Signs Orange County is Cowboy Country
A new generation of circuit riders are emerging on the Orange County horizon. They are the children of the ranchland pioneers that settled this neck of the woods. Not breaking with tradition, they are paying forward the techniques of ranching today, through competitive rodeoing. These young riders are what are keeping cowboy country alive in these parts.
These are not rookie riders. Chaff is in their blood and they are compelled to carry on the mantles of their forefathers.
The synergy of the ages, that of the old ranch fathers, sons and grandsons, are pressing forward together against city lights in uncertain times. They know how to work the land and fighting to stay connected to it. Meanwhile food processing plants, technology and hybrid models are vying to end agriculture as we’ve known it. How food is put on the table has dramatically changed.
Our country was founded by farmers until ‘ag’ fell off in the 1960s and 1970s,” said Will Winfree, a great-great grandchild of ranch pioneer Abraham Winfree. “And in the 1980s, it fell even harder.”
The U.S. was a nation of farmers until hybrid plants, commercial fertilizer, foreign invasive plants and a dwindling bee population have all contributed significantly to the decline of farming.
Even so, the heart of the Lone Star country boy has never stopped beating.
The adventure and interaction of the animals calls the younger ones up to the Big Ride. And while on this ride, they are taught countless life lessons. They are the ones roping the timeline of the past to the timeline of the future, so that ranching doesn’t die.
“It’s the challenge of getting along with the elements, learning the personalities and nature that you are dealing with, whether it’s horse, cow or dog,” Winfree said.
Indeed the windblown wild prairie terrain has changed quite a bit since the 1800s, when Abraham Winfree, a father of many cowboys to come, rode into town. He was one of the pioneers of cowboy country and helped erect one of the oldest settlements in Texas still in existence. The WW brand has been registered in the state since 1836 and the settlement spans Orangefield, Bridge City and McLewis.
Though Will Winfree’s grandfather Laurence has passed away and property and land has been broken up, the legacy still stands hard as iron in the heart of this family and in the family of remaining Orange County ranchers.
If you listen close enough, you can hear the horses’ hooves of history beating the dirt and you can easily tap into and appreciate the heart of the region and the changes that have taken place in this age-old trade.
To illustrate the idea of how this trade has been galvanized by change over the years, many families today are as far as five or six generations removed from their agriculture roots. There was approximately 30,000 acres in rice crop in Orange County. It is now known as the disappearing crop. Commodities are bringing the same dollar amount as 30 years ago. A tractor that sold for $4,000 back then, today would go for $100,000. The $5,000 price tag for a combine 30 years ago, would now read $300,000.
There are many strong witnesses still in existence telling the story of old-time ranching in Orange County. A brown, cowhide saddle Abraham Winfree rode in on in the 1830s and two live oaks in the pasture that take six to eight grown men to reground. These relics speak of an age and authenticity of a period in history that literally put Texas on the map and positioned the Lone Star State as a leader in the ranching industry.
Since nostalgia does not pay for itself, many of these young circuit riders are not into ranching because they have a lot of money, but because they were born into a long line of ranchers. Texas has also been a cultural hub of country music, competition rodeo and apparel that makes the ride fun.
“Doing this as far as economics, you can’t afford to buy the land,” Will Winfree said. “It’s pretty much a family affair unless you’ve got someone who was a doctor, someone with money, and decided to do it as a hobby or as a getaway.”
“It’s (ranching) very low income,” Winfree said. “You spend most of your money improving your land and fencing and the weather hammers you. You have to go back and redo what you lost.”
In brushy country, herding dogs are essential if you’re going to keep your herd.
“In East Texas, families of dogs have been in families of people for generations,” Winfree said. “Whoever had the best dogs ended up having the best cattle.”
It is the growing cowboy culture, the competition, the music, the style mixed with embodying tradition that keeps the younger generation riding forward.
And it is this huge culture of rodeo competition that has produced many junior high aged winners at state level. Rodeo itself is derived from ranching tradition.
For instance, the calf roping competition illustrates how to capture a sick animal and nurse it back to health. Bull riding, on the other hand, is just pure adrenaline-rushing display and form.
“There are 3-year-old kids who can rope a dummy. My son Jesse was 2 when he rode a horse,” Winfree said.
These young people have followed in the footsteps of folks like Will’s brother, Kirk Dillard, who was a calf roping champ in state high school finals in 76-77 and national high school finals in 1978; Derwood Dorman, a world championship bulldogger at Madison Square Garden; Pete Dorman and Dan Harris; Wayne Peveto, state champion bull dogger; Charlie Toups, state champion bareback rider; and Chris Dickard, reserve champion team roper.
Women have also strongly emerged on the competition rodeo scene as well.
“I have three sisters. My oldest sister Latrece was La high school champ barrel racer and my other sister Lesley, she made the college national final in calf roping and goat tying. And my third sister rodeod a little bit,” Winfree said.
A trickling of arenas still exist where cowboys are trained, some even as early as age 6. In Orange County, the Sheriff’s Posse on FM 105 between 87 and 62, a new arena at Cowboy Church on FM 78 and a trickling of private arenas are all that remain.
Ranchers can still pick up their feed and tack, at places like the old Farmers’ Mercantile, founded in 1928 and Peveto’s Feed on 62. And, of course, stores like Horseman’s Store continue to provide clothing fit for competition and accessories and outerwear for a country style nightlife. These horseman hubs are great places to learn the language of the land. If you are a peeler and twister, you break horses. If you are getting shaded up, that means you are bringing you and your animal into shade. Wranglers are people who herd livestock.
Although many of the signs of cowboy country have faded with industrialization, there’s still one sign people from all walks of life come into contact with daily that will keep those ranching roots into perspective. The next time you pass a street sign, notice one that says FM. And be reminded it means – Farm to Market.