When Cattle Were King
Bygone days on a West Chester ranch
Sixty-five years ago, southern Chester County was alive with scenes from the Old West. Cowboys, lariats coiled at hand, rode herd over thousands of cattle on some of America’s finest grasslands.
When the owners of the fabled King Ranch of Texas were looking for relief from their drought-scorched pastures there, they purchased the Buck and Doe Run Valley Farms that lay between Unionville and Coatesville here. They turned the land into a working cattle ranch.
The thinking was simple: use the farm to fatten their Santa Gertrudis (Jer-tru-dis) cattle—a Brahman and Shorthorn cross—then ship them to Eastern slaughterhouses in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Newark, N.J.
So, each April between 1946 and 1974, trainloads of cattle were transported to Buck and Doe’s private railhead at Springdell. Arriving at dawn each morning for five straight days, the cattle tumbled down from a line of screeching boxcars. Watered in large, fenced grasslands, they were corralled and sorted by steadfast cowhands and often joined by neighbors in fancy English riding gear.
Known for their brick-red coats and upswept longhorns, the Santa Gertrudis grew so hefty on the rich, native grasses that Buck and Doe was soon dubbed “The best finishing school for cattle in the East.”
Helen Groves is the daughter of Robert Klegberg, Jr., the former CEO of the King Ranch, who purchased the Chester County farmlands. Groves lived at a farmhouse off Rte. 82 from 1950 through 1966, where she raised her family. Today, her daughter D.D. lives in another farmhouse on the property with her husband, thoroughbred guru Michael Matz, trainer of the star-crossed Barbaro.
“The kids would go to bed with their clothes on so they could get up at 4am and wait for the train to come,” says Groves, 82, who visits the area a couple times each year. “I had found a man in Philadelphia who could track the train’s arrival and he’d tell me when to ride over.”
When the “Big Reds” rolled into Chester County, locals flocked to the area to watch the spring roundup. Perched on split-rail fences, they witnessed a three-hour daily stint of cattle wrangling, enjoying a real-life version of popular television westerns.
“I remember when I was a small boy, my mom would saddle up a couple of ponies and my brother and I would toss on our western hats and we’d all trail the cowboys herding cattle,” recalls Richie Jones, Jr., a Wilmington attorney who grew up across Rte. 82 from the farm. “It’s a great memory.”
The cowboys lived rent-free with their families in 20 farmhouses dating back to colonial times. They rode husky quarter horses imported from the Lonestar State. Quick, powerful, and compact sprinters known for their even-tempered, intelligent manner, the horses possessed an innate “cow sense.”
Tim Corum was born in one of those stone farmhouses on the Funk pasture along the honeysuckle banks of the Brandywine. He started working the ranch fulltime in 1964.
“I still miss the riding and roping, never found anything better,” says Corum, 62, of West Grove. “If you got a bull by himself, you had a handful. Didn’t take much to set them off. We’d rope the cows from a pick-up truck because they got so ornery protecting the calves. Once we roped them we’d tag, weigh, and tattoo them.
“Cowboyin’ is born in you,” he adds. “It was tough work, but plenty of enjoyment.”
When the King Ranch was finally sold to the Brandywine Conservancy in 1984, it not only ended an era, it also sparked the conservation easement movement in Chester County. The perpetual conservation easement agreement kept the land open from development and protected the watershed of the Buck and Doe streams that join in the middle of the valley known as the Laurels.
At the time, it was the cornerstone of a two-decade effort by the Conservancy to preserve the environmental and cultural resources of the scenic Brandywine Valley.
“Putting the deal together was like herding cats,” laughs Bill Sellers, then head of the Conservancy’s Environmental Management Center. “Many folks were in, then out and a new cast of characters followed. People considered easing property to be a foolhardy proposition. The lawyers and others thought the landowners would be losing money over time. Prior to the expanded use of conservation easements, a landowner’s options were to donate the land to a conservation organization or sell it for development. The King Ranch showed there was a middle ground.”
During the Ranch’s peak years, each spring 5,000 cattle grazed on the Buck and Doe Run Valley Farms of roughly 13,000 acres. Muzzles deep in the grass, the cattle gained upwards of two pounds a day during their six to ten months at the farm. With a keen eye, the cowboys cut and sorted the big red cattle then loaded and shipped them to slaughterhouses to be auctioned. Their weights rose from around 650 pounds to nearly 1,000 pounds, bringing a premium market price for their grade.
By the 1960s, trucks took over the hauling from the railroads, and that increased shipping costs dramatically. In addition, meat packinghouses were closing in major eastern cities and there was a significant decline in cattle prices. The Chester County operation downsized, and switched to cattle breeding.
“When Mr. Klegberg purchased the farm he told Lammot du Pont the land would be kept as open space,” says Frolic Weymouth, co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Brandywine Conservancy. “We had been working with him all along to put conservation easements on the land. But after Klegberg’s death in 1976, the ranch’s board said ‘sell,’ negating all that work.”
By 1982, little progress had been made toward a viable business deal. Caroline Alexander (Klegberg’s granddaughter) met with Sellers and Weymouth inquiring whether the Conservancy could at least purchase “The Laurels,” the 771-acre heart of the ranch. Meanwhile, rumors were rampant.
“We heard that Disney was coming to buy the lands, then that a nuclear power plant was under consideration,” recalls Weymouth, who brought in many of the investors. “There was also talk about building a new town of 10,000 people, similar to Columbia, Md. The land developers were thinking of damming up the Buck Run and building lakeside lots. It was unbelievable.”
By February 1984, the funds had been raised. In July of that year the property was purchased for $11.5 million. All of the land was protected with conservation easements.
“We worked our butts off,” Weymouth recalls. “We had investors coming in and out. Then someone bailed out very close to the deadline. We thought we were sunk, but we scrambled to fill the spot. It was a stressful time.”
Today, 30,821 acres have been preserved in the 7-township area through a combination of county agricultural easements, easements to the Brandywine Conservancy, Brandywine Conservancy- owned lands, other land trust easements, public lands, and restricted homeowners association open space. It comprises approximately 45% of the region. The Laurels easement was donated to The Nature Conservancy in 1995.
The Laurels stands as the centerpiece of the conserved property, where clear, cold streams wind through dense forests of oak and poplar. Visitors may see a whitetail deer or spy a small flock of wild turkeys in the tall-tasseled grass. Standing near the twin covered bridges there is almost no sound, except the wind and a rippling stream. In springtime the hillsides glow with the white and pink accents of the native shrubs and wildflowers.
“We had great community support and involvement behind us,” Sellers reflects. “People across the country were amazed at what we achieved without public funds and blueprints to follow. It was a real inspiration for many others across the U.S. who faced tough land preservation issues.
“The Conservancy and the staff and consultants that were involved have been instrumental in helping groups and landowners across the country organize and preserve major working open lands.”
The Laurels is located off Rt. 82. To visit you need to be a member of the Brandywine Conservancy.
For further information please visit: www.brandywine.org.