Lewis, William Jenks (1871–1960)

By: H. Allen Anderson

Type: Biography

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: November 11, 2020

William Jenks Lewis, Panhandle rancher, the oldest of three children born to Charles J. and Hallie (Koogle) Lewis, was born on May 7, 1871, in Frederick, Maryland. His father, a Maryland merchant, became a partner in the Half Circle K Ranch, with his brother-in-law, Bill Koogle, in 1885. Young Will was immediately taken with the Panhandle frontier environment and started working as a cowboy on the Half Circle K. His gentle Eastern mannerisms soon aroused the ire of the authoritative ranch foreman, Red Williams, who tried to break the "boss's kid" by giving him various undesirable tasks; but Will quickly proved adept as a cowhand and gained the admiration and respect of most of his peers. Throughout his early years on the range, he seldom swore or carried a gun and preferred low-heeled shoes to boots, relying mainly on the tapadero, the leather guard over the front of the stirrup, to keep him from getting "hung up." After summer droughts, bad investments, and the Big Die-up marked the decline of the Half Circle K venture in 1886, Charles Lewis refused to go into bankruptcy and stayed on in Clarendon to gradually pay off the debts his in-laws had accumulated. When the town moved its site to the newly-completed Fort Worth and Denver City Railway in 1887, he opened a mercantile in the business district and also served as postmaster. In the meantime Will, in addition to helping out at the store, began working for the neighboring RO Ranch. Alfred Rowe, its owner, had taken a liking to the boy and thus started him off as an "outside man" for the outfit. Over the next few years Lewis was elevated from apprentice to top hand and was eventually given the responsibility of shipping RO cattle to the firm of Clay, Robinson, and Company in Kansas City.

By the late 1890s Will Lewis was ready to go out on his own. With the backing of John Clay, president of the Kansas City firm, he began buying and selling cattle throughout Kansas, New Mexico, and the Panhandle, sometimes with partners and always on leased land. In 1903–04 Lewis purchased the Bell Ranch cattle and leased its land in New Mexico until he could dispose of them. In 1910–11, when Edward F. Swift of the Swift packing firm was selling the Shoe Bar Ranch's land and herds, Lewis bought 43,000 acres of that ranch centered around its Ox-Bow Camp and maintained its famous brand. About three years later, in partnership with John Molesworth and Theodore Pyle, he took a five-year lease on acreage owned by the Espuela Land and Cattle Company (Spur Ranch) in Dickens County. They also leased 10,000 acres of former Mill Iron Ranch from the Continental Land and Cattle Company on which to graze their Spur cattle and bought 12,000 head of Mill Iron cattle. In 1917 Lewis made arrangements to purchase the remaining 72,000 acres of the RO Ranch from the Rowe family for $595,113.26, thus fulfilling a dream of his youth.

On September 19, 1912, Lewis married Willie Newbury (see LEWIS, WILLIE N.), daughter of Dallas merchant Henry L. Newbury. They had first met in the summer of 1911, when she was visiting in Clarendon with a schoolmate, Lila McClelland. The couple's first home was at the Spur Ranch headquarters in Dickens County; later they built a town residence in Clarendon and also maintained a home on Swiss Avenue in Dallas. At times Lewis's conservative-Victorian attitudes and devotion to his ranching interests contrasted sharply with the preferences of his socialite wife, but they became the parents of a son, William Jr., and three daughters, Betty, Anne, and Joan. While Lewis maintained the old RO headquarters on Skillet Creek as his "home ranch," the family seldom stayed there.

Among cattlemen's circles, Lewis was widely reputed as a modest, mild-mannered businessman whose word was his bond and whose integrity enabled him to "finance almost any deal through the banks." Only once during the early 1930s did Lewis encounter serious financial difficulties when the bank with which he had carried his operating loan sold the notes to a Kansas City banker without his knowledge until a few weeks before the notes were due. However, John Huddleston, a Kansas rancher and banker, came to his rescue. During World War II Lewis, who desired no public recognition, turned down an invitation from the federal government to represent the cattle industry in Washington. In 1942 he and a partner, Shorty Rorie, purchased 36,000 acres of former Mill Iron properties; within seven years Lewis bought out Rorie's share and established the Flying U Bar Ranch for his daughters. His son, Will Jr., became owner of the Shoe Bar property and later was made an equal partner in his father's business interests. In all, Lewis had built up an empire consisting of 140,000 acres of land and over 10,000 head of high grade Hereford cattle, which he continually sought to improve with the young thoroughbred bulls that he purchased annually.

In 1945 the Lewises purchased a spacious home in the Highland Park area of Dallas, where they resided most of the time. Avid horse racing fans, they made annual summer vacations to southern California and joined the prestigious Del Mar Turf Club at the famed Santa Anita Race Track near Pasadena. His health gradually failing, Lewis died on July 23, 1960, in the Gaston Hospital in Dallas. Following services at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Clarendon, where he was a charter member, he was buried in Clarendon's Citizen's Cemetery. His widow subsequently took up permanent resident in Dallas and published several books, including Tapadero (1972), the story of her husband's early years in the Panhandle. Will, Jr., and his wife, Vera Noland Lewis, continued to manage their Shoe Bar property and other family ranching interests. He was a director of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and also of the Donley County State Bank. He died suddenly at a Boston hospital after a bout with cancer on March 11, 1961, and was buried beside his father in Clarendon. Since that time, the Shoe Bar and part of the old RO Ranch have remained in possession of the Lewis estate.

Virginia Browder, Donley County: Land O' Promise (Wichita Falls, Texas: Nortex, 1975). William Curry Holden, The Espuela Land and Cattle Company: A Study of a Foreign-Owned Ranch in Texas (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1970). Willie Newbury Lewis, Tapadero: The Making of a Cowboy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972). Willie Newbury Lewis, Willie: A Girl from a Town Called Dallas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1984).

  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Ranchers and Cattlemen
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas
  • Panhandle Region

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

H. Allen Anderson, “Lewis, William Jenks,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/lewis-william-jenks.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995
November 11, 2020

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