Friday, August 26, 2016

A TEXAS RANCH WOMAN FIGHTS TO PROTECT HER HERITAGE


Let me share with you a Texas Ranch Woman I “almost” knew. Her name is Christine DeVitt and she was once labeled “the richest woman in Lubbock”, Texas, my hometown. Miss Christine was a formidable ranching woman. Those who she crossed called her “nuts” but those who wanted her donations called her “eccentric”.

Christine DeVitt
Christine DeVitt was born in September 1885 on a sheep ranch in West Texas to Florence and David DeVitt. Her father had been a newspaper reporter in New York who came to Texas in 1880. Soon the family moved to the Mallett Ranch. The main ranchhouse, windmill, several bunkhouses, sheds, barns, and corrals were located near Levelland, Texas and Sundown, Texas six miles north of modern-day Whiteface, Texas (named for the white-faced Hereford cattle). In 1897, David DeVitt’s partner sold out to him for the land and six thousand head of cattle. At one time, the ranch included 100,000 acres.

Mallett Brand

The Mallet Ranch was named for its peculiar brand, which resembles a croquet mallet. The brand was first used in the early 1880s by D. P. Atwood on his ranch, which straddled the Texas-New Mexico line. In 1885, as the Atwood interests were preparing to dispose of their land and cattle, David M. DeVitt and John Scharbauer purchased the brand and formed the Mallet Cattle Company, with home and business offices in Midland and later in Fort Worth. At first they ranched near Midland and Big Spring but soon established headquarters in southwestern Hockley County, where the brand was registered. Over the next several years the Mallet Company expanded its ranges into portions of Hockley, Terry, Cochran, and Yoakum counties. Much of this land was obtained from small homesteaders.

The Mallet Ranch was divided into four pastures, each of which was watered by windmills and tanks. During the winter months only a handful of cowboys, usually around six, were kept at the headquarters. These, along with the foreman, a windmill man, and his wife manned the five-room ranchhouse, at which the employees ate their meals. The windmill man's wife cooked. The headquarters also had several bunkhouses, sheds, barns, and corrals. At the start of the spring roundup, the foreman often went to the nearest towns to seek extra help. Dipping vats to prevent scabs were built in a pasture about six miles north of the headquarters, near the site of present Whiteface. The cowboys usually took six weeks in the spring to dip all the cattle designated to be sold. Pat Ross, George W. Green, and Wadkie Fowler served successively as foremen.

The Mallet's chief competitor was Christopher C. Slaughter's Lazy S Ranch. The rivalry nearly came to blows in the early 1900s as a result of a land dispute following Slaughter's purchase of 34,000 acres in Hockley County. Some of this acreage was being leased for grazing by DeVitt and his partner, Charles H. Flato. To curtail the Lazy S purchases, DeVitt and Flato filed lawsuits against the Slaughter interests for some of the county school lands. Slaughter sought a momentary compromise by suggesting that both ranches share the leased tracts, but in 1903 the Lazy S took possession of one of the disputed tracts and fenced it. Over the next three months the fence was cut at least six times. A small-scale range war nearly erupted when the Lazy S men blamed the Mallet cowboys and prepared for action. DeVitt obtained an injunction against the Slaughter occupation of the land, but the Lazy S cowboys refused to vacate it until faced with a contempt-of-court threat. 

Cooler heads prevailed in the end, and a Lubbock district court ruled in favor of the Mallet interests. Although Slaughter took the fight before a federal judge, he was unable to win a reversal, and his employees had to go around the five-mile stretch of DeVitt's land. Later, Slaughter attempted to buy for $26,000 some of the land the Mallet was using under lease agreements, but the Hockley County commissioners who owned the leases firmly retained their commitments to DeVitt. As a result of the controversy DeVitt incorporated his land into the Mallet Land and Cattle Company in 1903. Under the terms of the agreement the Mallet lands were to be held in common by the company, with W. D. Johnson as president. DeVitt retained controlling interest in the cattle and other livestock. That arrangement lasted for the next forty years.

Hereford Cattle
Between 1905 and 1907 some 4,500 Hereford cattle bearing the Mallet brand grazed 200 sections in four counties. DeVitt kept most of his stock cows for three years at a time, selling only the calves annually, generally for twenty dollars each. At the end of every third year he sold the cows and started with fresh stock. In 1925 and 1926 about 6,000 acres of Mallet land were put into dry-land farming for cotton and feed crops. DeVitt's favorite feed came to be cottonseed cake, with which he fattened cattle before shipment. After the Santa Fe Railroad built through the area, he stored this feed in a warehouse at Ropesville. The ranch also had a large number of horses, which DeVitt kept in the pasture in honored retirement after they had passed their prime. By 1936 the Mallet Ranch was running some 3,000 cattle on 53,138 acres.

Today the Mallet Ranch encompasses approximately 50,000 acres of pasture and another 5,000 acres of farm land and is mostly located west of Lubbock in the southwestern quarter of Hockley County. It was largely the unique personality of Christine, who inherited a part of the ranch as well as a part of its oil royalties, that insured its survival. Christine's insistence that her mother and sister hold onto her beloved ranch even during the Great Depression brought about the DeVitt family wealth.
Christine insisted that one part of the ranch be left pristine. Because of her, the ranch comprises one of the largest blocks of virgin high plains prairie still in existence.

Cattle in this area require 40 acres per cow. The ranch cattle were regarded as one of the best bred herds in the Panhandle. Over the years, the acreage waned. David DeVitt took on another partner, F. W. Flato, Jr., from Flatonia, Texas.

In Christine’s early childhood, Lubbock was a tiny village and the Mallett Ranch was one hundred miles from the railroad. Land laws required David DeVitt to live six months of the year on the “proved up” ranch. He moved his wife and children to Fort Worth so the children could attend school. (And, according to what Miss Christine told my mother) because her mother and father often fought about his womanizing. Christine loved returning to the ranch in summers. By 1925-1926, DeVitt turned 6,000 acres into cotton fields.

West Texas cotton field
Christine graduated from high school in Fort Worth. Her elder brother had died in a hunting accident. Realizing that her remaining brother was destined to take over the Mallett she loved, she went east to Hollins College in Virginia for two years and then the Forest Park College in St. Louis, from which she graduated.

While away, she discovered an affinity for music and bookkeeping. When she returned to Fort Worth, she taught for a while at Riverside High School and DeZavala Elementary School, the elementary school she had attended. But, in 1932, her younger brother died in a high-speed collision with a tractor-trailer. Two years later, her father died. After threatening to disinherit her for her criticism and her stubbornness, David DeVitt had not done so. She and her sister Helen and their mom inherited his share of the Mallett Ranch.

Christine returned to Lubbock and lived in the Hilton Hotel. She took on the job of keeping the Mallett intact and in the cattle business. She convinced her mother and sisters to hold firm against attempts to break up the ranch.

Postcard of Hilton
Hotel in Lubbock TX
Her father’s partners and the manager they had appointed tried to keep her from making any decisions concerning the ranch. In spite of that, Christine negotiated a handsome lease for the first oilwell on the land in 1937.

Oilwell pump jack
After eleven years of lawsuits and countersuits, Christine won and became manager of the Mallett. With the help of cowhands and foreman, she rebuilt the Mallett Hereford herd, profitably, the way her father had. Some 1,100 oilwells now dot the ranch. While Helen became a philanthropist in Lubbock, Texas, it was Christine who oversaw the ranch.

Wadkie Fowler, the foreman most favored by David DeVitt was let go by the partners after DeVitt died. Christine loved the Fowler family and continued to spend many hours in their kitchen. To them, she was gentle, kind, and offered no criticism.

In town, however, her reputation was of a rich and powerful Texan. In her apartment at the Hilton, she played high-stakes poker and drank Cokes until the cleaning crew rebelled. The Hilton evicted her. She bought a house in Lubbock and then another and another, each of which she filled with stray cats. But, she kept the Mallett Ranch profitable. Personally, she lived frugally. She waited until nearly midnight on December 31 before making her charitable donations.

Her sister Helen returned to Lubbock in 1943 and with her brought gentleness to Christine. She introduced Christine to the world of Lubbock’s art and music and women’s study clubs. Helen demonstrated to her sister the projects that needed help and founded the Helen Devitt Jones Foundation.

Helen DeVitt Jones
Later, Christine founded her CH Foundation. Her first gifts went to Lubbock Methodist Hospital and the School of Nursing, and she continued generous donations to those institutions. She gave to education, music, arts, YMCA and YWCA, and prevention-of-blindness projects. My favorite of her projects was Ranching Heritage Museum at Texas Tech, which she dedicated to her parents. She supposedly shunned dedicating to churches, but left one of her homes to the First Christian Church my family attended.

For several of Christine’s last four years, my mother worked for Miss Christine. My mother and my Aunt Elizabeth “sat” with Miss Christine at Lubbock Methodist Hospital. Because of her considerable donations, Miss Christine had the hospital’s top floor and received excellent care. Even so, she wanted someone with whom she could visit and to wait on her. (She apparently enjoyed my mother because Mom would argue with her.) She disliked hospital food and paid a couple to prepare foods she liked and bring them to her for lunch and supper, giving the hospital food to whomever sat with her. For breakfast, she drank a Coke. She also paid someone to feed and care for her numerous cats.

She told my mother of a time when she and her three siblings and their mother took a vacation on the train to visit relatives in California. When they returned home, they found only a vacant lot where their home had been. Her father—often at odds with her mother over his philandering—had moved their entire house and belongings. In spite of his treatment of his wife and children, there is a DeVitt Street in Fort Worth, named in his honor.

Miss Christine also told my mother that until her father died, she had not known he was so wealthy. He treated her mother and his children with such penury that Christine thought he must be struggling. When he died in 1934, she was shocked to learn he was a multi-millionaire.

One personally funny thing regarded Miss Christine’s addiction to Coca-Cola. My mom had long argued with my dad that his drinking only a Coke for breakfast was dangerous to his health. She wouldn’t let me get away with the same (I tried, but she was a very good mother) and insisted I have a nutritious breakfast each morning. When she related to me that Miss DeVitt drank only a Coke for breakfast, I had a good laugh at my mom’s expense.

The Mallet Ranch buildings and headquarters court area represent the owner’s effort to establish and maintain a quality lifestyle on an isolated West Texas ranch. Today it is an intact example of an early twentieth century ranching enterprise. The buildings and the headquarters court have been sadly neglected since the death of Christine DeVitt.

Deteriorating Mallett Ranchhouse
The Mallet Ranch/Llano Estacado Heritage Foundation has developed a plan of creating an outdoor education center that will allow visitors to experience the ranch in situ instead of relocating the ranch headquarters (as has been done with others at the Ranching Heritage Center). However, due to neglect, the ranch structures are losing authenticity and integrity that cannot be replicated if deterioration continues.

Miss Christine DeVitt had the foresight to pump wealth into the community. She guided the Mallett Ranch through droughts, disasters, and a major Depression with a successful Hereford operation and oil kingdom. Christine died October 12, 1983.

Caroline Clemmons’ list of books may be found on her Amazon author page here. Sign up for her newsletter here and receive a free novella.
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Sources:
TEXAS RANCH WOMEN: Three Centuries of Mettle and Moxie, Carmen Goldthwaite, History Press, pp 110-119.

3 comments:

  1. Whew! This was a huge chunk of history to take in, Caroline. I was impressed by the odd, but savvy business Christine DeVitt. Cats, cokes, and cleverness! This article just goes to show how ingenious some women can be, but how they were often passed over just because of their gender. I found it appalling that her father treated his kids and their mother so badly and I like that it was his daughter who showed everybody her true worth...like a tinsy bit of revenge against her playboy father.
    Great article, Caroline. I can see you put a great deal of effort into this research--and it's so cool that your mom had a connection with Christine.

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  2. Whew--long article, but since it dealt with my and my husband's "Old Stompin' Grounds, I read every bit of it. My husband was born in Levelland in 1935 and can remember much more about that area and people's names than I ever could. He does remember The Mallet Ranch and basically where it was, but he does not recall the name "DeVitt."
    I love these stories about strong Texas women, who often had to be tougher than the men. Christine is a real heroine of the state, in my opinion. With the ranch, the cotton fields, and then the oil, she became wealthy along with many other men.

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  3. Wonderful post, Caroline. I truly enjoyed learning about Christine DeVitt, her life and legscy. Just wow.

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