The Hat Ranch

The name of this ranch is a familiar one to many from West Texas.  I grew up within about 20 miles of the ranch and several of my parents’ friends had either worked or lived on the ranch at one time or another.  The eastern boundaries of the very oldest part of the ranch began around Brownfield, Texas and extended to the Pecos River across the current state line, almost to Carlsbad, New Mexico.  It originated when a Scotsman named Kennedy learned of the availability of some open land.  R. F. Kennedy was to acquire it for the estate of the Earl of Aylesford.  The Earl had come to Texas to try and purchase ranch land and had been temporarily been residing in the Big Spring, Texas area.  As agent for the Earl, Kennedy consummated the purchase from some local buffalo hunters, one of whom went by the name of “Peg Leg” Whalen, in 1885 using his own funds.  However, before Kennedy could be reimbursed for the cost of the land, the Earl unexpectedly died, leaving the ownership in the name of Kennedy.

The ranch included Monument Springs, located roughly ten miles across the current New Mexico border.  Monument Springs had been so named over a decade earlier when a regiment of Buffalo Soldiers of the U. S. Army out of Ft. Davis were on a scouting mission.  The troops came across the natural spring some 60 miles east of the Pecos near the current location of Hobbs, New Mexico.  The senior officer, Colonel William Rufus Shafter, is credited with building a monument four feet wide and seven and a half feet tall out of the native limestone based rocks to mark the area.  The monument was about a mile and a half from the actual spring and could be seen from miles away.  The old monument was torn down over a century ago and the materials were used to build the first stone dwellings on the ranch, although the name remains.  The spring, which Shafter reported could water hundreds of horses, still flows but its underground source has been tapped into by water wells.

Following the death of the Earl of Aylesford, Kennedy decided to retain his interest in the ranch.  Shortly thereafter, he bought 1,000 head of cattle in Gonzales, Texas and drove them to the area to establish his herd on the ranch.  For his brand, he selected an O, lying on its side and squeezed, a “mashed O.”  Kennedy operated the ranch as sole owner until he sold out in 1891 to two brothers, the McKenzies, in order to be able to return to the UK.

The McKensies owned it outright for a number of years and gradually added to the original acreage.  In 1893, as a result of them being financially overextended, the brothers sold some of their property to a Mitchell County, Texas rancher by the name of Sug Robertson who later conveyed the Monument Springs portion of the spread to Winfield Scott, the son of the well known Mexican-American War general of the same name.  Around this time, Scott changed the brand to the more familiar “hat” brand that has since been used.  [To the best of our knowledge, the name of the ranch has no connection whatsoever to the Hat Creek Ranch named in Larry McMurtry’s series Lonesome Dove.]  Scott and Robertson continued to operate their various holdings together and the two managed amass about 1,000,000 acres of ranch land in the area, mostly in West Texas.  Robertson brought his brother and nephew into the business.

The ranch remained virtually intact until shortly after 1900 when small parcels began to be sold to the flood of settlers arriving in the area.  Eventually ownership was transferred to a William Fletcher Weir in 1906, who purchased all but the brand.  Winfield Scott had previously gifted the “hat” brand to an orphaned cowboy by the name of Charles B. Fristoe.  Scott had told young Charlie Fristoe, “You are a Scotsman and I’m a Scotsman.  I’ll give you the remnants of the cattle and the brand.”

Charlie Fristoe himself was able to acquire the ranch in 1953 from Weir’s widow and owned it until 1967 before selling it to New Mexico rancher W. B. (Dub) Baum.  The old spread is still in the Baum family, now being run by a daughter and son in law, the Jimmie Cooper family.

Fristoe was a colorful and quotable character.  When interviewed at the time of the 1967 sale, he said of the ranch, “100 miles north, it was too cold, 100 miles south, it was too hot, 100 miles east, it would have been among the ‘farmers’ and 100 miles west ain’t worth staying all night on.”  Fristoe had said and his wife planned to travel to Australia, once his affairs at the ranch were wound up, to see the longest fence in the world.  When he was asked if he planned to do more fence riding once he arrived in Australia, he grinned and said, “I guess not…  But I could.”

Jimmie Cooper is well known in the rodeo world.  He was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2005.  Cooper’s list of accomplishments is quite lengthy, including winning three world championships and being one of only a dozen cowboys to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in three different events.  Shryl and Jimmie Cooper’s twin sons Jake and Jim grew up on the ranch.  They were Team Roping Rookies of the Year and still compete on the rodeo circuit.

Over the life of the ranch, many cowboys have worked there, including one by the name of William Penn Adair Rogers, better known as the American humorist Will Rogers.  Rogers had briefly worked on the Hat Ranch in his younger days.  When he left the ranch, Charlie Fristoe said he rode Rogers’ horse Punkin’ for a few years.  Maybe the Hat Ranch is where Rogers learned his fancy rope tricks, in addition to some of his old cowboy tales.

© 2016, all rights reserved.