Saga of the Salt Grass Trail

The Pioneer Days
Texas’ great cattle industry has its beginning as the violent days of the Civil War came to an end. The tired soldiers came back to their land and began developing their longhorn herds. The beef industry east was paying premium prices in the’70’s for cattle and Texas made plans for supplying the need.

The cattle along the Gulf Coast area would drift in the winters to the salt grass country, an area extending about 15 miles inland from the gulf from approximately Orange to Brownsville. The salt grass, tall and bunchy, stayed green all year. For some reason unknown to the cattlemen of that time, cattle that fed on the salt grass grew fatter and healthier than other cattle.Today, science and research have proved that it was the high mineral content of the grass that was so beneficial to the cattle. Steers particularly did well on the salt grass grazing.

Blazing a Trail
Sometimes the cattlemen also sent some cows and calves down the trail. In such cases they usually carried extra wagons along to pick up the little calves that got tired. If the herd consisted of from 700 to 800 head of cattle, about seven men usually rode along, plus the wagon drivers.

After reaching salt grass, two or three men stayed usually from November through February, to ride herd. The cattle were branded and all ran together on the salt grass territory. When the time came to go home, each ranch’s cowboys cut their cattle out from the group, helping each other as they worked, and then herded the cattle back home. This, of course, was during the days of the open range.

One of these trails started up in the Hempstead area and led to the land of the salt grass. Thousands of cattle and horses and men and wagons of families went winding their way along this route. Many of our great highways today follow the route of the cattle drives. The old Salt Grass Trail route is now along part of U.S. 290.

Today, practically all the salt grass country is owned or leased, but many are still driven or shipped to this area to receive the healthful minerals of the grass. The early Texans who pioneered our great cattle industry, despite almost overwhelming hardships, have not been forgotten.

The Idea That Started It All
The idea for the revived Salt Grass Trail Ride came in the first week of January, 1952, while Arthur Laro, Clark Nelson, Charles Gizendanner, Jr., Reese Lockett, Ralph Johnson, and Archer Romero were having lunch together. Reese had been talking about the salt grass rides of pioneer days and complaining of bad flying weather on a trip he and Clark Nelson had taken to the Orange Bowl game in Florida. They had been grounded several days until the weather cleared.

“I’ll never make another trip where I can’t ride home on my horse,” Reese said. Ralph Johnson had asked Reese to be the Arena Director of the Rodeo again when Clark Nelson said, “You’ll have to come down on horseback.” Then, as Reese tells it, Charlie Gizendanner said it would be wonderful publicity for the Houston Fat Stock Show.

Early next morning, Reese got a long distance call from Charlie. “The newspapers have promised publicity, Pat Flaherty will film the ride for television, and Emil Marks will go along with his chuck wagon.”

Making History
Reese Lockett, Pat Flaherty, E.H. Marks, and John Warnasch left Brenham on January 30th, with the LH7 chuck wagon, following the pioneer trail to Houston. Thirteen other persons joined the group along the way.

In 1953, 80 people made the ride; in 1954, 800; in 1955, 1300; in 1956, more than 1400. The 1959 ride consisted of more than 90 wagons and over 2000 riders. They included bankers, lawyers, housewives, cattlemen, politicians, newspaper reporters, television personalities, oil men, and stock show officials—-from 5 years to 83 years of age.

The Evolution of a Dream
This annual ride has now developed into the largest organized horseback movement to take place in modern times. The ride is timed each year to publicize the opening of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the great livestock industry it represents today.

Since the beginning of this ride, many other cities in Texas, and even as far away as Spain, have started similar trail rides.

The Salt Grass Trail Ride of today boasts nearly 30 wagons and more than1,500 riders on horseback. The riders, stretched out single file for the distance of a mile or so, always present a colorful picture as they go down the trail. Large crowds are always waiting at each town the ride passes through. By the evening campfires, the riders feel a close kinship to the pioneer Texan who fought to protect his longhorns on the open range before going to market. The Salt Grass Trail Ride has become the connecting link between the early days of the longhorn era and today’s giant cattle industry.

 

The tradition began in 1952 with four enthusiastic cowmen who wanted to reenact the trail rides of the pioneer cattlemen. The riders drew more publicity than ever expected, which helped promote the livestock show and rodeo in a way no one had seen before.

The Salt Grass Trail Ride has since grown to include 1,200 trail riders, and nearly 25 wagons. This annual ride has become the largest organized horseback movement to take place in modern times.

Riding through the rich salt grass pastures, the journey begins in Cat Spring, Texas, in mid-February and winds through the countryside for 103 miles toward Houston. Participants range in age from 2 to 90, stretched out single file for the distance of a mile or so, always present a colorful picture as they go down the trail. The early Texans who pioneered our great cattle industry, despite almost overwhelming hardships, have not been forgotten. They live on in the Salt Grass Trail Ride.

A Poem
There’s a big ride comin’ up;
Second month of each year
It’s full of tradition;
And we hold it so dear.

“The Grand-daddy of ’em all”
We proudly proclaim,
“The Salt Grass Trail”
Is the Big ride’s name.

When the “Salt Grass” started
Back in 1952,
There was only one wagon
And the riders were few.

Now the ride’s got so big,
You might call it “gigantic”,
That puttin’ it on,
Sometimes gets frantic.

The ride’s overseers;
All volunteers,
Deserve lots of thanks,
Hoorays and Cheers!!!

The “Salt Grass” has a purpose,
As all trail riders know,
To lead the parade,
For the big rodeo.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo
Is the biggest and best
Promotion of Agriculture
And of the old “Wild West”

Come ride with us once,
And this much I know’
When next year rol;ls around,
Salt Grass Ridin’ you’ll go.

Written by the late Bill Holmes

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