Heyday of Texas Ranching- One Family Story

Cattleman article on Lytha, Ben, and Frank Alexander

In the last couple of posts, you have met Frank, Lytha, and Ben Alexander, and you’ve seen a family portrait.  This post is an article from the July 1958 “The Cattleman” magazine, reproduced here by permission.  There is something here for everyone’s taste: fashion, history, biology, sociology, geography, and business.  I took special note of the wedding clothes and customs, the fact that a son had great advantage in his professional life from having lived in a foreign country as a child, the perspective of my own ancestor, John Rufus Alexander, and how he coped with hardship, and the flexible thinking that pervades the learning of business practices of grandfather, father and son in this tale.

The Frank M. Alexanders

“The Youngest Old Couple”

by Mary Whatley Clarke


“The youngest old couple in the country,” say the many friends of Mr. and Mrs. Frank M. Alexander of Dilley, Texas, “because they are old only in years.”  He is eighty-nine years of age and she is eighty-eight, and their outlook on life is optimistic and their interests wide.  Many of their friends are younger people.  They will celebrate their sixty-eighth wedding anniversary on Christmas Day.


They first met on the Pedernales River in Blanco county.  She was visiting her married sister, Mrs. Ben Johnson, and Frank was doing some work for the brother-in-law.  Her maiden name was Elitha Hardin, but her family always called her Lytha.  She was petite, red-headed, brown-eyed and lively and immediately caught the young cowboy’s fancy.  They fell in love and were married in the Hardin home in Blanco county on Christmas Day, 1890.  He was twenty-one and she was twenty.  Her wedding dress, made by hand, was a lovely cream colored cashmere, trimmed with lace.  Frank wore a new black suit.  After the wedding supper that evening in her parents’ home the young people of the community charivaried [If you need to look this one up, you might try the spelling ‘shivaree.’] them by riding around the house horseback, ringing cowbells and firing off six-shooters.  On the following evening an infare dinner was held in the groom’s home for the young couple.


When their only child Ben was born, in 1893, he was brought into the world by his Grandmother Hardin, a well known mid-wife, or practical nurse.


The senior Alexander was born in LaGrange, Texas, in 1869, and moved with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Rufus Alexander, to Round Mountain in Blanco county in 1878.  He had little schooling.  He walked the three miles to the country school when it was in session more often than he rode horseback.  He recalls the stern-faced master who always wore a leather strap about his neck and was ready to use it on the first obstreperous lad.  During those pioneer childhood days Christmas was a event to remember because the children received apples, candy and fireworks!


Frank never like farming and always wanted to be a cowboy.  In his teens he worked for neighboring ranchmen when he could and knew that handling cattle would be his life’s work.  He met the Blocker Brothers, Johnny and Ab, during those formative years and later made two cattle drives with them from the Austin area to the San Angelo Country.  Those trips took about two weeks.  John Blocker received the cattle and branded them, then sent them up the trail under Abs’ management in the fall of the year.  Fifteen hundred cattle were driven up the trail on the first drive and twenty-five hundred on the second drive.  Blocker wanted the cattle to be near the tick quarantine line by April 1, so they could be cleared and started early to Montana.  At that time the quarantine line was beyond San Angelo.  It was patrolled daily and all cattle checked carefully for ticks.  The cattle shed their ticks during the winter months on the plains and were usually cleared without any trouble in the spring.


Ten Men Started Out With Herd


Alexander recalls that ten men started out with the cattle and helped drive them through the brushy country until the good prairie land near Brady was reached.  Then only eight cowboys handled the herd, as follows, two on the point, two on the swing, two on the flank and two on the drags.  Then there was the horse wrangler and the cook.


The main sources of water for the cattle in the San Angelo Country were Will’s Water Hole and the Concho River.  Ab Blocker always told the cowboys, “Let them come to the   Concho, then throw them back toward the north.”


Each cowboy needed four horses for this drive and could use his own animals if he had them.  He made two dollars a day if he rode his own, if not only a dollar.  Horses were ridden a half day at a time.  Each cowboy had his bedroll in the chuck wagon, and a change of clothes.


On one drive three horses were lost and Ab gave Alexander ten dollars and told him to go back and find them “or never come back!”  Alexander spent three days hunting the horses and found them in the valley where the Brady River runs into the San Saba River.  A farmer told him to look there as the grass was good and the horses were craving greenery.  The tip proved correct and Alexander drove them back to the herd and returned the ten dollars to his boss.  He had spent each night in some hospitable farm home and the good women usually prepared him a lunch for the day.


One time Alexander drew a bad bronc from the remuda and Ab would not let him ride the animal.  he told a big Negro cowboy, Link, an experienced bronc rider, to ride the horse.  “He’ll hurt that boy,” he said.  Long years afterwards Alexander was able to do a favor for Ab Blocker and felt that he partly repaid that boyhood kindness.


Alexander remembers the nights when he guarded the cattle on those drives.  Sometimes he was on guard with Link, the Negro cowboy, who would sing plaintive songs around the herd, like “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” and “Sam Bass.”  “That music lulled the cattle,” Alexander said, and he added with a smile, “I can’t predict what ‘Rock and Roll’ would do for a herd.”


Alexander rode back to Round Mountain alone after those drives and always regretted that he did not have the experience of a longer drive to Colorado or up the Chisholm Trail.  “I have always been glad that I had the privilege of knowing and working for such colorful old cowmen as the Blockers.  They loved each other more than any two brothers I ever knew,” he said.




Started Buying Cattle in 1890


In 1890 Alexander began to buy small bunches of fat cattle and drive them to Austin for sale.  This was the real beginning of his own cow-handling business.  Later on he moved his family to Hays county where he bought a half interest in twelve hundred cattle and the ranch lease.  During those ranching days Mrs. Alexander rode daily, on a side saddle, helping her husband with the ranching work.  Little Ben also had his own horse and rode the range with his parents.  A love was born for ranching that still exists today.


When Alexander drove cattle to Austin from the ranch it was necessary to camp out one night.  Mrs. Alexander drove the buggy on those trips, taking the bedrolls and the chuck.  Ben would ride horseback with his father and the cowboys until he got tired, then he would get in the buggy with his mother.


Alexander bought the Hays county cattle in April, and there was no rain for eight months and feeding became necessary.  Then prices fell, and the Alexanders learned for the first time what reverses in the cow business meant.


In 1901 Alexander paid one thousand dollars down and gave his note for a partnership deal for one thousand head of cattle and took them to Cuba for sale.  Mrs. Alexander and Ben went with him on the chartered boat when the captain gave them his room.  Those cattle were sold at a profit and prospects looked bright.  Then the senior partner persuaded Alexander to buy a half interest on credit in eight hundred culls which he had cut from other herds which he had shipped to Cuba.  These cattle were full of ticks and the dry season was on.  They began to die like flies and the young cowman found himself in a tight place.  He simply could not pay out.  The family had rented a small farm near Camaguey, Cuba, where they continued to live.  Things were looking pretty discouraging when Frank met Fred and Howell Lykes of the well known Lykes Brothers Steamship Lines.  They had two ranches in Cuba at that time and were buying cattle in Texas and Mexico and freighting them to Cuba to replenish the island.  Most of the cattle had been killed out during the recent Spanish American War.


They needed a reliable cattle buyer, one who knew cattle and who could handle their deals.  They met and liked Alexander, the wiry, honest-faced cow-puncher from Texas.  They offered him a job.


Could Live Cheaper in Cuba


Frank accepted at once, but would be gone from home so much that he thought it best to send his family back to Texas.  Mrs. Alexander had another idea.  “Ben and I will stay in Cuba,” she said.  “We can live cheaper here.  I can sell butter and eggs and help pay off our notes.”  That is what this partnership wife did.  A Cuban boy did the milking of ten or twelve cows.  She churned it and molded the good, rich butter.  Ben delivered it on his horse to the scattered American families, along with fresh eggs.  Mrs. Alexander received one dollar a pound for the butter and always sold at least five or more pounds daily.  This money really helped to pay off their debts.  The reverses they suffered in Cuba were more than compensated by his Lykes Brothers connections.  He continued working for them the remainder of his active days, leaving his own ranch duties to go on buying trips for them.  “They were fine folks,” he said.  “There were originally seven brothers, but only Joe survives.  He is chairman of the board.  When he comes to Texas he always visits us.  The company operates about sixty ships.


“I always told Ben to work for himself,” he added, “but when the Lykes Brothers wanted him to work for them, I said, ‘go with them, they will treat you right’ and they did.”


After lining up with Lykes Brothers, Alexander spent many months in Texas and Mexico buying cattle and worked for them also on their Cuban ranches.  The ticks were the cowman’s worst enemies in those years and thousands of cattle died from Texas fever.  At first the cattle were roped on the Cuban ranches and rubbed with a rag soaked in coal oil, water and salt to kill the ticks.  But this work was too slow.  Then Alexander built the first dipping vat in Cuba for Lykes Brothers and used a mixture of boiled arsenic, soap and pine tar that did the work.


After working four seasons for Lykes Brothers in Cuba the Alexanders moved to LaPorte, Texas in the coastal area where they lived from 1908 to 1919.  During those years, although ranching on his own, he continued to work for the company when he was needed.  Mrs. Alexander rode the range with her husband and helped him do the ranch work.  “My wife learned to ride astride in Cuba,” he said, “after I shipped her and Ben some horses.  I did not like it at first.  It didn’t look right, but I got over that idea.  It is the safest way for a woman to ride.”


Mrs. Alexander Gets Into Trouble


There was one special time on the LaPorte ranch when Mrs. Alexander again proved herself a real partnership wife.  They had five hundred yearlings to look after when he had a urgent call from Lykes Brothers to buy some cattle for them.  He hired a man to look after the yearlings and departed on his mission.  The rainy season was on, and there was no surcease from deluging water.  The cattle began to get down in the bog.  Then the hired man quit.  Mrs. Alexander was in a jam, but she didn’t intend to lose the cattle if it could be helped.  She phoned the Stelzig Saddle Shop, the cattleman’s hangout in Houston, and asked for Sherman, a reliable Negro cowpuncher.  Luckily he was in the shop at the time.  She had Stelzig send him to the ranch, and he looked after the yearlings the best he could.  Each day she rode horseback to his camp to see how the cattle were doing.  Many times she helped him get them out of the mud by lifting their heads while he pried up their rumps and got the yearlings to their feet.  One hundred and forty-three died, but the market was good and a profit was made.  Her husband gave her a diamond ring when they were sold, which she wears today.


During the Revolution in Mexico, 1912 to 1914, the Alexanders lived in Vera Cruz and he bought fat steers to ship to Texas markets for Lykes Brothers.  He would ride by train from Vera Cruz as far as he could go, then hire a horse from a reliable Indian guide, who knew the country well.  They took back trails and kept out of the way of the soldiers, and never lost any cattle.  The Indians and Mexicans were always glad to divide their food with them and usually had chickens and eggs.  They would never take any money, but Alexander always gave the children some silver.  Mexican ranchmen were glad to sell their steers because they were afraid their cattle would be confiscated for the army.  The work was dangerous in a way, but Alexander enjoyed it.  He always carried a hammock in his slicker and would hang it in some cabin or among the trees to sleep upon.


Carranza headquartered in Vera Cruz at that time and Alexander saw him often, a tall, mustached Mexican, and a wonderful rider who liked to parade around the plaza horseback.


Mrs. Alexander enjoyed her Mexico stay also.  She organized Girl Scout troops and enjoyed many pleasant social functions “South of the Border.”Especially does she recall the “bailes,” or dances.


One time Lykes Brothers had pastured steers twenty-five miles from Vera Cruz, and Alexander would go down every few weeks to see how they were doing.  He rode the train part of the way and went the remaining distance horseback.  He dressed in the typical Texas ranch garb, big hat, boots and a gun at his waist which he had a permit to carry.  One day he stopped at a small cafe.  There were eight soldiers in the place who immediately took a dislike to him.  He could see them point in his direction and hear them discussing him.  He bought them a round of rum, and then another, until their dispositions became more friendly.  He pretended to drink with them but poured most of his drinks into a spittoon.  Then the leader, to prove who was the best shot, ordered him to get on his horse and shoot at a tree as he dashed by.  He made him empty his gun, then the cartridge belt about his waist.  “I was never more frightened in my life.  I fully expected to be shot in the back at any moment,” Alexander admitted.  “Then the leader took his turn at shooting and certainly did have more ability than I did to hit the target.  By this time the train had arrived and I started to get on.  Then the leader put his arm around my shoulders and said in Spanish ‘Haga Usted el favor de prestarme diez pesos’ (please lend me ten dollars).  I replied ‘con mucho gusto’ (with much pleasure) and I handed him the money and got on the train.”


Ben Also Worked for Lykes Bros.


Like father like son, Ben also worked for Lykes Brothers many years, and being fluent in Spanish since his childhood days in Cuba, proved a valuable man to them.  He went to Colombia, South America in 1919 to receive cattle for them, and spent one season in Barcelona, Venezuela, where cattle were received and then driven to Guanta, the nearest port, then shipped by Lykes Brothers to Cuba.  One time ten thousand stocker steers were contracted for and driven into Barcelona by the llaneros, a distance of one hundred and seventy-five miles, in shipments of one thousand each.  The drive took twelve days.  Only two cowboys rode horseback, the cabrestero and corporal.  The others were on foot.  The cattle had been divided into small herds of about one hundred animals to the herd, as they could be handled better in small groups.  “It was quite a sight to see all those native cowboys in their hand-woven clothes and straw hats, hanging around the port,” Ben said.


Alexander senior was in Vera Cruz from 1920 to 1924 receiving Colombian cattle.  During those four years eighty thousand head were received at the Mexican port.


After working for Lykes Brothers in Colombia and Venezuela, Ben went back to Cuba and managed their largest ranch at Bayamo, Oriente Province, until ill health forced him to return to Texas.  At present he is one of the successful Santa Gertrudis breeders in the state and ranches at Cotulla.  He and Mrs. Alexander have a lovely home there and are near his parents in Dilley which makes his location ideal.


Alexander senior managed the 140,000 acre Lykes Brothers Soledad Ranch near Freer, Texas, for five years besides the many buying trips he made for them during the time.  One of the last things he did for the company was to help them locate the 02 Ranch in the Big Bend, and to buy the twenty-six hundred steers on the ranch.  He recalled that in less than a year those steers netted forty-one dollars a head.  They were kept on the ranch until spring, then shipped to Kansas.


The Alexanders moved to Dilley thirty years ago and have lived there since.  They came Thanksgiving Day in 1926 and settled first on a seven hundred acre farm which they bought.  They later sold the farm and moved to the town.  Although Mrs. Alexander broke her hip in 1950, her pioneer constitution pulled her through and today she enjoys good health, is bright and alert.  Although she has a housekeeper, she does all of her own cooking, looks after her garden and flowers.  Neither she nor her husband wear glasses.


“I’ve reached the stage where I’m pretty content to stay home with the T.V.,” Alexander said, and admitted he enjoyed “Gun Smoke” and “Roy Rogers shows,” because they were realistic.  “I have no grumble,” he said “I never have any aches, nor pains, and we have the best neighbors in the world.”


Alexander’s Father With Mier Expedition


Before leaving the hospitable home of these “salt of the earth” pioneer Texas ranch people, Alexander was asked to tell something about his parents.  He did so with just pride.  “Father was with the Mier Expedition in 1842,” he said, “and was one of the five who escaped and lived to tell about it.” Then he went to his desk and got a small book entitled “Notes and Fragments of the Mier Expedition” by Houston Wade.  “I prize this book,” he said.  “It contains my father’s own story of that expedition.  Father was blind in his old age but dictated his story to my brother, Rufus McCormick Alexander.  Father was interviewed in 1905 by a reporter from the St. Louis, Mo., Globe-Democrat, who had learned that he was the last survivor of the Mier Expedition.


After reading John Rufus Alexander’s true story of his terrible journey from Hacienda Salado, seventy-five miles from Saltillo, Mexico, back to San Antonio, Texas, respect was born anew for those early Texas heroes who fought, bled and died that Texas might be free.


An excerpt from the book written by Judge Andrew Phelps McCormick, describes the suffering and indescribable hardships of the escapees as follows:

“They clambered over the mountains, where there were no roads or paths, or inhabitants, or water or food.  They were many times nearly dead from hunger and thirst; their flesh was constantly torn and bleeding and fevered by contact with thorny brushwood of that arid, mountainous region.  They had to make many and wide detours to shun observation; they sometimes lost their reckoning and lost much time and toil in regaining it.  They sometimes suffered from blistering heat by day and nipping chill at night, but they stayed together, kept heart and at last after six hundred miles and a hundred days of such marching, exertion and suffering which had brought them almost to the last extremity, they arrived at San Antonio.  Here they halted, nursed themselves back to normal health and strength, and then, parting, went each alone to his home situated in widely separated parts of Texas.”


“All Texans know the tragic outcome of the recaptured Texans,” Alexander continued.  “Every tenth man was executed as the result of the famous drawing of the black beans.  The men who were recaptured by the Mexicans were imprisoned in the Castle of Perote and suffered untold agonies.  Thirty-five were finally freed and came back to Texas.


“My father did not want secession during the Civil War and and voted against it,” he continued, “as did Sam Houston.  Father was later detailed to freight cotton to the Rio Grande by ox team, having three wagons and three teams of four yoke of oxen to the wagon.  He has a record of Civil War service in the Archives of the Texas State Library at Austin as follows: ‘J. R. Alexander, private, age 46, enlisted October 28, 1863 at Fayetteville for six months in Captain Martin Martindale’s Company of unattached infantry, Fayette County, 22nd Brigade, General William Webb, Commanding Texas State Troops.’


“Father was born October 28, 1817,” he continued, “in the Territory of Louisiana, which later became Missouri in 1821.  He came to Texas about 1838 and settled first in Brazoria County.  He volunteered for service when an expedition was organized to repel the invasion of Texas by Vasquez and Woll.  He died in 1908 and my mother passed away in 1917.  Both are buried near Round Mountain, Texas.”