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Monday, September 28, 2015

The Story of the Morris Ranch

The Morris Ranch Store, probably around 1915.  Click to enlarge
Have you ever noticed, as you travel north on State Highway 16, the road sign between here and Fredericksburg that says "Morris Ranch Road?"
For many years, I've only had a vague notion about the place, that they raised horses there years ago, and that several members of that family were active in Kerrville, including one who served as mayor of Kerrville, George Morris, who served from 1916-1917. He also ran Kerrville's St. Charles Hotel, which once stood at the corner of Water and Sidney Baker Streets; it was Kerrville's grandest hotel for a generation or two. The distance from that corner to the old Morris Ranch School is about 16 miles.
Recently, though, I was given a history of the Morris Ranch, and it filled in a few blanks for me. The comb-bound book was compiled by the Morris Ranch Cemetery Association in May, 1992.
"Francis Morris, a wealthy breeder and trainer of thoroughbreds in New York and Maryland, purchased the original 35 sections of the ranch for 25 cents an acre from David, John, and Rufus Leavitt of New York on February 18, 1856," according to the book.
If my math is correct, that means Francis Morris bought 22,400 acres of land for $5,600. While that was a great bargain, one must remember two important things: in 1856, this part of Texas was still the extreme frontier; and, secondly, that this part of Texas was still frequented by various bands of Native Americans, few of which were friendly. The conflicts between those bands and the settlers were often quite brutal and deadly.
Between purchasing the land in 1856 and the 1884 appointment of his nephew, Charles Morris, as manager of the ranch, Francis Morris sold 9 sections of his original holdings to various people.
Francis Morris died in 1886. Though Francis willed the ranch to his daughters, his son, John A. Morris purchased its 26 remaining sections from them for his two minor sons. It was John who initiated the breeding and training of horses at the ranch, and it was he "who turned it into the fabulous enterprise it was in its prime years."
Those two sons for whom John A. Morris purchased the ranch were named Alfred and David. Alfred, as an adult, was active in the management of the ranch, though he did not live on the ranch all of the time; his brother, David, took no active role in the ranch, remaining a silent partner. Both men were New York brokers, and David later served as U. S. Ambassador to Belgium in the 1930s.
And Charles -- the nephew appointed as manager of the ranch back in 1884 -- continued in that position until 1910, until the responsibility fell to his brother, Clayton.
So -- from the very beginning -- the Morris Ranch was very much a family business, though ownership and management of the enterprise fell to different branches of the family.
I found this passage interesting in the history of the ranch:
"The A. H. and D. H. Morris Ranch was a self-contained community, although not an incorporated town. A two-story, white frame house was built for the manager and his familyi and was used as business headquarters. A rock church-schoolhouse was built on a hill and the site for a cemetery designated next to it. There was a hotel, a general store with post office and a drug store built. A large jockey house and 17 horse barns were erected. A one-mile race track was laid out and a mill and two gins were built. In addition, there were numerous private residences for other members of the Morris family and for the employees of the ranch."
Notable horses raised and trained at the Morris Ranch include "Gallantry, the winner of the English Derby, Orbicular, a winner of the Belmont Stakes, and Rainbow, for whom a purchase price of $65,000 was refused," according to the book.
An online search suggests the horse that won the Belmont Stakes may have actually been named Bowling Brook, the winner in 1898. The very first winner of the Belmont Stakes was a horse named "Ruthless," in 1867, and its owner was Francis Morris -- who may have been the same man who was the original owner of the Morris Ranch.
Traveling on the Morris Ranch Road today, one finds some of those buildings still stand -- though not as part of what was once the working horse ranch. They're now privately owned by various families. Seeing them, though, shows how extensive an operation the Morris Ranch was at its heyday, raising race horses which raced, and were sold, all over the world.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native, who, like most town boys, always dreamed of owning a horse of his own.  This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times September 26, 2015.

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