MENARD — Johanna Prugel Wilhelm battled wolves, Indians and rustlers in the late 1800s to eventually produce a superior wool quality from her sheep flock earning her the title “Sheep Queen of Texas.”
Johanna Carolyn Prugel was born in 1851 in Germany, which is now a part of Poland. She was 17 when she married Johann Friedrich “John” Wilhelm November 30, 1868. He was born in Brandenburg, Germany in 1842.
Johanna denied her heart, instead of marrying her sweetheart in Konigsberg, New Mark, Germany, she married her family’s choice, a soldier who had completed his tour of duty, according to “Texas Dames: Sassy and Savvy Women Throughout Lone Star History.”
To celebrate their honeymoon, John and Johanna Wilhelm boarded a ship and came to America. First stop was New Orleans where they joined an ox train for Texas.
They rented land in Washington County and became stockfarmers. Five of their 11 children were born there. Their children included: Edward H. Wilhelm (1869-1891), Helena Augusta Wilhelm Speck (1871-1949), Anna D. Wilhelm Volkmann (1873-1957), Frank Wilhelm (1875-1953), Kunie Wilhelm Haby (1877-1972), Elizabeth Wilhelm Ridgeway (1879-1918), Fritz Wilhelm (1881-1966), Emma Wilhelm (1884-1884), Walter A. Wilhelm (1884-1898), Clara Wilhelm Wilkinson (1887-1963) and Johann F. Wilhelm (1889-1890).
In 1880, John and Johanna Wilhelm and five of their children moved westward. They passed through Camp San Saba and stopped at Pecan Springs, about 13 miles northeast of Menard, between Menard and Brady.
“They chose Pecan Springs because they needed the water that was available there,” according to great-granddaughter, Gretchen Noelke. “Their goal was to accumulate land beyond the initial 640 acres.”
They soon increased the original land to 1600 acres and paid 50 cents per acre.
Their Pecan Spring Ranch would eventually total 12,000 acres and the perimeter was fenced with wolf-proof wire. Construction for their house started in 1881. The lumber for their house came from Austin. Stonemasons from Germany were hired to cut and lay the rocks.
The Wilhelms raised Delaine and Merino sheep, Hereford cattle and bred them with Durham bulls. They also ran horses, goats, hogs and mules.
Although Apache Indians had been run out of the area by Comanches in the 19th century, the remaining Comanche, plus rustlers continued to raid settlers.
John Wilhelm was killed when he searched for stolen cattle. Reports suggested the man who was accused of killing him was implicated in the theft. However, some said John was poisoned by bait he carried for the wolves that killed his lambs. He was either 47 or 48 at the time of death in March 1890.
So, Johanna was a widow at 40. She only spoke German. She never learned English, but her children interpreted for her. From then on, she dressed in black and took charge.
Edward, the oldest son, took over as ranch foreman. At 21, he was killed by rustlers.
Johanna hired a cattle foreman and named her next son, 16-year-old Frank, as sheep foreman. She would also go on the range accompanied with her children and watched the sheep to guard them from the wolves.
From 1890, when John died, until she died January 22, 1921, Johanna added more acreage to the ranch to total more than 40,000 acres.
Until her health began to fail, Johanna never missed directing sheep shearing. She would stand by the pen gate and count the sheep in German. She would toss a rock in a sack for every 100 head.
In 1900, Johanna ran between 10,000 and 15,000 head of sheep, goats and cattle. She would sell 5000 head annually.
According to family records, the Wilhelm ranch sheep were known for superior quality wool. It was “high quality and long staple” and in demand from Boston wool buyers.
According to the Southwestern Sheep and Goat Raisers Association, in 1912, the wool industry was paying the highest price annually for Wilhelm ranch wool over all other competitors in the Southwest.
After Johanna died, the ranch was divided among seven surviving heirs.
Daughter Clara Wilhelm Wilkinson received 6080 acres in 1921. She added 1600 acres and maintained herds of Hereford cattle. She produced fine wool from Rambouillet sheep and ran Angora and Spanish goats. She hired a nephew, John Speck, as stock foreman.
John Speck was the son of Lena Wilhelm and Fred Speck. Helena Augusta “Lena” Wilhelm and Fred Speck were married January 23, 1888 at the Wilhelm ranch. They had nine children: Charles Emil Speck, Edith Speck Caldwell, John Frederick Speck, Edward Herman Speck, Frank Wilhelm Speck, Henry Walter Speck, Fritz Ray Speck, Mary Louise Speck Haley and Arthur Henderson Speck.
“Fritz Ray “Bogg” Speck was my father,” Denny Ray Speck told me in 2008. “He and my mother, Bela Sorrell Speck, were married in 1928.”
In 1963, Betty Jo Davis Porter received 2120 acres from the holdings of her great-aunt Clara Wilkinson. She and her husband, Marvin Wayne Porter, occupy her heritage land, living in a house that incorporates the original home built in 1880 by her great-grandfather.
By 1982, the Porters had developed herds of crossbred commercial beef cattle, fine wool sheep, market lambs and mohair goats and have improved ranch buildings, providing metal working pens for all stock.
Johanna’s daughter, Kunie Wilhelm, inherited a portion of the land and carried on the sheep business. Her sheep wool was also widely recognized among the best in Texas, according to Texas Family Land Heritage Registry.
Kunie Wilhelm married Emil Haby in 1897. They had four children. Emil, born January 15, 1867, came to Lampasas in 1906 from Smithville where he purchased the ice plant and rebuilt it. He sold it in 1926 to Texas Power and Light Company and moved with his family to his wife’s estate where he engaged in ranching activities, buying additional ranch land.
Walter Haby, son of Emil and Kunie Haby, earned a degree in animal husbandry from Texas A&M University in 1930 and ranched for 57 years. He produced some of the finest wool and mohair on the Calf Creek Ranch in McCulloch County, just like his mother and grandmother.
Calf Creek Ranch is located northwest of Brady and northeast of Mason. Its topography is typical of that geographical region of Texas. Vegetation includes live oaks, mesquite, prickly pear and other native plants to the region.
Walter’s nephew, William McFarland, ran the Calf Creek Ranch until 1996 when he passed away unexpectedly. His wife and daughters currently manage Calf Creek Ranch. It is a working cattle ranch with phenomenal deer, dove and turkey hunting leases.
Johanna Wilhelm is the only ranch woman honored at San Angelo’s Heritage Park which salutes Concho Valley ranching pioneers. Her name and accomplishments were recognized “because of the great courage it took to come to America and to persevere by hard work and sheer determination,” Gretchen Noelke said.
“Johanna left a tremendous mark in the early 20th century West Texas. She was elected several times as an honorary vice-president of the Wool Grower’s Central Storage Company,” according to George Richardson, president of the Concho Valley Loan and Trust and former wool commission merchant.
“For Johanna Wilhelm, ‘Sheep Queen of Texas’ was a well-earned title,” Gretchen concluded. — email@example.com