Johnson's Ranch

By: Kenneth B. Ragsdale

Type: General Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

Johnson's Ranch, established in 1927 by Elmo Johnson, was sixteen miles down river from Castolon in the Big Bend region of Texas. Johnson's income came from his ranch, farm, and trading post. The latter was the most lucrative. Johnson's trading post was one of several similar border emporiums that extended from Boquillas to Candelaria and drew their trade from the interior of northern Mexico. Most transactions were barter; Johnson dealt primarily in furs. Since most of his employees and customers were Mexican, Johnson and his wife, Ada, developed a close rapport with the Mexican community along both sides of the Rio Grande. Mrs. Johnson taught the Mexican girls to cook, sew, and can fruits and vegetables. And Johnson, recognizing the need for public education in the lower Big Bend region, embarked on a successful one-man crusade to bring public school education to that region. The teacher lived with the Johnsons, who also furnished the school house. On July 6, 1929, Johnson's ranch entered the air age. During the 1929 Escobar Rebellion, when fighting erupted along the Texas-Mexican border, the United States Army Air Corps, fearing a repeat of earlier border depredations, established a emergency landing field on the ranch. The strategic mission was to deploy airborne troops to the lower Big Bend if the region was threatened by invading renegade troops. Although that never occurred, military traffic to Johnson's ranch airfield remained brisk. The Air Corps' liberal "get-out-and-fly" policy enabled a host of young airmen based at the San Antonio area military airfields to seek rest and recreation at Johnson's ranch. Official justification varied with the individual: "cross-country navigation," "strange field landings," "building up air time," etc. The young pilots also found in that area many challenges to their airmanship: flying between the twin pinnacles of Mule Ear Peaks, flying through Santa Elena Canyon in primary trainers, strafing the Rio Grande with surplus World War I ammunition, and even flying civilians in military aircraft, a practice strictly forbidden. The Third Attack Group, stationed at Fort Crockett, staged its annual "field maneuver" at Johnson's ranch to coincide with the opening of deer season. Yet all was not rest and recreation. Flight surgeons from the Aviation School of Medicine at Randolph Field, who were frequent weekend visitors at the ranch, established a free clinic for the local Mexican population. They pulled teeth, dressed wounds, treated stomach disorders, and set broken bones. Romance and adventure aside, the Johnson's ranch experience may be viewed as a barometer of technical progress. The field register, listing the pilots' names and the type of aircraft they flew, documents the rapid change occurring in the development of United States airpower during the 1930s-increased speed, endurance, and fire power. And the young men who flew the aircraft to Johnson's ranch were, unknowingly, sharpening their skills for the war that lay ahead. This activity, however, was confined to about fourteen years. On April 1, 1942, the state of Texas purchased Johnson's ranch for inclusion in Big Bend National Park. Air traffic continued temporarily; Johnson's ranch became a regular stop for the Civil Air Patrol's Southern Liaison Patrol. The final field entry is dated November 25, 1943.

Kenneth B. Ragsdale, Wings over the Mexican Border: Pioneer Military Aviation in the Big Bend (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984). W. D. Smithers, "The Border Trading Posts," Sul Ross State College Bulletin 41 (September 1961).

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

Kenneth B. Ragsdale, “Johnson's Ranch,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995