Mabel Doss Lea, rancher, politician, and businesswoman, owned and managed the first fully fenced large ranch in Texas. She was born in Brunswick, Missouri, on July 4, 1854, to Frances Pope (Monroe) of Richmond, Virginia (a grandniece of President James Monroe), and John Doss, a native of Kentucky and a Missouri river merchant. In 1872 Mabel Doss graduated with honors from Hocker Female College in Lexington, Kentucky. Her first job was teaching school in Prairie Home, Missouri, but in 1873 she moved with her brother, John Doss, to Sherman, Texas, to organize a music class. There she met William H. Day of Austin, whom she married in Sherman on January 26, 1879. The couple had one child, a daughter, born on December 19, 1880, and named Willie Mabel Day, after both parents. The spring after their marriage the couple moved to a ranch of about 85,000 acres in Coleman County. Writing to a friend in Lexington, Kentucky, Mabel Doss Day reported that her husband was building a fence around his pasture, which when completed would enclose 40,000 acres of land. She rode with him, starting early in the morning and not getting back until nearly dark, supervising the twenty men working on the fence. She had one neighbor, a Mrs. Gatlin, who lived seven miles away. It was eleven miles from the house to the far side of the pasture, and Coleman City was twenty-five miles north. On June 14, 1881, Day died from injuries received when his horse fell during a stampede. He died intestate, leaving a large but encumbered inheritance. The debts included sections in the Day pasture which were not paid for, as well as claims of other cattlemen against the estate. Mabel Doss Day took over a debt-ridden ranch, which she reorganized as the Day Cattle Ranch Company.
Widowed, with a six-month-old daughter, about 78,000 acres under fence, and more than $117,000 in debt, Mabel Doss Day had to contend with creditors and her husband's business associates. She organized a $200,000 cattle corporation by selling a half-interest in her cattle to investors in Kentucky. She retained full title to all of her land and full management of the ranch. By 1883 the Day Cattle Ranch was the largest fenced ranch in Texas. As Mabel was closing the deal with the Kentucky investors, the fence cutting war of 1883 broke out. In September 1883 she wrote to her friend Col. J. M. Booth that her fence was being cut to pieces on the south side. With the absence of any laws governing building or cutting fences, free-grass cattle raisers, long accustomed to an open range, responded to the summer drought by cutting the fences of the ranchers who had bought and fenced their land. On September 13, shortly before rains broke the summer drought, the Austin Weekly Statesman reported that wire cutting had commenced in Coleman County, including the ranch of Mrs. Mabel Day, a courageous widow. Mabel Doss Day responded to this threat to her ranch by lobbying in Austin for a law making fence cutting a felony; the law was passed in 1884. The fence cutting war subsided, leaving her with miles of fence to repair. She also owed final payments to the state for lands in the Day pasture. Though she had eliminated her most pressing obligations and had reduced debt on the ranch, she still continued to fight to retain the ranch.
On April 28, 1889, she married Capt. J. C. Lea of Roswell, New Mexico. She moved to New Mexico, and while there established a church and a school, the New Mexico Military Institute. She also made frequent trips back to Texas to manage the Day Ranch. Appointed lady commissioner to the World's Fair of 1904 in St. Louis, she was active in efforts to move additional settlers to Texas. She settled 500 people on her ranch in Coleman County, founding schools and churches and further reducing the debt on her ranch. On April 4, 1906, Mabel Doss Day Lea died at St. Paul's Hospital in Dallas after an operation. At the time of her death, she had set aside debt-free land for her daughter. The ranch included more than 10,000 acres in 1981.
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The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Sinclair Moreland, The Texas Women's Hall of Fame (Austin: Biographical Press, 1917). James T. Padgitt, "Mrs. Mabel Day and the Fence Cutters," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 26 (1950). "Texas Women: A Celebration of History" Archives, Texas Woman's University, Denton. Ruthe Winegarten, Finder's Guide to the`Texas Women: A Celebration of History' Exhibit Archives (Denton: Texas Woman's University Library, 1984).
Ranching and Cowboys
Ranchers and Cattlemen
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Lea, Mabel Doss,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 21, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
November 1, 1995
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: