibit Santa Gertrudis at the New Mexico State Fair in 1961.
The ranch house has remained relatively unchanged. Tex's Forked Lightning brand still marks the original fixtures in the living and dining rooms and the steer head still stares down the Pecos. It is not difficult to imagine the famous and not so famous gathered around the huge fireplace, sipping drinks on the wide front porch, or enjoying the sun on the patio, all basking in the warm atmosphere that welcomed so many guests for more than 60 years.
Park Photo by P. Lenihan
Park Photo by Roger Clark