The Continental Cattle Company, as it was originally called, was formed in 1881 by William Edgar Hughes, John N. Simpson, and John W. Buster. Having recently purchased J. R. Couts's interest in the Hashknife Ranch and the Millett brothers' operation in Baylor County, Hughes and Simpson became president and vice president, respectively, of the company, which had offices in Dallas and St. Louis. Buster served as general manager, and several smaller stockholders formed the firm's core. Seeking to acquire more land and cattle, the company established the Mill Iron Ranch in the lower Texas Panhandle.
According to tradition, the Mill Iron brand had its origin when a cowboy working for Simpson found an unbranded calf. Since he had no branding irons with him, he appropriated an iron from a nearby mill to burn his claim on the maverick. Simpson, who held the water rights on Bitter Lake, near the Pease River, first used the brand on his small herd of cattle. The Continental Company then bought these cattle and adopted the Mill Iron as its official brand.
After establishing a dugout headquarters in Hall County, Hughes and his associates began buying a number of small herds, of 200 to 300 each, between the Red and Pease rivers and started leasing sections near water for three cents an acre. Before long the Mill Iron grew to a total of 162,736 acres and encompassed portions of Hall, Childress, Motley, and Cottle counties. Ranches bordering the Mill Iron included the OX, Shoe Nail, Shoe Bar, Quitaque (Lazy F), Diamond Tail, and Matador. The Mill Iron also maintained a feeding ranch on the Powder River in Montana, where herds were driven in the spring for summer fattening. The Montana property also supplied most of the cow ponies for the Mill Iron. Since these horses were above average in size, the Mill Iron soon became noted for big horses and big men. Once when an epidemic of glanders broke out among the horse herds in Texas, the local veterinarian drove thirty-five Mill Iron horses into Brewster Canyon, where they were shot. Many of them were favorites of individual cowboys, and they could not bear to watch, much less do the job themselves; from then on they avoided the canyon. Periodic visits by Hughes from his Denver residence were always dramatic occasions, especially when he arrived with his hunting dogs in his colorful, trim coach.
On February 5, 1884, Hughes and his associates reorganized and incorporated their ranching enterprise as the Continental Land and Cattle Company, with their main office in St. Louis. Two years later the company absorbed the holdings of Hughes and Simpson in the Hashknife Ranch and moved its cattle to the Mill Iron range. During its heyday the Mill Iron branded between 10,000 and 12,000 calves annually; in 1890, 25,000 calves were reported. In 1896 the Mill Iron bought out the adjoining 152,320-acre Rocking Chair Ranch, thus extending its holdings into Collingsworth and Wheeler counties.
In 1885 the coming of windmills ended the ranch's dependence on surface tanks and springs, which usually dried up during prolonged droughts. Wells were drilled as watering places in isolated pasture recesses. Two Mill Iron pastures were fenced with the coming of barbed wire and used to hold the bulls rounded up in the fall to be placed in the pasture or shipped to market. Not until 1887 was a permanent headquarters built on the ranch at Windmill 62, four miles south of Estelline. Prior to that the only ranch structures on the Mill Iron were dugouts and chuck wagons. Foreman R. D. Green lived in the ranch headquarters house, which burned in 1897 and was replaced by a new headquarters located in Estelline. "Colonel" Hughes stayed in both houses during his occasional visits.
In an attempt to save money Continental continued to drive Mill Iron cattle to Montana until 1894, when it finally joined its neighbors in utilizing the railroad shipping points at Estelline, Giles, Childress, and Clarendon. Not until 1898 did the Mill Iron begin improving its herds of longhorn cattle by adding 2,000 grade cattle from the JA and 1,000 full bloods from the JJ. That year the cowhands undertook the hazardous job of dehorning the Texas stock, and over the next few years the ranch built up higher-quality, blooded herds.
By the 1890s, when settlers began homesteading on the range's school sections, Hughes and his associates were able for a time to buy and trade lands with them and keep them outside the Mill Iron's best pastures. But by 1913 they were compelled to reduce both their range and its herds. William J. Lewis leased 10,000 acres of Mill Iron range on which to run his Spurs, and also bought 12,000 head of Mill Iron cattle. The Crews brothers of Childress bought the Mill Iron's Rocking Chair range and herd; by 1916 these transactions had left the firm with only 5,000 cattle. In the meantime the company's large shareholders continued to absorb the interests of the smaller ones until the organization became W. E. Hughes and Company. On March 7, 1916, Hughes was named president of the firm and by October was its sole owner. Just before his death two years later, he sold the remaining Mill Iron cattle and gave the headquarters house in Estelline to Bob Green and his wife for their years of faithful service. Although the Hughes heirs continued ranching in the Panhandle on a limited basis, the Continental Land and Cattle Company had ceased to exist. Highways and farming establishments now cross the range where Mill Iron cattle once grazed.