Armstrong Family Roots Run
By Colleen Schreiber
ARMSTRONG, Texas – The Armstrong family of South Texas is a legendary one. Here in this remote area, the family's roots run deep, and stories passed down from generation to generation are rich with history. The focal point of that history centers around the ranching industry and the establishment of the Armstrong Ranch.
It is this one-family town 50 or so miles south of Kingsville that Tobin Armstrong and wife Anne have called home for 51 years. Armstrong came back to the family ranch after serving in the Air Force during World War II. He managed the ranch alongside his uncle Tom, and then in the 1970s took over full management.
Cattle and polo ponies have long been the ranch's mainstay. Tom Armstrong introduced Santa Gertrudis cattle back in the 1940s, and they've been running on the Armstrong ranch since.
What was made on the ranch stayed on the ranch.
Tobin was quoted once saying, "It's always been a no-frills ranch operation. What you really have to sell is the surface production of the land. Livestock is the harvesting mechanism."
The ranch dates back to 1852, a year before Captain Richard King established the King Ranch. It was then that James Durst, Tobin Armstrong's great grandfather, purchased 92,000 acres of the La Barreta grant from the Balli family for 1600 pesos. Today 50,000 acres of that original Spanish land grant make up the Armstrong Ranch.
The land came to the Armstrong family through marriage when Tobin's grandfather, John Armstrong, married Mollie Durst, daughter of James Durst. Armstrong, however, had to fight to regain the Durst property after it had been unlawfully taken from the family during the days when early settlers' fates were in the hands of Mexican anarchists.
The Armstrong family was originally from Tennessee. In 1872 young John Barclay Armstrong left Tennessee to seek his fortune on the unsettled Texas frontier. It was a rough and tough time along the Mexican border. There was constant pillaging and marauding by revolutionaries and bandits.
A special force under the command of Leander H. McNelly, one of the great Texas Ranger captains of the time, was called in to do battle of their own. Armstrong was one of the few chosen to join McNelly's "Special Forces" unit.
Armstrong, later given the title "McNelly's Bulldog," spent two years wiping out 5700 outlaws who were pillaging and destroying everything in the Nueces Strip. Perhaps Armstrong's greatest recognition came when he all but single-handedly captured notorious gunman John Wesley Harden, for which he received a $4000 reward.
Armstrong used the reward money to set himself up in business in Austin. It was here that he met, courted and later married Mollie Durst. He was 28; she 23. They had seven children.
In 1882 the Armstrongs left Austin and moved to the isolated La Barreta property. The tiny cabin they called home was named "Las Agujas" (The Needles). Far from civilization, the Armstrongs received fresh supplies every three weeks, hauled some 25 miles by wagon from the Kenedy Ranch boat landing.
In 1897 Armstrong began building a new house and completed it two years later. The site, Tobin says, was chosen because of the sweet water near the surface, something uncommon to the area.
The house was made out of masonry with sleeping quarters separate from the kitchen and living quarters. Tobin's father, Charles, born in 1886, was 13 when the family moved into their new home. It's the same house Tobin and Anne call home. Here the couple has entertained heads of state, diplomats, presidents and vice presidents, cabinet members, and even the Prince of Wales.
When Armstrong moved his family to South Texas, the cattle industry was just beginning to take shape, thanks in large part to the arrival of the railroad. In 1904 the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railroad, better known as the "Brownie," linked the isolated ranches to the outside world.
John Armstrong's promising career, however, was cut short when he suffered a fatal heart attack in May 1913. The 50,000-acre ranch was left to the five surviving Armstrong children. Charlie, Tobin's father, then 26, was in the real estate business in Brownsville when his father died. Being the oldest living son, he came home to run the family ranch.
Young Charles, a Yale University graduate, took on management responsibilities of the Armstrong Ranch during a particularly difficult time. Political turmoil once again troubled South Texas, as did world war, low livestock prices, a mandatory dipping program to eradicate the fever tick, and a killing drouth. Those were only a few of the challenges of the day.
"In 1932 the market was so dead that my father shipped a couple of loads of old cows to Fort Worth and they didn’t bring enough to pay the freight," Tobin Armstrong says.
At that time the Armstrong cow herd was primarily Shorthorn breeding with some Durham influence. After Charlie took over, he and his brother-in-law, John Bennett, became interested in crossbreeding, and in 1919 they bought the ranch's first Brahman bull from Al McFaddin and A.P. Borden.
Hereford cattle came next, around the mid-1930s. James A. Whittenburg had drouthed out in the Panhandle and arranged to pasture 1000 of his Hereford cows on the Armstrong Ranch. Armstrong says his father later bought those cattle and that herd was the foundation for the Armstrong cattle for many years to come. A three-way cross using Shorthorn, Hereford and Brahman cattle was used until the 1940s.
As part of the ranch business, Tobin's father also raised polo ponies and Thoroughbreds for the Army Remount program. Tobin recalls that at one time when he was just a kid, his father had 235 Thoroughbred horses on the ranch.
Tobin and his brothers grew up on a horse with a polo mallet in one hand and a rope in another, he says. He won his first big polo tournament playing with his father at Meadowbrook Club when he was 19.
Polo was to be one of Tobin’s lifelong pleasures. In 1977 the family entertained Prince Charles at the ranch, and in honor of his visit arranged a polo match there. The polo field, originally named after the Armstrong childrens’ beloved tutor, was renamed Windsor Park West.
Tobin's father died in a car accident in September 1941. Tobin's uncle Tom, his father's younger brother, took over the reins. Tom Armstrong, like those before him, had already made a name for himself. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, he had a distinguished career in World War I and for 26 years ran the South American operations for New Jersey Standard Oil.
Tobin's oldest brother, John B. Armstrong (V), worked alongside his uncle until 1948. He then struck out on his own and established his own ranching operations in Texas and in Alabama, where he became the leading breeder of Santa Gertrudis cattle. Later he and his wife Etta, one of the heirs to the King Ranch, moved back to Texas and John became actively involved in management of the King Ranch. He went on to claim numerous accolades in the cattle industry.
Tobin started his adult career in the military. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps pilot training program during his senior year at Texas A&M University, and in January 1943 he received orders to report to Shepherd Field in Wichita Falls.
"That was not the best place to live — it was a place to get adjusted to the realities of military life," he recalls. "It was horrible. That wind would come sweeping down from Oklahoma and there was no door at the back of the house…"
Upon completion of his military duty, Tobin returned to the family ranch. It was 1945 and he was 23.
"I signed on to duty and rations with Uncle Tom, who I had been very close to as a kid. It was what I'd always wanted to do," Armstrong recalls.
Tobin says he was lucky in that he had several mentors to learn from. There was his uncle Tom, his older brother John, and Tom Lasater, a friend since childhood, who, when Tobin returned from the war, was in the early stages of developing the Beefmaster breed.
Each of these men, Armstrong says, had a philosophy much more oriented toward production than show ring performance.
"Most people in the cattle business at that time focused on the show ring," he remarks. "If you studied beef cattle, you studied the show ring champions, and their sire performance was measured not by production performance but how their offspring performed in the shows."
Such was not the case on the Armstrong Ranch. Production was always their primary concern. In the 1940s, Tom made the decision to try his luck with the new Santa Gertrudis breed. He did so by going straight to the best source, his good friend Bob Kleberg.
"Bob had a limited number of bulls to sell. He had to bull that whole King Ranch herd, and that was a big undertaking," Armstrong notes.
They offered to buy Kleberg's bull calves out of his commercial herd at weaning for $300 apiece.
"In 1947 that was a real nice piece of change — $300 for a $75 calf," Armstrong says.
"Every time they gathered this particular herd, Tom and I saddled up and rode through the herd. We were looking specifically at breed type, muscularity and balance. As the cowboys dragged the calves to the fire to be branded and castrated, we would tell them which bull calves we wanted to keep. We brought those calves to our ranch by the truckload."
Upon arrival the calves were branded, individually weighed and an estimated birth date was recorded. The bulls grew out on pasture for a year and then they were reweighed. They found that gain and growth rates of the animals was dramatically different.
They creamed off the high performers, the good converters, and those animals became their seedstock herd of Santa Gertrudis. The ones deemed below average were sold. Those too, Armstrong says, generated a nice piece of change for the ranch.
For years Armstrong bulls were gain tested at the Balmorhea and McGregor stations.
"Those early tests were 140-day tests," Armstrong says. "The cattle were fed a rough ration, — cottonseed meal and ground prairie hay. Rate of gain was the only thing measured."
What they discovered, and what Texas A&M agreed with, was that feed conversion and rate of gain were so closely related that it wasn’t necessary to measure consumption to determine feed conversion.
"If it was a good gainer, it was a good converter," Tobin says.
It wasn’t unusual for the Armstrong Ranch to have the top 10 bulls on test. There was one bull in all their years of testing that particularly stood out in every respect. Bull "13" was a product of artificial insemination, sired by King Ranch's T-58. His average daily gain was 3.7 pounds over the 140-day test period. That bull was bred extensively in the Armstrong Ranch AI program, and many of the cattle today are direct descendents of "13".
Tom and Tobin didn't just focus on their bulls' performance. They also gave a great deal of attention to reproductive performance on the female side as well.
"A lot of people early on made the mistake of focusing only on style, and in that way masculinity was bred into their cows. A masculine heifer does not breed regularly," Armstrong points out.
In 1947 they began palpating every cow, and the open ones went to town. Heifer calves kept back as replacements also had to be bred at 24 months or they went to the feedyard.
"We focused on raising cows that were sexually mature at an
early age and also a cow that had the ability to produce a calf
without difficulty," Armstrong notes.
In 1948, Armstrong stepped up the process of improving their herd by initiating an artificial insemination program. At that time AI was essentially only an idea and wasn't being used much at all in range beef cattle.
"We were freezing semen before most beef men knew it could be done," Armstrong remarks. "Of course, the other folks in South Texas thought we were crazy."
Even Bob Kleberg, who Armstrong considered to be the most scientific cattle operator in the industry, thought they’d lost a screw or two. But one particular incident later helped change Kleberg's opinion.
"Bob had a disaster in his purebred herd. He discovered that he had some infertile bulls because he’d missed a calf crop on his best cows," Armstrong recalls. "Bob heard that we were able to check semen quality, so he asked if he could send a load of herd bulls over.
"I told him that would be fine as long as he allowed us to freeze any semen we deemed outstanding. When I proposed that, Bob thought for sure we were crazy," he recalls.
They collected semen from bull T-58, which, Armstrong says was without a doubt Kleberg's best herd bull. Those genetics became the basis for the Armstrong herd.
In the 1960s Tobin also began focusing on carcass performance. It was just another of the tools he incorporated long before its time as a way of selecting to produce the best.
For those wanting to get in the livestock business or for the younger generation who still has a lot of learning to do, Tobin Armstrong offers this advice:
"I strongly urge anyone who wants to get into the cattle business to buy their cattle from someone who has a record of productivity on their animals. If that’s not possible, then select cattle that clearly have good thriftiness about them," he says. "Own those cattle until they’re at the packing house. The first bunch you sell, sell on a grid and find out from the outset what you’re dealing with. Once you find out what your cattle can really do, how they perform, then the less agony you'll have down the road.
"The difference, the variation that exists between breeds and within breeds, is so enormous," Armstrong adds. "Identify animals not on looks alone but by testing them for productivity. Those will be the superior animals.
"Then keep only those animals that you have identified as being highly productive, and for gosh sake get rid of those that aren’t.
"Don’t tolerate barren cows," Armstrong stresses. "The number one basis for heifer retention should be whether or not she calved early. If she calved early, that means she’s a fertile, healthy animal and I don’t care what she looks like. If she doesn’t have a calf by the time she’s 32 months old, get rid of her," he concludes.
(Part two will focus on the present-day Armstrong Ranch.)
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