Rancher Women of America’s Old West

When the American Civil War ended, the era of the big western ranches began. There were large ranches prior to the war but not many. The King Ranch of southeast Texas is probably the largest ranch of note prior to the war. Being located in Texas at the time of the war, the King Ranch and it’s owner, Richard King, were indeed involved in the conflict.

old ranch bunkhouse

Cowboy bunkhouse exhibit from old Goodnight Ranch

King’s ranch was raided several times by Union forces in Texas. They considered it a stopping off site for traveling and resupply for Confederate forces. In fact, Union forces arrived at one time with orders for Kings arrest. Lucky for King he was learned in advance of the raid and fled.

Female Contributions to the Western Expansion / Rancher Women of the Old West

Women were certainly a part of the western frontier and they made very important contributions. There are some interesting stories about the introduction of women on the American western frontier and particularly as wives of ranchers. The women we are referring to here are not the typical cowgirls.

What the frontier woman did do was work hard in difficult settings and contributed in a big way to the civilizing of the west. To understand the settling of the American frontier outside of Hollywood stereotypes, a look at how the wives of ranch owners adapted to their new surroundings is quite enlightening. The presence of someone in the old west who could cause a cowboy to act more gentlemanly had to be appreciated.

cattle drive cowboys

Cattle drive structure

For the most part, women married to ranchers were brought into the frontier “after” the male established himself. Conditions were rough in the decade after the Civil War and the man striving to get a herd together and start a ranch had all he could do to provide suitable living conditions for himself.

Most aspiring ranchers thought the conditions just too harsh and dangerous for their wife or new bride. The idea at the time was to establish oneself in the ranching industry and then return to one’s hometown to find yourself a bride, or if you had a wife, make arrangements to take her out west. This was the beginning of adventure for many a frontier woman.

Mrs. Charles Goodnight

In the book Cattle Kingsby author Lewis Atherton, several observations are made as to the type of woman that a rancher seemed to gravitate towards. For the most part, they chose a like minded wife. The rancher himself was a strong individualist, one of the reasons he turned to ranching in the first place, and many times this was the type of partner they preferred.

A good example was Charles Goodnight, one of the more successful ranchers in the Texas Panhandle region. Before settling in Texas, Goodnight established a ranch in Colorado and married for the first time only after the ranch was operating. Mrs. Goodnight was an adventuresome pioneer woman and the ranch life in Colorado seemed to satisfy her. Everything however was disrupted due to the  financial panic of 1873. This  bankrupted the Goodnights. While Charles took care of the ranch debts he sent his wife to live in California.

Rancher Charles Goodnight planned on reestablishing himself of which he eventually did in the area of Pala Duro Canyon, just outside present day Amarillo, Texas.

Not shying away from adventure it seems that Mrs. Goodnight spent much of her time as a frontier woman patching the clothes of cowboys and tending to the small and non-luxurious home. Mrs. Goodnight did enjoy adventure and didn’t shy away from the hardship remote living brought. Futures were not guaranteed. The hope was that after a few years of hard work in inhospitable surroundings, prosperity would eventually come and the days ahead would be better. Ranching was a gamble and the rancher preferred a wife who understood the situation.

How successful a rancher was pretty much dictated what the rancher’s wife had to endure. The wives of some of the bigger ranchers no doubt had workers present who do a lot of the chores for them. In other cases, life could be tough.  Cooking, sewing, fetching what water was available for washing and in many cases helping her husband with regular cowboy duties could be required. It really was a life of voluntary sacrifice with the hope of better days ahead.

Alice Littlefield

Another western rancher of the post Civil War era was George Littlefield. The ranch / farm was in the area of Gonzales Texas.

In the year 1869 the Littlefields were struggling earning about $150 per year by farming. Littlefield was an ex Confederate officer and Mrs. Littlefield came from a southern plantation and was accustomed to rural life. Becoming a frontier woman may not have represented that big of a change.

xit cowboys

XIT Ranch Cowboys

Alice Littlefield lived a tough life on the Littlefield farm but circumstances changed dramatically after they became involved in cattle ranching. The Littlefields represented what the successful, and perhaps lucky, rancher could achieve.

Over the early 1870’s Littlefield drove cattle to Kansas rail heads and expanded his enterprise. Over the years he had several ranches throughout Texas and into New Mexico with the LIT being one of his biggest. At one time his cattle branded LFD grazed over an area of Eastern New Mexico the size of the state of Rhode Island.

Alice enjoyed being involved with philanthropy and was responsible to a large degree for George’s many charitable contributions. The Littlefields were one of the founders of the University of Texas in Austin. The Littlefields had two children but unfortunately both were lost during infancy. Most likely as a result of their misfortune they were very close to his extended family, paying for the college education for all of his many nieces and nephews.

You may also enjoy the Trips Into History Stories on the links below…

The National Ranching Heritage Center

Battle of Pala Duro Canyon Texas

 

Excellent Venues to Learn About the Frontier Ranch Life

The National Cowboy Western & Heritage Museum- Oklahoma City, OK

The King Ranch Museum- South of Corpus Christi, Texas

The National Ranching Heritage Center- Lubbock, TX

MacGregor Ranch Museum- Estes Park, CO

The Farm and Ranch Museum- Elk City, OK

New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum- Las Cruces, NM

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)

One Of A Kind Trip Stops Along Old Route 66

Old Route 66

The old Route 66 is one of the most historic drives in North America. this highway stretching from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California in many ways tells the story of the modern day expansion across America’s Southwest. Over the decades portions of  Route 66 were altered and with the beginning of the Interstate highway system, a good portion of the Mother Road was lost altogether.

amarillo route 66The western road traveler can still find substantial portions of the old Mother Road in several states. The longest uninterrupted section being found in western Arizona. Many old landmarks remain and the signage you’ll see on the Interstates are pretty good in pointing them out.

During the heyday of Route 66 travel, motels sprang up right and left. Prior to the Interstate Highway System, Route 66 was the main artery into the southwest and into California. Thousands of people traveled the Mother Road to California during the Great Depression as was chronicled in John Steinbeck‘s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Route 66 was the trail out of the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s and hopefully to a new start and employment in California.

old route 66 bridges

Old Route 66 bridge west of Albuquerque, NM

Surviving Landmarks Along Today’s Route 66

Some of the Route 66 landmarks still remaining include bridges, abandoned service  This applies to towns and cities all along Interstate 40 from Oklahoma all the way to the West Coast. When you exit the Interstates and take a short drive through many of these towns there is quite a lot of old history to explore. Along this stretch of Interstate 40 you’ll find that the original old route still runs through the center of many towns and cities, usually as main street. This is true even though the Interstate itself passes either north or south of the town.

Theaters

When Route 66 was being developed during the 1920’s, the movie theater industry was expanding. As a result there still remains many old theater buildings along old Route 66 with the type of architecture you don’t see too often today. Some theaters of note along the way include the Kimo Theater on old Route 66 in downtown Albuquerque New Mexico. The Kimo’s art deco style is very unique.

The Kimo design  is actually Art Deco blended in to the Southwest style. Many believe that the Kimo Theater is Albuquerque’s most popular landmark. The city purchased the theater in 1977 to keep it from being demolished. There have been several renovations and today the Kimo Theater is open showing films, featuring live plays and is also used for various private and civic functions.

albuquerque historic landmarks

Kimo Theater, Albuquerque, NM

Amarillo Texas also offers an historic old movie theater. The Paramount Theater was located in the southern section of downtown Amarillo about one block off old Route 66. The Paramount Theater was built in 1932. Similar to many large theaters built in this period, The Paramount Theater included a wide-set staircase with covered with maroon carpeting as it curved to the upper balcony seating area. The theater could seat 1,200 beneath a blue sunburst design on the ceiling. The one large screen was behind heavily draped curtains and gold framing. The Paramount in Amarillo charged fifteen cents for admission when it opened for business during the Great Depression. The Paramount Theater building still sports it’s marquee and definitely worth a drive by when passing through downtown Amarillo, Texas. Today the handsome and historic structure serves as an office building.

Grants, New Mexico is also the site of an old rundown theater that was built during the Great Depression in 1937. The theater is found along the main street through town which happens to be old Route 66. Grants is located about 79 miles west of Albuquerque via Interstate 40. The Lux Theater was capable of seating some 500 plus patrons

Much of the structure which is situated in a strip of three buildings is now boarded up but the marquee and old neon tubing remains. The theater was built when a great many people traveled Route 66, many heading west to California looking for employment.

Historic Hotels

East of Flagstaff you’ll find a luxury hotel, La Posada, directly on old Route 66 in Winslow Arizona. The La Posada was originally built by Fred Harvey and the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.It was and still remains a popular and historic destination.

This Route 66 landmark was originally built next to the Winslow train station in 1929. Winslow was chosen as an ideal site for another Harvey House because it’s location in Winslow is a days drive or less from many popular northern Arizona tourist destinations  including the Grand Canyon to the west and Navajo Reservation just to the north. The La Posada Harvey House could attract travelers from either the railroad line or old Route 66. The AT & SF railroad operated the hotel for twenty-seven years and then closed it to the public in 1957.

old harvey house hotels

Interior of La Posada Hotel, Winslow, AZ

The future of the structure was of course in doubt when the railroad gave it up. The fear of many was that the building might be torn down. Efforts were underway to preserve it. The National Trust for Historic Preservation became aware of the situation and became involved. Fortunately, the La Posada Hotel was purchased by a small group that restored the hotel to it’s grand condition.

The hotel is very popular today with many making it a regular stop when traveling through Winslow. If you travel on Interstate 40, you will enjoy stopping at Winslow and visiting and/or lodging at this historic hotel. If you’re traveling on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, the train makes a scheduled stop at the hotel.

There’s plenty of interesting sites to see along the old Route 66. If you haven’t driven this historic route yet we recommend it as a fun and educational family trip.

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)