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No Boss But The Land And Cattle: A Rancher's Coming Of Age


We're taking up the classic theme of the lone cowboy or rancher out West. American men have been embracing that ideal for generations. NPR's Wade Goodwyn introduces us to one Texas rancher who still lives a life of unencumbered freedom on the open range.


WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Drive north toward Oklahoma on Farm to Market Road 1201 until the pavement finally runs out and keep going.


GOODWYN: Suddenly the car is accosted by dozens of grasshoppers with antennae so large they look like antlers. There's been an infestation. In some places, the big uglies have been eating more grass than the cattle. For six generations, Rodney Howell’s family has owned and worked these rolling hills of grass.

RODNEY HOWELL: Well, they bought this land 1861. And then they started clearing this field we're looking at - cutting oak trees down - and built a log house right there.

GOODWYN: Howell grew up here in the 1950s. But in many ways, his childhood experiences were similar to those of an American boy from an earlier part of the century. He spent a lot of time with his older sister, the two of them growing up together in the North Texas wilderness.

R. HOWELL: You know, we played outside a lot. A lot of this was forest. And, you know, we - there were little waterfalls down here. When I was a little kid, we'd go down to the waterfalls and fish and just play in the woods. And I trapped a little and hunted a little, you know.


GOODWYN: Howell breeds 400 Angus cows as seed stock for other cattlemen. The black cows sit in the shade and when we stop, run over to see if we’re going to feed them. We aren’t, but about 30 of them hang around the pick-up just in case while we talk. Rodney Howell says he’s lived a very different kind of life than most Americans do now.

R. HOWELL: In the ranching industry, there’s always something you can be doing. But there’s very seldom things you have to be doing. So I’m in a situation where my time is mine.

GOODWYN: Howell lives a more democratic life than most Americans are able to manage today. From the time he graduated school, he's worked the land, starting with land he rented. There's been no boss, no office politics, no office, no time clock, no biweekly paycheck, no employer he's ever had to please. Howell's always been his own man. Although it's highly unusual now, before World War II, many American men lived Howell's life. You can see it in the rancher's eyes. There's a certain jauntiness - a lack of fear. Howell says the first time he was made aware of his relative station in the world was when, as a teenager, he went to the local feed store and tried to buy on credit from the owner.

R. HOWELL: And he asked who I was. And he said are you Houston's son? My dad went by Houston. And he said, well, I’ve never heard anybody speak badly of your dad or your granddad. You know, he charged the feed.

GOODWYN: It was a seminal moment in Howell’s life. He’d learned that, unbeknownst to him, his grandfather and father had been seen and judged and from this moment forward, he would be too. Howell spent the last 40 years trying to live up to the legacy his grandfather and father bequeathed him. He leans against the pick-up under a large stand of oaks, waist-high green grass blowing in waves across the rolling hills, the satisfaction so clear upon his face it's almost bragging. Howell says he was able to spend a lot of time with his sons when they were growing up.

R. HOWELL: I remember coming home from church one day and it was like 34 degrees and raining sideways.

GOODWYN: One of Howell’s favorite stories involves his boys when they were young teens, having to work in what Texas farmers call a blue norther. That happens in January and February when the wind and rain come sweeping down the plain at 40 miles an hour.

R. HOWELL: And they both knew we had to run the cows that afternoon. And I kind of jokingly said which one of y’all wants to help? Silence. (Laughing).

GOODWYN: Brett and Brady were no doubt thinking their dad was a front-seat comedy genius. But Howell says there was never a question that when they did get home, the boys would put on their coats, boots, gloves and baseball caps and come help even in the worst blue norther.

BRADY HOWELL: That sounds like a lot of weekends honestly. (Laughing).

GOODWYN: Brady Howell is now out of law school and working in nearby Gainesville.

B. HOWELL: I mean, I don’t remember that one specifically. But I can definitely attest the fact that happened a lot. I mean, I’d rather work when it was cold than when it was hot. We used to work yearlings whenever it was 110 degrees. We’d work from about, you know, 6:30 to noon, then take a nap from noon to one and then get back out there.

GOODWYN: Both Howell boys are young and unmarried. But when I suggest to Brady that he and his brother were likely the last Howells to actually grow up on the ranch he says...

B. HOWELL: I don't think that's true at all.

GOODWYN: Howell says there’s no question but that the land will stay in the family. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility either that he could take up his father’s mantle and raise his family there too.

B. HOWELL: I mean, I don’t know what the future foretells. But, I mean, it’s beautiful out there. It’s god’s country.

GOODWYN: For 150 years, the boys in this family have watched their fathers toil in the Texas sun and understood that when they could really be of help, it meant something about them - that they were becoming men. It's not a lesson that is taught or handed down. The land itself instructs. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.

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