Walking through the thick hardwood forests of oak and poplar of the Laurel Preserve, visitors may see a whitetail deer or spy a small flock of wild turkeys in the tall-tasseled grass. Surrounding wetlands are brimming with migrating songbirds and waterfowl. Standing near the twin covered bridges there is almost no sound, except the wind and a rippling stream.
But sixty years ago, deep in the heart of Chester County, those tranquil lands came alive with scenes from the Old West. Cowboys, lariats coiled at hand, rode herd over thousands of cattle on a 12,500 acre chunk of some of America’s finest grasslands, just west of Unionville, Pa.
Faced with drought-scorched pastures in Texas, the owners of the fabled King Ranch bought the Buck and Doe Run Valley Farms and turned it into a working cattle ranch. The Texans’ thinking was to use the farm to fatten their Santa Gertrudis (Jer-tru-dis) cattle for the Eastern slaughterhouses, just a short trip away.
Every April from 1946 through 1974, trainloads of Texas cattle were transported to Buck and Doe’s private railhead at Springdell. Arriving at dawn the steer came charging down from a line of boxcars where cowhands on horseback herded them from the railroad siding into pens and then to scattered pastures. Known for their brick-red coats and upswept longhorns, the Santa Gertrudis grew so hefty on the rich, native bluegrass that Buck and Doe was soon dubbed “the best finishing school for cattle in the East.”
When the “Big Reds” rolled into Chester County, sightseers turned up from miles around to watch the spring roundup. Perched on split rail fences they witnessed a three-hour daily stint of cattle wrangling, enjoying a real life version of popular television westerns of the 1960s, shows like Big Valley and Rawhide.
“When I was a small boy my mom would saddle up a couple of ponies and my brother and I would toss on our western hats and we’d all trail the cowboys herding cattle,” recalled Richie Jones, a Wilmington attorney who grew up across from the farm. “It’s a great memory.”
The married cowboys lived rent free with their families in 20 farmhouses that date back to colonial times when the property was a series of small individual farms. They rode husky Quarter Horses, imported from the Lonestar State. Quick, powerful, compact sprinters known for their even-tempered, intelligent manner, the horses possessed a natural “cow sense.”
Tim Corum was born in a stone farmhouse on the Funk pasture along the honeysuckle banks of the Brandywine. He started working on the ranch fulltime in 1964. Beyond chasing down wild cattle in every thicket, Corum mended fences, loaded feed, hauled hay and bedded the barns in his 20 years of employment.
“I still miss the riding and roping, never found anything better,” admitted Corum, 58, of West Grove. “It was sort of like being John Wayne, did the same as the movies. If you got a bull by himself, you had a handful. Didn’t take much to set them off. We’d rope the cows from a pick-up truck because they got so ornery protecting the calves. Once we roped them we’d tag, weigh and tattoo them.
“Cowboyin’ is born in you,” he added. “It was tough work, but plenty of enjoyment.”
Protecting The Water
When the King Ranch was finally sold to the Brandywine Conservancy in July 1984, it not only ended an era, it also sparked the conservation easement movement in Chester County. The agreement kept the land open from development and protected the watershed of the Buck and Doe streams that join in the middle of the valley known as the Laurels. At the time, it was the cornerstone of a two-decade effort by the Conservancy to preserve the environmental and cultural resources of the scenic Brandywine Valley.
They labored for two years cobbling together a complex partnership among 20 private investors (a handful were local landowners) and a corporation that assumed ownership of 5,380 acres of land and established strict conservation easements. The easements establish perpetual restrictions in the use and development of land while keeping it in private ownership.
The Buck and Doe easements allow construction of no more than three houses per 100 acres, limit timber harvests and control farming on steep slopes. The heart of the ranch, the 775-acre Laurels Preserve, is now a public nature preserve, owned by the Brandywine Conservancy. Since 1984 a total of 23, 842 acres have come under easement in Chester, Delaware and New Castle counties.
“Putting the deal together was like herding cats,” said Bill Sellers, laughing, then head of the Conservancy’s Environmental Management Center. “People considered easing property to be a fool-hardy proposition. The lawyers and others thought the landowners would be losing money over time. The options before were to donate the land to a conservation organization or sell it for development. The King Ranch showed there was a middle ground.”
“We used the King Ranch as a business model, one method of preserving land that was imminently threatened by development,” added Bonnie Van Alen, executive director of the Willistown Conservation Trust. “As a result of the Conservancy’s work back in the 1980s we got a good base that has enabled us to preserve 5,000 beautiful contiguous acres in Willistown Township.”
The Conservancy’s triumph mirrored the thinking of the land’s former owner Lammot du Pont. The president of E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. started buying up parcels of lands in the Buck Run in 1919. He realized that the Buck and Doe streams were essential to maintaining the water quality of the Brandywine River. The huge volume of virtually unpolluted waters funnels into the west branch of the Brandywine-- the primary source of drinking water for Wilmington and much of northern Delaware.
Back in the 1920s, du Pont stocked his Buck and Doe Run Valley Farm with Hereford cattle, Poland China hogs and Hampshire sheep. Burnett Wilson was hired to manage the land for cattle and safeguard the watershed project and the farm thrived, growing to 8,000 acres by 1944.
At the same time local sportsman W. Plunket Stewart, the famed Master of the Hounds of the Cheshire Hunt, was experiencing his own land issues. With a number of the larger estates being sold off, Stewart was scrambling to maintain top-flight fox hunting grounds. New landowners began tearing down the scenic (and jumpable) old stone and rail fences putting up barbed wire, a scary proposition for horse and rider.
The Buck and Doe was one of the largest and choicest tracts of land in fox hunting country. But by the mid-1940s du Pont had lost interest in showing his prized animals and put his 4300-acre farm on the market. The community was stunned.
It was a dinner conversation that solved the troubles. On a visit to the King Ranch Stewart and his wife Carol touted Chester County’s grasslands to old friend Robert Kleberg, Jr. They explained that the native, rich bluegrass was fueled by ample rain, the underlying limestone deposits and a systematic fertilization program. How much more abundant and nutritious the sweet grass would be versus the Texas range grass. The King Ranch CEO said if the grasslands proved as superior as the Stewarts claimed, he would buy du Pont’s farm.
The first phase of the King Ranch offshoot unfolded in 1946 when 500 steers grazed with highly favorable results. The next year numbers were increased to 1500 when Kleberg bought the 4300-acre Buck and Doe Run Valley Farm for a reported $80 per acre. He eventually expanded the ranch’s holdings to 10,000 acres and leased another 2,500.
Founded in 1853 by Captain Richard King, the King Ranch was once a dusty outpost on the road between the settlements of Corpus Christi and Brownsville. King was among the first to systematically breed cattle, then longhorns [descended from Spanish cattle], rather than merely gather the native strays and send them to market.
By 1918 the ranch’s empire stretched to over one million acres in south Texas. King’s grandson Robert Kleberg, Jr. developed a new breed by crossing Indian Brahma cattle with British Shorthorns stock to forge the foundation for Santa Gertrudis, the first breed ever developed in the U. S. Santa Gertrudis comes from Rincon de Santa Gertrudis, the name of the original land grant purchased by King. It was the first headquarters of the King Ranch.
At 825,000 acres today, the King Ranch cuts a swath across seven counties in southern Texas, one of them alone larger than the state of Rhode Island. Generally recognized as the birthplace of the American ranching industry, it was the founder of two major American beef breeds, and has been a source of technology that has led to many significant advances in livestock and wildlife production and management. As a brand, the King Ranch’s “Running W” appears on both prize-winning cattle and top-flight leather goods and even a swanky Ford Lariat King Ranch pick-up truck. Captain King’s descendants continue to play an active part in its business operations.
Buck and Doe Run Legacy
During its peak years, the Buck and Doe Run was home to 5,000 steers each spring. Muzzles deep in the grass, the cattle gained close to two pounds a day during their six to ten months at the farm. With a keen eye the cowboys cut and sorted the big red cattle then loaded and shipped them to Philadelphia slaughterhouses to be auctioned. Their weights rose from around 650 pounds to nearly 1,000 pounds, bringing a premium market price for their grade.
In the 1960s trucks took over the hauling from the railroads, and that increased shipping costs dramatically. In addition, meat packinghouses were closing in major eastern cities and there was a significant decline in cattle prices. The ranch downsized, changing over to cattle breeding.
“When Mr. Kleberg purchased the farm he told Lammot du Pont the land would be kept as open space,” said Frolic Weymouth, co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Brandywine Conservancy. “We had been working with him all along to put conservation easements on the land. But after his death in 1976, the ranch’s board said ‘sell,’ negating all that work.”
By 1982 little progress had been made toward a viable business deal. The Conservancy turned to Trustee Daniel Snyder (who died in 1993) to develop the business plan, oversee legal matters and manage the partnership. Working with the Conservancy team of Weymouth, Sellers, David Shields, and a fleet of lawyers and accountants representing the Conservancy and potential limited partners, Snyder completed the formation of Buck and Doe Associates, L.P. In addition to the Conservancy staff led by Jim Duff, a slew of volunteers directed by Nancy Mohr and Bonnie Van Alen combed the countryside, the U. S. and abroad to find conservation-minded investors.
During the same time Caroline Alexander (Kleberg’s granddaughter) met with Weymouth inquiring whether they could at least purchase The Laurels, the 775-acre heart of the ranch. Meanwhile, rumors were running rampant.
“We heard that Disney was coming to buy the lands then that a nuclear power plant was under consideration,” recalled Weymouth, who brought in many of the investors. “There was also talk about building a new town of 10,000 people, similar to Columbia, Md. The land developers were thinking of damming up the Buck Run and building lakeside lots. It was unbelievable.”
A number of local landowners agreed to purchase 3,000 acres. At a meeting in Kingsville, Texas then-president Jim Clements, Klegberg’s successor, rejected the Conservancy’s initial offer. Acting on a gut instinct, the Conservancy countered with a proposition to purchase the entire Buck and Doe property. Clements gave them a six-month option to close the deal.
“We worked our butts off,” recalled Weymouth. “We had investors coming in and out. Then we had a bailout very close to the deadline. We thought we were sunk, but we scrambled to fill the spot. It was a stressful time.”
By February 1984, the funds had been raised. Michael Ledyard was the principal attorney on the partnership deal and his work kept him going from sunup to the wee hours of the morning at various critical times. In July of that year the 5,380-acre property was purchased for $11.5 million, protecting all the lands with conservation easements.
“All partnership shareholders received their own parcel of land and a share of the proceeds of uncommitted parcels,” explained Sellers. “Conservation easements exploded after the King Ranch program. From the publicity and the awards the Conservancy garnered, we had calls coming in from all over the country asking us to help preserve major pieces of land.”
“We were the new boys on the block in terms of instituting easements,” added Weymouth, an acclaimed Chadds Ford artist. “We were pretty lucky. It was a remarkable accomplishment and today we have nearly 24,000 acres in the region preserved as open space.”
The agreement included the donation of The Laurels, where the clear, cold streams of Buck and Doe Run wind through the property. Much of its 775 acres is deeply wooded. The presence of locally uncommon flora and fauna provide undisturbed habitat for wildlife. Blue herons frequent the stream’s shallows, while blue grosbeak raise their broods in the brush of hedgerows. Giant black vultures circle overhead. In springtime the hillsides glow with the white and pink accents of the native mountain shrubs.
Looking to retire, Villanova resident Dr. Bill Elkins had been searching for a farm for several years. When he was shown a parcel of land just above the Buck and Doe Run, Elkins quickly snapped it up. Today, he owns 300 acres and raises about 200 head of black Angus cattle. Elkins sells his beef to the Reading Market and the White Dog Café in Philly, as well as The Whip restaurant that features the “Elkins burger” near the village of Doe Run.
“I came out a few times to see the cowboys who were very colorful charging around,” recalled Elkins. “But what sold me was the idea of the easements. I’d seen open space disappear around the Main Line and didn’t want any residential sprawl. What was achieved by the Conservancy opened a lot of people’s eyes.”
Another of the earliest partners is former NFL head coach Dick Vermeil. Formerly residents of Bryn Mawr, Dick and his wife Carol bought property in 1983 and designed their log cabin home that sits high on one of the ranch’s rolling hills. Beyond its striking natural beauty, property values have soared thanks to surrounding lands coming under easement.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done,” related Vermeil. “In many ways it’s our own little gold mine. It’s so peaceful and relaxing. Carol must have a thousand pictures of sunsets. I don’t know anything like this anywhere in the country. We recently came back from Kansas City. Driving into the Doe Run valley, we knew we were home.”