Bear Ropin’… Rancho Sierra Hermosa Style

Cowboy boots and Mexican spurs in black and white sepia tone with room for your type.

By Marshall E. Kuykendall
Broker, Author, Rancher, Texan

Editor’s Note
The following is Part IV in an ongoing series about the life and times of Marshall Kuykendall who grew up on the largest ranch in Hays County, Texas. Television may have the fictional Dutton family from the series “Yellowstone,” but Texas has the real life Kuykendall’s. Hold on to the seat of your pants, ‘cuz this is a very wild ride!

The Mexican Ranch
Our ranch neighbor Max Michaelis, whose family had a sizable outfit just east of ours in Hays County, called Dad and went by our Kyle place to tell him that a ranch that joined his in Mexico had come on the market and Max would like to show it to him.

The Michaelis family had owned the Hays County place since before 1900 and when Max the son was grown, he had gone to Mexico in the late 1920s and put together some 200 sections (128,000 acres) of country over the Sierra Madres from Muzquiz, Coahuiila in partnership with a Mr. Walker who owned a mercantile store in Luling, Texas.

Dad, (Wylie “Bill” Kuykendall) was intrigued with the idea and in turn whistled up Mr. Latimer Maxcy of Frostproof, Florida, who just happened to be my brother Gil’s father-in-law. Long story longer, Lat Maxcy said “Hell yes!” and jumped on an airship to San Antonio where Max Michaelis picked everyone up in his Cessna 172 and…..
in 1956 the Mexican adventure was created.

By this time, I had completed my pilot training in Uncle Sam’s Air Force and was stationed at Lockbourne, AFB in Columbus, Ohio. I received Dad’s note scribbled on a brown paper sack from HEB. Sure enough, he and Lat Maxcy had just bought 139 sections of country about 150 miles SW of Eagle Pass, Texas (Piedra Negras, Coah.) just over the Sierra Madres front range in the Mexican state of Coahuila.
His scratchy pencil note went on to say the ranch joined Max Michaelis’s Rancho El Fortin’ on the south, had 1000 mother cows and 100 horses, all kinds of improvements and a 5000-foot airstrip and hangar big enough for a DC-3 aircraft, which the Mexican owners used. Uncle Sam gave me a few weeks off for Christmas in 1956 so I went down to our Hays County Texas ranch and hitched a ride with Michaelis in his 172 to fly down and take a look.

The pilot for Michaelis gassed up the airship in Eagle Pass and off we went for about an hour of level mesquite country as we flew southwest. The pilot climbed to about 7000 feet from Eagle Pass, which was about 750 feet elevation, and I asked him why. He answered, “Wait a little bit and you will see.”

It was a clear, cool day and sure enough about 30 minutes into our flight I began to see a sheer bank of mountains that came out of no where that were dead in front of us and the pilot said, “See, we have to clear them.”

The mountains were the front range of the Sierra Madres that extended from the Big Bend of Texas area, all the way south to near Monterrey, Mexico. The two ranches, the Michaelis “El Fortin’ and the one Dad and his partner bought, the “Rancho Sierra Hermosa” lay just over that front ranch in the big valley on the other side.

For those of you that know your country, it was like flying over Cotulla, Texas for one moment and as we cleared the mountain crest, we were in Ft. Davis, Texas. The Cotulla side of the mountains was sheer and steep with no canyons and no vegetation, and the Ft. Davis side had big, deep canyons full of Ponderosa Pines and the valley opened up into Gramma Grass flats. The Cotulla side was 750 feet of elevation and the Ft. Davis side, 3400 feet. The outside was coastal weather and the western side was Pacific. All the difference in the world.

Most Mexican ranch owners live in towns nearby, very few if any, ever live on the ranches, at least not in this region of Coahuila. However, Max Michaelis Jr lived on his and the headquarters area was quite expansive, and the Sierra Hermosa headquarters was just over his south fence line, making them the two closest headquarters in that whole region. What was really interesting was the Sierra Hermosa had even more structures, which included a mutual school for both ranches.

There was one thing, however, that set the two ranches apart, the El Fortin’ had a massive spring just down from the main house that flowed nine zillion gallons a minute and over the years, Michaelis had planted cottonwood trees all around so the area inside the walls of the main complex was full of massive trees, flowers and green grass. A literal oasis in the desert.

On the other hand, the Rancho Sierra Hermosa had little if any water on the entire ranch which created quite a livestock management problem. I was in another world. From three sections at Kyle, Texas to 139 sections in Mexico—Back to REAL ranching we go!

Uncle Sam allowed me to exit active duty from his US Air Force in the summer of ’57 and I immediately skedaddled south of the Rio Bravo to join Dad and Alice on his newly acquired 139 section (89,000 acres) ranch in the state of Coahuila, Mexico about 150 miles due south west of Piedras, Negras, Coahuila Mexico.

The Sierra Hermosa was divided into about four main pastures with the headquarters and the 5000 foot airstrip close to the north line with all the ranch country running to the south about 11 miles.
The ranch was stocked with about 1000 Hereford mother cows, all WHR back-ground cattle the owners had imported from the famous Wyoming Hereford Ranch back in the ‘30’s. The 100 or more horses were Thoroughbred based and were top quality and interestingly, the Mexicans did not shoe their horses even though the country could get rough at times.

Besides being high quality horses, they were very well trained. The Sierra Hermosa was fortunate that one of the Vaqueros, Manuel Alvarado from Muzquiz, Coahuila was known to be one of the most outstanding horsemen in the whole area. He and his family lived on the west side of the ranch at the Palo Blanco Camp. It was Manuel’s responsibility not only to train all of our horses, but to manage all of the cattle on his side of the ranch in about a 25,000 acre pasture.


I was over at the Palo Blanco Camp to visit with Manuel one day and I asked him if he’d seen any bears lately and he said, “No, but that he had roped one about a month before I got down there. I said, “Really—tell me about it!”-So he did.

Seems he had been out on a green filly he was training one day, going from one watering to another, checking on the cattle he managed when he ran smack-dab into a big bear that was eating Palma blooms. The 25,000 acre pasture he worked in was completely covered with 10-15 foot Palma plants and after a rain they would produce a tremendous flower/bloom and the bears just loved them. The blooms were quite heavy and the bear had learned to rear up on their hind legs and shake those Palma trees until one would bust off and fall to the ground which created quite a feast.

Turns out this ole bear had his snout buried in those blooms up to his eyeballs when Manuel spotted him and hadn’t heard Manuel coming. Then, when he did, he jerked his head back and as he did Manuel laid a loop around his neck and dallyed him up tight. Mr. Bear grabbed the slack in the rope, pulled it through his mouth and with one bite, bit the rope in two.

No biggie.

Manuel popped the busted riata back in his hand, built himself another hondo and loop and repeated the process.
Several events unfolded rather quickly, one, that 60 foot riata was now only 30 feet, since Mr. Bear had bitten it in half, and three, when the loop curled around his neck he went “WOOF-WOOF and was all over Manuel and his green filly in a heartbeat.

Of course, the filly jumped sideways to miss the onslaught with Manuel doing his best to stay on and as the filly whirled, the bear literally grabbed her around her rear and began to gnaw on her tail-head. With that the filly began to pitch violently and kick at the same time, and durn if she didn’t kick that ole bear loose. Being the REAL cowboy that he was, Manuel stayed mounted through the whole circus event and after about 100 yards of a first class rodeo, gained control of her and then you won’t believe what he did.

Manuel told me the bear was really hot by now and knowing the bear watered down at the corrals, spent about an hour and got that ole bear to ease down that way and when he entered the corral Manuel shut the gate.

He showed me his hide nailed up on the side of the barn.

I’ll be durned if I wasn’t all over that ranch for three solid years and the closest I ever got to a bear was a pile of warm bear sh*t.
I had never been on “a gathering” on a big ranch before so the first time we gathered all the cattle on the east side to work at the Buena Vista Camp, Dad told me to pay attention to the Vaqueros. They would line up over a mile across the entire valley, and gradually push the cattle out of the arroyos and guajillo motts one bunch at a time, until all were headed toward the corrals at Buena Vista. My memory of those days is one of the highlights of my entire life.

The 139 section Rancho Sierra Hermosa had no well water and no springs up in the beautiful pine filled valleys on the east side. NONE! There were, however, numerous stock tanks.

Back around the time of the Second Great War, the Monterrey owner had gone to great difficulty of damming up a small spring way up high in a valley on the east side from which he laid 14 miles of two inch galvanized pipe that would fill 21 massive pilas (Concrete tanks) 10 feet high-20 feet across. It was a multi-million-dollar venture even in those days, ALL done completely by hand.
The owner told Dad that when first finished, the water system worked for a time and most if not all of the giant pilas were full of water. Then for some reason, they decided to do some more blasting up around the spring and in so doing, obviously used too much dynamite and damaged the rock strata surrounding the spring and lost it all.

The ‘50s drought devastated all of the southwest US and much of northern Mexico including the ranches in northern Coahuila. So, it became apparent to my father that if the Rancho Sierra Hermosa was going to succeed as a cattle ranch some more tanks needed to by dug, old ones cleaned out and a water source needed to be found or created in order to fill some of those giant pilas.

There was only one weak water well on the whole ranch and it was located at the headquarters. There were four massive pilas there that were kept full all the time for use at that location. Dad came up with an idea to lay three miles of two inch galvanized pipe, up hill, from there to the end of the old defunct system, and see if he could make it work.

He did and it did! Dad laid the pipe and buried it as deep as he could with a root-plow behind a D-7 bulldozer. He then smuggled in a powerful water pressure pump that ran on diesel and hooked that sucker up. When he started that big pump, the pressure on the galvanized pipe was so great that it not only blew some of the joints loose, the vibration simply walked that pipe right out of the ground. No one told Dad that one needed to add three foot stand-pipes every 500 feet so when the pressure built up the air in those stand pipes would compress and allow the water to flow.

It was kind of a country operation but in 18 months, dad was able to pump water uphill for 7 miles and fill 19 out of 22 concrete pilas, 10 feet deep and 20 feet across.

Then, just as he finished sometime in 1958, the 50’s drought of record broke and it began to rain.