The JA Ranch is the oldest privately owned cattle operation in the Panhandle. Its beginning may be traced back to the summer and fall of 1876, when Charles Goodnight drove 1,600 longhorn cattle from Pueblo, Colorado, to the Palo Duro Canyon, where he established his "Home Ranch" near the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River in southwestern Armstrong County. After getting his men and cattle settled in for the winter, Goodnight returned to Colorado to make arrangements to bring his wife, Mary Ann (Molly) Goodnight, to the new homestead. In Denver he met John G. Adair, an English aristocrat who was interested in going into the cattle business himself. As a result of their meeting, Adair agreed to furnish the capital Goodnight needed to build up the ranch. In May 1877 the Goodnights and Adair, along with four cowboys, arrived at the Home Ranch with 100 Durham bulls and four wagons loaded with provisions. On June 18, before the Adairs left for Ireland, the partners drew up a five-year contract under which two-thirds of the property and profits were to go to Adair and one-third to Goodnight. There were to be as many as 1,500 cattle and 2,500 acres of land. Goodnight, who borrowed his third of the investment from Adair at 10 percent interest, was to receive an annual salary of $2,500. At Goodnight's suggestion the ranch was named Adair's initials. The letters of the JA brand at first were separated; three years later the present connected design was adopted.
After the money was made available, Goodnight bought the first 12,000 acres from Jot Gunter and William B. Munson, Sr., who agreed that he could pick the land wherever he pleased. Over the next two years he continued buying choice pieces of property crazy-quilt fashion in and around a seventy-five-mile stretch of Palo Duro Canyon, carefully selecting areas with good grazing land and water, until the ranch was solidified. In 1878 he drove the first JA trail herd, led by his famous bell ox Old Blue, north to Dodge City, Kansas, then the nearest railhead. In 1879, desiring a more central location for the ranch headquarters, Goodnight moved it to a choice site at the foot of the Caprock, twenty-five miles east of the old Home Ranch. There he built a new four-room house of cedar logs and supervised the construction of several other buildings, including a bunkhouse, a bookkeeper's house, a wagon boss's house, a blacksmith shop, a wagonyard, and an ingenious milk and meat cooler. Later on, the two-story, nineteen-room main house was added. The old Home Ranch house was used as a line camp until it burned down on Christmas Eve, 1904.
As manager of the JA, Goodnight allowed no gambling, whiskey, or fighting, and would not take anyone who had been fired elsewhere for drunkenness or theft. Even so, he usually was able to hire the men he needed. Cape (Caleb B.) Willingham, Wint Bairfield, Jim (James T.) Christian, Frank Mitchell, J. W. Kent, George Doshier, Mitch Bell, and the brothers Judd, Jeff, and Lige Campbell were among the outstanding JA employees during its early years. Goodnight's brothers-in-law, Walter and Leigh R. Dyer, also worked off and on for the JA, particularly during traildrives and roundups. Almost from the start, Goodnight had sought to improve the quality of the JA cattle by bringing in blooded stock. In 1882 he built what is thought to have been the Panhandle's first barbed wire drift fence across a canyon bed above the Home Ranch to separate the purebred cattle, on which he used a JJ brand, from the main JA herd. He also kept a buffalo herd which he sought to cross with cattle to produce the "cattalo."
By the time their contract expired in 1882, Goodnight and Adair had bought 93,000 acres and were looking for more. In addition, Goodnight had purchased the Quitaque (Lazy F) range in Briscoe County for Cornelia Adair, and the Palo Duro post office had been established at the JA headquarters. To Adair's satisfaction, the enterprise had realized more than $512,000 in profits; thus the partners opted to extend the contract for another five-year period. In 1883 Goodnight fenced the Quitaque properties and added the Tule Ranch in Swisher County, which he fenced in 1884–85, to the JA properties. He also made other purchases from Gunter and Munson, the railroads, and the state that increased the ranch's size to 1,325,000 acres in parts of Randall, Armstrong, Donley, Hall, Briscoe, and Swisher counties.
After John Adair's death in 1885, following his third visit to the JA, his widow continued the partnership with Goodnight. By 1887, however, with the building of the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway, falling beef prices, the influx of settlers, and attempts by politicians to curb large-scale ranching, the colonel was ready to sell out and limit his ranching activities; thus their partnership was terminated on the expiration of the contract. Nevertheless, Goodnight, who acquired the Quitaque Ranch in the division of property, continued to act as manager until 1888, when he was succeeded by John E. Farrington, who served in that position for three years. James W. (Jack) Ritchie, Mrs. Adair's son by her first marriage, served briefly as foreman of the ranch's steer division in Tule Canyon before returning to New York City to handle the purchase of JA horses for the New York police department. Arthur Tisdale managed the JA in 1891 and was succeeded the following year by Richard Walsh, an Irish immigrant who had been with the ranch since 1885. Under his leadership, improvements continued to be made through crossbreeding with blooded Hereford and Angus stock in the JA herd, which had increased to 101,023 head by 1889. Walsh soon built up one of the finest-quality herds of cattle in the nation.
As the railroads brought in more settlers, the JA began leasing and selling much of its excess pasture. When several nesters located on school lands within the JA boundaries, Walsh shrewdly purchased their claims or traded land outside the range for their holdings within, thus consolidating the JA properties. In 1891 a school was opened for the children of ranch employees and neighboring settlers, in the Palo Duro community near the ranch headquarters. Over the years the ranch was gradually reduced in size as longtime employees like George Doshier, Wint Bairfield, Mitch Bell, and Jim Christian began their own operations on former JA lands. In 1917 Edward D. Harrell purchased the acreage where the old Home Ranch was located, and the Mulberry Ranch, named for the creek that drains it, was formed out of the JA's Mulberry Division.
After Walsh resigned as a manager in 1910, John S. Summerfield served for a year in that capacity and then was succeeded by James W. Wadsworth, Jr., a nephew of Cornelia Adair. Wadsworth held that position until 1915, when he was elected to the United States Senate from his home state of New York. At that time, Timothy D. Hobart of Pampa was named to succeed him; he and Henry C. Coke, a Dallas attorney, were named executors of Cornelia Adair's estate after her death in December 1921. In her will she left the bulk of the JA properties to her son, Jack Ritchie, and his heirs. Clinton Henry came as the ranch bookkeeper in 1924 and assisted Hobart in the management. In 1935, after Hobart and Coke died, Montgomery H. W. (Monte) Ritchie took over as manager. J. W. Kent retired in 1940, after having worked for a record number of years (since 1883) for the JA. Not until 1948 was the Adair estate, with its accompanying debts and inheritances, entirely settled.
By 1945 the JA's operations were confined to 335,000 acres in Armstrong, Briscoe, Donley, and Hall counties. Subsequently, a tract of 130,000 acres was divided into eight leaseholds to decrease labor and costs further. Watered by the Prairie Dog Town Fork and its tributaries plus several hundred natural lakes, dirt tanks, and fifty-eight wells, the ranch had twelve winter branch camps and five farms that raised feed for the livestock. The winter range in Palo Duro Canyon afforded maximum protection, and the summer range was singularly free from land waste. Nearly two-thirds of the extant JA properties was rolling pastureland; even the land north and west of the headquarters was relatively flat. As of 1990 the ranch was substantially fenced and cross-fenced and noted for its purebred Herefords and Angus bulls. Quarter horses were raised primarily for ranch use, and a small buffalo herd was maintained; some commercial hunting of buffalo and deer was allowed. Tillable land continued to be leased. The Ritchie family also owned ranchland at Larkspur, Colorado, near Colorado Springs.
In 1988 the JA headquarters comprised several ranch outbuildings, including a supply store and garage, and was dominated by the "Big House," whose grounds were well manicured. A herd of longhorns, courtesy of the JA, roamed in Palo Duro Canyon State Scenic Park. In 1960 the house was designated a national historic landmark. Two of the JA's historic buildings, the old milk house and an oat bin, were given by Monte Ritchie to the Ranching Heritage Center at Lubbock in 1971 and 1988, respectively.