Adventures in Lambshead Ranch – A Look Into Modern Day Frontier Life

Outside of Albany, Texas, home to this state’s oldest outdoor musical, the Fort Griffin Fandangle, miles of rugged West Texas landscape meet the horizon. Except for a single highway meandering through the brush and dust, the area is a vision of what Texas’ earliest settlers encountered – endless prairie, harsh climes, threat of wildfire, venomous rattlesnakes, and the occasional (and adorable) jackrabbit. It is in this environment where the historical Lambshead Ranch is tucked into the rolling hills surrounding the Clear Fork of the Brazos River. Settled in the late 1870’s, Lambshead ranch is famous for its quality Hereford cattle, preservation of native wildlife, and restoration of the historic ranch homes.

Stone Ranch Remains
Stone Ranch remains
Restored stone ranch 1985
Restored stone ranch

Texan by Nature had the privilege of touring Lambshead, owned in part by the Reynolds Matthews family. Sallie Armstrong, a Texan by Nature Next Generation Advisory Council Member, is a descendent of this historic family and continues to help work the land and preserve their ranch heritage, along with her mother Ardon Armstrong, grandmother Susan J. Brown, cousin Watt Casey, Jr. and several other relatives.

Lambshead, and those who call it home, are laden with a deep sense of history, immediately apparent when you step foot on the grounds or shake hands with one of its caretakers. We were lucky enough to not just shake hands but to get a firsthand glimpse into the history of the site alongside both Watt, Jr. and Sallie. Piled into a pickup and setting out on a web of unmarked gravel roads, for which the only map was our guide’s keen instinct, we got to retrace the steps of notable frontier woman Sallie Reynolds Matthews. We toured a primitive pioneer dwelling dug out of a rocky hill and visited several restored cabins and homesteads where Sallie raised her family – where she built not just a living but a legacy out of the dust. We took in the sights and sounds that inspired her to write Interwoven, a beloved chronicle of prairie life and the basis for the Fort Griffin Fandangle.

Three elderly sisters (Sallie, Lucile, and Ethel) are seated in the field with the elderly Watt Matthews standing behind them 1984
Three elderly sisters (Sallie, Lucile, and Ethel) are seated in the field with the elderly Watt Matthews standing behind them

Descendants like Watt, Jr. have continued the Reynolds Matthews legacy while also carving out impressive legacies of their own along the way. You won’t catch Watt Casey, Jr. tooting his own horn, but if you listen carefully, between ancestral stories and some friendly rattlesnake taunting, you’ll learn that Watt not only leads frequent visitor tours at Lambshead, but he also manages the Phil Reynolds ranch, has contributed to several books, and made a name for himself photographing music legends like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Buddy Guy, Steve Miller, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones. His cousin Sallie, who was with us for the tour, has an impressive history as a field hockey and track star who now lives in Austin, Texas and is the Legislative Director for Representative Morgan Meyer of Texas House District 108.

Not exactly what comes to mind about West Texas ranchers, is it? But there is an important lesson in that for all Texans. Watt Casey, Jr. and Sallie Armstrong are the faces of modern day frontier life, and they remind us of the heritage that has shaped today’s Texans, as well as the importance of preserving that heritage and the land and natural resources that sustain it. They remind us that no matter where we live in Texas, our roots lie in that rugged prairie. As Texas’ population continues to explode, especially in urban centers, the Lambshead Ranch and its stewards help us to realize that taking care of the shared resources our rural lands provide – clean air, water, and wildlife – is critical to the overall health of our state. Watt Casey, Jr. helped us see just some of the ways in which Lambshead is contributing to conservation through their land stewardship. “There has been a lot of hard work and a tremendous amount of resources invested to open up mesquite covered pastures, cross fence, and divide large pastures, which allows one to be a better range manager,” he says, describing a strategy used to encourage the regrowth of native plants and prevent overgrazing.

Cattle pond on ranch land; John Brittingham, Susan Judd, and R. B. Judd are on horseback on the bank of the pond 1947
Cattle pond on ranch land; John Brittingham, Susan Judd, and R. B. Judd are on horseback on the bank of the pond

The private land stewardship observed on the Lambshead Ranch creates many shared benefits for Texans – even for those who have never heard of the ranch. Properly managed land allows for the recharge of Texas’s aquifers, springs, rivers, and lakes, which provide Texans with drinking water, habitat for aquatic life, and ample outdoor recreation. Rural land stewardship also contributes to the health of native Texas wildlife by providing habitat, nourishment, and migratory thoroughfares. A properly balanced ecosystem is critical to our economy, especially the hunting and agricultural sectors, which contribute billions of dollars to the Texas economy each year.

Without the dedication of Lambshead’s stewards, as well as the conservation activities practiced by Texas’ other private land holders, our state’s natural heritage and economy would suffer. To quote Watt R. Matthews, Sallie Reynolds Matthews’ youngest son and manager of Lambshead until his death at age 98, “There is no better memorial than to pass the land along in better shape than you got it.” Years later, Sallie Armstrong has kept that spirit alive. “It was wonderful to have Texan by Nature visit Lambshead because it gave us a chance to show the history of the land and how we’ve committed to preserving it,” she says after our visit this summer.  Cousin Watt adds to her sentiment: “I would hope that Texans can appreciate what has been done there for over a hundred years as well as what is being done today to preserve the ranch for future generations. The effort it takes to keep a large ranch viable in this day and age is tremendous and our family has some members who are working hard to keep the ranch intact and to improve it each and every day.”

Photograph taken by Watt Casey, Jr.

After spending a day in the life of Sallie Reynolds Matthews, chaperoned by her descendants Sallie Armstrong and Watt Casey, Jr., it’s not just the smell of fresh bacon and coffee from the ranch “cook shack” that still lingers in our minds. We left the ranch grateful for the chance to connect with our natural heritage, and grateful to Lambshead’s staff and stewards for taking care of their corner of Texas and dedicating themselves to creating shared benefits for all our state’s citizens.

For a closer look at how private lands create public benefits, check out this article from Land Magazine.

Curious about  Watt Casey, Jr.?

If you’d like to meet this accomplished rancher/photographer, mark your calendars for these events in 2017: On March 10, you can find him at the Bob Bullock Museum in Austin for the private opening of the Grammy Museum’s Stevie Ray Vaughan exhibit, featuring numerous photos of the musician taken by Watt. You may also be lucky enough to run into him at the Old Jail Art Museum in Albany, Texas over the month of June; the museum will be showcasing several of Watt’s photographs. Of course, if you can’t make it to either locale, you can always pick up a copy of Watt’s forthcoming book, set to release in 2017, which will delight blues fans and photography aficionados everywhere and features an introduction written by Watt’s close friend Steve Miller. Yes, that Steve Miller. We can’t wait to get a copy, too!

Watt Casey, Jr. photographing (left to right) Richard Avedon, Watt Reynolds Matthews, Ethel Matthews Casey, and Lucile Matthews Brittingham. Laura Wilson is standing next to Watt Casey, Jr. in the foreground. 1979
Watt Casey, Jr. photographing (left to right) Richard Avedon, Watt Reynolds Matthews, Ethel Matthews Casey, and Lucile Matthews Brittingham Laura Wilson is standing next to Watt Casey, Jr. in the foreground

Special thanks

Texan by Nature would like to thank Susan J. Brown and all of Sallie Armstrong’s family for their generosity and hospitality during our stay at the Lambshead ranch.