Mr. Robert Nance, a native of Kyle, Texas born in 1912, knows most of the history of the Freeman Ranch and Hays County and understands well the ranching way of life. Nance still lives on a ranch near Kyle, established by his grandfather Ezekiel Nance in 1848. Ezekiel Nance was one of the original settlers of Hays County and once owned land near the present-day Freeman Ranch.
As a young man, Robert Nance rode his horse cross-country seven miles from Kyle through what would later become part of the Freeman Ranch in order to work cattle. A colorful man, Nance is a direct link to the past.
His grandfather Ezekiel ran an old mill, cotton gin and meat packing plant about two miles from the Freeman Ranch on the Blanco River. These facilities saw good use during the Civil War, supplying the Confederate Army. The original buildings, as Robert says, "washed out to the Gulf of Mexico" in a record flood in 1869, leaving behind only the cellar and a cedar post set in the ground. The plant was never rebuilt, but many years later a worker wanted to bulldoze over the open cellar.
"I told him not to," Nance said. "It's a reminder of the past."
The Freeman Ranch has belonged to a number of people. Different parcels were originally owned by ancestors of Nance, as well as the Jameson, Hughson, Gunther, Mitchell, Poulton, Posey, Crawford, Dix, Alexander, Morgan, Sherrill, and Storey families. Some of these families still own land near the ranch. Nance can trace one of the original owners as far back as 1871, when a Mr. J. Chandler sold 2,000 acres to Conrad Krueger, a fact documented by Hays County records.
Krueger passed his land on to his daughter, Mary, who sold it to D. E. and C. C. (Clarence Columbus) Mitchell during the 1920s. Sometime in the late 1940s to early 1950s, the two brothers split the land in half. D. E., a bachelor, deeded 991 acres to his sister, Mrs. Nellis Mitchell Poulton, who soon thereafter sold part of it to the Freemans.
In another land-sale pathway, Robert Nance's uncle, Dan Nance, bought six thousand plus acres from the Wren family in 1908. Part of this land also later became part of the Freeman Ranch. In 1926, just after Dan's death, his widow Mary C. Nance sold a small section of land to a Mr. Jameyson. Jameyson, followed by Mrs. Poulton, was the first to sell a parcel of about 2,000 acres to the Freemans in 1941. The remainder of the Dan Nance ranch was sold to a Mr. Fulton in 1963, which has been sold several times, but presently belongs to one ranching family.
These two parcels, the Jameyson land and the Poulton land, were the start of the Freeman holdings. The Freemans then added parcels, such as the Mitchell land mentioned above, to increase their holdings for ranching, to add good hunting land and to straighten their boundary lines, aggregating approximately 7,000 acres.
Nance remembers the land around the Freeman Ranch well, and has seen it change over the years. Wolves are now long gone, but in his childhood they were a worry. It used to be much more open country, full of grass and with few mesquite. Now it is much more wooded with "little cedar" (second-growth mountain juniper, smaller than the original "old cedar" that settlers cut down). Nance's explanation for the change is that horses, cattle, and raccoons liked to eat the seeds of the mesquite, pecan and live oak trees and helped spread them around. The practice of fire suppression allowed the "cedar" - mountain juniper - to proliferate.
After the Civil War, when slaves were given their freedom and were offered wages and housing to stay and continue working on the land, some chose to stay. After around 1870, most of the hands on Hays County ranches were Hispanics who usually lived somewhere on the ranch. They mostly did the farming and could make about seventy-five cents a day in the area. For comparison, in those days a cord of wood cost a dollar and a half.
On another historical note, the fever tick was one of the key problems in the cattle industry. According to Nance, ranchers discovered that cattle brought here from the north soon died from a fever which people originally thought was caused by the Texas cattle. They soon discovered, however, that a tick transported by the cattle, rather than the cattle themselves, caused the fever. Knowledge about the fever became widespread in the 1880s and caused the northern ranchers to no longer want Southern cattle brought north; they would fire upon the drovers to keep them from infecting their herds.
By the time Nance worked cattle, a chemical dip treatment for cattle had been invented, which required the full immersion of the cattle into a trough. If government inspectors found even one tick on a cow, the whole herd had to be dipped again. Ticks used to be so numerous that a cowboy would find ticks covering his chaps or pants after riding through tall grass. Ticks, however, are no longer a problem in this region because, Nance surmises, fire ants have preyed upon most of them.
"This area used to be mostly cattle country, with a fair bit of cotton thrown in," says Nance. Kyle, not San Marcos, he explains, was the center of the cattle industry because it had stockyards that fed into the railroad lines. Almost everyone in Hays County sold their cattle in Kyle, which had eight shipping pens. According to Nance, most of the cattle in the area were Herefords, and the land supported a pair for every twenty acres during the 1930s and 40s.
Drought was another problem, as in any agricultural business. The droughts of 1996 and 1998 were nothing compared to those of the 1950s that forced a lot of area ranchers out of business and into towns and cities to find work. People who lived from year to year, just barely scraping by, with no savings, were ruined by three rainless years. The economic realities of farming and ranching have caused the accumulation of land into a few people's hands. The Freeman Ranch, as well as the McCoy and Park Ranches which border it, once supported a fairly large number of families.
Nance has loved the ranching and farming way of life. He has not slowed down much, still managing to put in a full day's work.
--Taken from interviews on October 13, 1997 and June 20, 1998.