Farmers fought ranchers for cheap West Texas land

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The Borden County courthouse was the site of an anything-goes wrestling match Feb. 27, 1904, with cowboys and sodbusters battling over dirt-cheap real estate in a once-in-alifetime sale.

A favorite subject of motion pictures and television has long been the “range war,” violent clashes between ranchers and homesteaders for the wideopen spaces. While the West Texas real-estate row in the opening decade of the 20th century featured plenty of bumps, bruises and bloody noses, the fact that fists were the weapon of choice prevented the loss of a single life.

By 1880, Texas had set aside an area the size of North Carolina for public education and given away the equivalent of Maine to the railroads. Ranchers bought up the iron-horse sections that came onto the market and later doubled the grazing range for their huge herds by leasing school land for as little as 8 cents an acre.

A farmer friendly legislature tried in April 1901 to loosen the cattlemen’s stranglehold on the public domain by authorizing the sale of educational acreage in 21 western counties. As the grazing leases expire, county clerks could sell the land for a dollar an acre on a first-come basis.

Christopher Columbus Slaughter of the Lazy S and Tahoka Lake ranches devised a devious method for circumventing the new law. He retained control of the state-owned pasture by canceling his leases before the expiration date, and then immediately obtaining a long-term renewal.

J.E. Ketner, a recently relocated farmer from East Texas, challenged the legality of “lapse leasing.” In a landmark ruling Jun. 9, 1902, the Texas Supreme Court prohibited the practice and removed the last obstacle to a wild land rush.

The views of the two sides could not have been more diametrically opposed. Cattlemen contended the region was too arid for agriculture and “about all the nester could do was to starve to death some good woman and her children.” Sodbusters countered that ranchers “merely wished to keep the land for their own selfish interests and had thus spread the false doctrine that West Texas would never do for farming.”

Since an around-theclock vigil was the only way to reserve a place at the head of the line, a couple of cowpunchers camped outside the office of the Howard County clerk a week ahead of the September 1902 filing date. Hearing that a band of burly farmers planned to cut in line on the morning of the filing, C.C. Slaughter’s son sent reinforcements to Big Spring.

The sheriff met the plowboys at the edge of town, as he had their adversaries, and searched them for weapons. After confiscating their hardware—pistols, knives and iron bolts— he invited them to have at it. A terrific tussle ensued in the courthouse corridor, but the cowboys succeeded in slipping their applications through the slot in the clerk’s door.

So many showed up in advance of the second filing in October that the sheriff cleared the congested courthouse. When the clerk announced he would accept applications through his window, the cowboys cleverly constructed a fortified chute. Disarmed by deputized railroad workers, the farmers stormed the courthouse with sledge-hammers but again were beaten to the punch.

Smarting from their Big Spring setback, the settlers swiftly reacted to the news that 5,100 acres in adjoining Borden County would go up for grabs in March. They staged a three-month sit-in at the Gail courthouse with volunteers taking turns sleeping in the hallway.

Each side brought in scores of supporters for the inevitable showdown. To identify themselves to friends as well as foes, the cowboys sported blue armbands and the farmers wore red.

Taking advantage of their superior manpower in the early hours of Feb. 27, 1904, the cowhands evicted the aggies from the courthouse.

“There went up from the Blues a yell that would have stampeded an army of Apaches,” reported the local newspaper.

But the replenished Reds reoccupied the building two days later “after 20 minutes of rolling and pulling.”

The farmers held the courthouse for a week, while the Slaughters marshaled their forces for a massive counterattack. Outnumbering the defenders 175 to 125 on March 9, the wranglers “went in and throwed those fellows out,” as the plain-spoken wagon boss put it.

The victory was very short-lived. Two hundred nesters returned the rough compliment that afternoon and did not vacate the premises until every last acre was spoken for on March 11.

The farmers won the Borden County battle with the ranchers and their hired hands but ultimately lost the war with the harsh climate. The dream of dryland agriculture turned to dust in the drought of 1916-1918, and the cattlemen reclaimed the range with a smug, “We told you so!”