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SMS RANCHES

SMS RANCHES. The SMS Ranches occupy considerable portions of twelve counties in the lower plains area of West Texas and comprise more than 300,000 acres. They were named the initials of the founder, Swante M. Swenson, who moved to Texas from Sweden in the 1830s. A man of many interests, Swenson introduced to the Texas Navy and thereafter to the army the Colt revolverqv, invented by his friend Samuel Colt of New York; began shipments of the Texas pecan to the North and East; and in 1850 established himself in the general merchandise and banking business at Austin. Swenson's thrift, sound ethics, and business acumen produced a high financial success. His greatest interest lay in the accumulation of land. He traded saddles, boots, blankets, and many of the manifold supplies carried by his large frontier trading post for Texas railroad land certificates. Under the privilege then accorded to holders and owners of such certificates to file on any untaken state land, Swenson in 1854 began acquiring some 100,000 acres of unclaimed properties in Northwest Texas. By 1860 he owned over 128,000 acres around Austin, in addition to his West Texas holdings, which had increased to nearly 500,000 acres. Swenson staunchly opposed secession, and at the outbreak of the Civil War he found himself unpopular with many of his old friends and customers. He exiled himself for a time in Mexico and, with William Perkins, established a mercantile business in New Orleans and also invested in sugar plantations. With the chaos of the Reconstruction period, however, he disposed of his Austin holdings and moved his family to New York City, where he founded a private banking house known as S. M. Swenson and Sons, a precursor to the present First National City Bank of New York. Even then, Swenson continued an active interest in Texas; before leaving he purchased the school sections, which alternated with the railroad lands in West Texas, in order to have his holdings in solid blocks. By 1882 Swenson was seeking to develop his West Texas holdings in order to produce sufficient revenue to help pay taxes. After inspecting the properties with his sons, Eric Pierson and Swen Albin Swenson, he decided to establish three ranches, which he named for each of his children. The largest of these, the Throckmorton Ranch, named for the county in which it was located, was originally dubbed Eleonora for his daughter. Mount Albin, which covered portions of Jones, Stonewall, and Haskell counties, contained a prominent, flat-topped mesa; for that reason it soon became known as Flat Top Ranch. Ericsdahl Ranch, which contained 50,000 acres, was located nine miles east of the site of future Stamford. It was among the first in that part of Texas to be fenced; the Flat Top and Throckmorton ranches were fenced during the next three years. Swenson's nephew, Alfred Dyer, was hired as the first manager of the overall operations; he stocked the virgin ranges and supervised the construction of ranch headquarters, barns, and corrals and the drilling of wells. The first cattle herd that Dyer bought consisted of 1,800 high-grade Durham shorthorns and 180 Hereford-shorthorn crosses from Indiana, along with several registered Hereford bulls. The ranches' first horse herds were of mixed Spanish and Arabian stock from Williamson County. Before returning to New York, S. M. Swenson leased his holdings to his sons, who operated them under the name of Swenson Brothers Cattle Company. The SMS brand, consisting of an extended M sandwiched between two reversed S's, was registered by the Swensons in the spring of 1882. In 1883 they bought an additional 5,700 acres in Jones and Haskell counties that became the Ellerslie Ranch.

The early years of the SMS Ranches were characterized by intermittent periods of drought, and in 1886 Alfred Dyer committed suicide. Joe Ericson, a Swedish immigrant, succeeded him temporarily as superintendent. Despite discouraging prospects, the elder Swenson renewed his lease in January 1890. After his death in 1896 the ranches became a family possession. Two years later the Swenson brothers purchased the old Scab 8 Ranch, which covered some 79,000 acres in Cottle, King, Motley, and Dickens counties, and renamed it the Tongue River Ranch for its location on the Tongue (South Pease) River. By that time Andrew John Swenson, a cousin from Sweden, had taken over the managerial position, with headquarters at Ellerslie. Although Eric and Albin Swenson spent most of their time in New York, they made periodic trips to Texas to check up on the ranches' welfare and took great interest in the constant improvement of the SMS cattle. Over the years feeder cattle from this herd won countless honors. In 1899 the Swensons enticed the Texas Central Railroad to build through their land and laid out the town of Stamford, which subsequently became the nucleus of their West Texas interests. Many immigrant cotton farmers moving into the area bought tracts of land from the Swensons.

In 1902 the Swenson brothers hired Frank S. Hastings, formerly of the Armour Packing Company, as manager of their far-flung ranches. For the next two decades Hastings committed himself to the breeding and improvement of the SMS cattle; under his direction the SMS was among the first to engage in the so called "mail order" calf business. In September 1906 a significant move occurred when the Swensons bought the Spur Ranch from the Espuela Land and Cattle Company of London and began liquidating its livestock, the last of which were sold to William J. Lewis and his partners. Charles A. Jones and his son, Clifford B. Jones, served successively as land managers until 1938. By then most of the Spur lands had been parceled off. The Swenson interests continued to lease some 60,000 acres of Spur properties until 1970. At that time these were sold except for that portion belonging to Jim Barron and his wife Eleonora Swenson, a great-granddaughter of S. M. Swenson, who have continued to operate the old Spur headquarters. At one time most, if not all, foremen of the SMS Ranches were immigrant Swedes who had come through the Swensons' influence. Among them were the brothers August and Mage Holzberg, who served as foremen for the Tongue River and Flat Top ranches, respectively. A. J. Swenson's sons, Willie Gustaf (Bill) and Axel Magnus Godfrey (Swede), followed in their father's footsteps as managers. Other outstanding Swenson employees through the years have included the colorful "Scandalous" John Selmon, Jake Raines, William Hunter (Kid) Bacot, Clifford (Poss) and Davis (Windy) Murray, Ross Kincheloe, and Billy Smith. In 1926 the enterprise was reorganized as the Swenson Land and Cattle Company, with headquarters in Stamford. By then the Swensons were running 28,000 cattle on 390,000 acres. It was the Swensons who organized the annual Texas Cowboy Reunion in Stamford in 1930.

After the death of his brother Albin in 1927, Eric Swenson continued as president of the Swenson Company until his death in 1945. Since 1972 Wilson Elmore, a Swenson in-law, has been president of the Swenson Land and Cattle Company in New York. Eugene Carl (Gene) and Carl Eric Swenson, vice presidents, have been in charge of the ranch operations and land development, respectively. By 1989 an average of 8,500 cattle, mostly Hereford and Angus stock, were sold annually. In addition, hundreds of acres of SMS ranch land were cultivated in hay, oats, and milo, and there were also some oil interests. The Swensons' New York offices were still housed in the First City National Bank, and Bruce B. Swenson of Dallas was another leading stockholder. Three large ranches, each with its own headquarters and section foreman, made up the bulk of the SMS operations in Texas in 1989.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Mary Whatley Clarke, The Swenson Saga and the SMS Ranches (Austin: Jenkins, 1976). C. L. Douglas, Cattle Kings of Texas (Dallas: Baugh, 1939; rpt., Fort Worth: Branch-Smith, 1968). Gus L. Ford, ed., Texas Cattle Brands (Dallas: Cockrell, 1936). William Curry Holden, The Espuela Land and Cattle Company: A Study of a Foreign-Owned Ranch in Texas (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1970). Andrew J. Swenson Papers, 1898–1922, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Gail Swenson, S. M. Swenson and the Development of the SMS Ranches (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1960). Jesse Wallace Williams, The Big Ranch Country (Wichita Falls: Terry, 1954; 2d ed., Wichita Falls: Nortex, 1971).

H. Allen Anderson

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

H. Allen Anderson, "SMS RANCHES," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/aps01), accessed July 31, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.