Paisano Ranch

By: Eldon Stephen Branda and Audrey N. Slate

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: August 5, 2020

Paisano Ranch, fourteen miles southwest of Austin in the Hill Country, was the country retreat of J. Frank Dobie until his death in 1964. He had previously owned a larger place, Cherry Springs Ranch, near Marble Falls. In 1959, after a severe illness, he sold Cherry Springs Ranch and bought the 254-acre Paisano Ranch, which had been called Shady Creek Ranch by the previous owners, George and Pearl Turney. The first owner of the land was James S. Burton, who surveyed and received 160 acres of it about 1860. On August 14, 1863, Burton sold the property to Frederick and Lucy Kunze, who built a log cabin on it. The cabin is hidden within the walls of the present house, though a part of it can be seen since renovation in 1979. The property was sold on September 15, 1865, to John Daniel and Mary Wende, who increased the size of the ranch to its present acreage, built additional rooms on the cabin, and built stone walls that still crosscut the property. Wende died in 1897, but his wife lived there five more years. The ranch was uninhabited for the next twenty-six years. In March 1928 it was sold by the Wendes' son, John Charles, to Anton and Minnie Holm. The Holms sold it in 1943 to R. L. and Dicy Springfield, who in turn sold it the following year to George and Pearl Turney, the last owners before Dobie. A few items from the Turneys' tenure-a clock Turney made from a cast-iron skillet and some wood-burned plaques of dubious artistic merit that amused Dobie (pictures of a grinning sow and a playful longhorn)-are still at the ranch. Dobie first thought of calling his place the Wild Gobbler Ranch, but decided on Paisano, a name of Spanish origin used in the Southwest to denote the roadrunner. Dobie was also familiar with other regional meanings of the word-"compatriot," "native," and "rustic." The roadrunner image, the symbol of the Texas Folklore Society, became Dobie's personal symbol, and he used it on bookplates and elsewhere. Originally, he kept a few cattle and sheep at the ranch, but he later sold them, preferring, as acquaintances recall, the deer and wild turkey and other wildlife found in abundance on the property.

Paisano served as more of a retreat than a working site for Dobie, who gathered friends from near and far to sit on the long porch (or "gallery") to discuss life and literature. According to Dobie, Paisano is "not an estate, not a ranch, not a farm, it is merely a place of some acres in the hills west of Austin, Barton Creek winding through it." A. C. Greene, the second writer to live at the ranch as a holder of a Dobie Paisano fellowship, described the place: "Barton Creek, still thirty or so twisting miles from its mouth, runs clear and sweet most years. It curls and chatters among the rocks, and whispers into dark, tree hung places and pools where the imagination pictures both delights and dangers. Dominating the natural scenery are massive limestone bluffs which form the pictorial backdrop for views from the front gallery. Here the canyon wren's tumbling, crystal song pours out in season, the chuck-will's widow calls through the spring nights. Dripping springs, fern surrounded, chime from the rocks and on rare winter days, icicles form like beards off their ledges." The ranch has been left very much in its natural state since Dobie's occupancy-native grasses rarely seen elsewhere today are abundant, a profusion of wildflowers, cactus, vines, and bushes covers the land, and tall live oaks shade the house. A log cabin, at least a part of which dates from the middle of the nineteenth century, sits on a far corner of the property.

One reaches the house by a low-water crossing over Barton Creek, ordinarily no problem, but in flood-times a hazard. The back part of the six-room house has thick stone walls over 100 years old. A large fieldstone fireplace dominates the living room. Dobie so enjoyed the coziness of the room that he had an air-conditioner installed so he could bed down in the room and go to sleep by firelight even on summer nights. The beauty and serenity of the ranch affected him deeply. The same effect can be seen in the works of many of the creative writers who came to share in that legacy. The late novelist and poet Russell G. Vliet wrote after his stay at Paisano in 1983: "I lie in the hammock, in shade and a stiff, cool breeze, and have upon me again so strongly the sense that there cannot be the lived life without a conscious relationship with `rocks and stones and trees'-with cicadas and bluffs, the nearly fleshlike substances of water and air, and live oaks and cedar elms and prickly poppies, my contemporaries. This consciousness is one of the stipends that comes with Paisano."

The Dobie Paisano Fellowship Project. A few months after Dobie's death, the idea for using Paisano as a writer's retreat arose during a conversation at a dinner meeting of the Philosophical Society of Texas in Austin on December 5, 1964, between Bertha McKee Dobie and two of Dobie's close friends, Frank H. Wardlaw, director of the University of Texas Press, and J. Lon Tinkle, a faculty member at Southern Methodist University and book critic for the Dallas Morning News. Preserving Paisano and using it in this way would not only be a fitting memorial to Dobie; it would also be an extension of his legendary generosity with time, advice, energy, and loan of material to other writers. Shortly thereafter, a steering committee of twenty-five was appointed by Wardlaw. It included O'Neil Ford, Peter Hurd, John Henry Faulk, John Graves, and Tom Lea. Because of the need to settle Dobie's estate, there was some urgency about purchase of the ranch. Ralph A. Johnston, a prominent Houstonian, had become a friend and admirer of Dobie through their mutual friend, Walker Stone, editor in chief of the Scripps-Howard newspapers, when Johnston invited Stone and Dobie to his ranch in Medina County. Johnston bought Paisano outright to provide time for fund-raising. Later he contributed 10 percent of its purchase price of $76,200. Members of the Texas Institute of Letters, an organization of writers and editors founded in 1936, were among the earliest supporters of the project. Organizational sponsorship of the project logically fell to the TIL. The climax of the drive for funds was a gala dinner and auction of paintings by twenty southwestern artists. Nearly 500 attended the affair, held in the Crystal Ballroom of the Rice Hotel in Houston on May 11, 1966. Lloyd Gregory of Houston and Wardlaw were cochairmen for the dinner, and Stanley Marcus was the principal speaker. The dinner honored Mrs. J. Frank Dobie, Ralph A. Johnston, and the artists who donated their paintings: Jerry Bywaters, Otis M. Dozier, Alexandre Hogue, Peter Hurd, William L. Lester, E. M. (Buck) Schiwetz, Olin H. Travis, John Biggers, Bill Bomar, Kelly Fearing, Michael Frary, John Guerin, Gillis King, Tom Lea, A. Kelly Pruitt, Everett Spruce, Bror Utter, Olaf Weighorst, Donald Weismann, and Ralph White. Auctioned by Walter S. Britten, a well-known cattle auctioneer, the paintings raised nearly $40,000. With additional contributions from Johnston and a few others, enough money was raised to purchase the ranch.

The deed giving Paisano to the University of Texas at Austin was signed by Johnston on August 6, 1966, two days before his death. Few people had known about his terminal illness during the campaign to save Paisano. Significantly, Dobie's last book was dedicated to Johnston and Stone. The UT regents accepted the gift of the ranch at their meeting of July 8–9, 1966. The agenda item reads, in part, that "Paisano will be operated by the University as a permanent memorial to J. Frank Dobie, and the primary use will be to encourage creative artistic effort in all fields, particularly in writing. It will be kept in its present more or less natural state and the ranch house will be kept in simple style, very much as it was when Frank Dobie occupied it." An advisory board of University of Texas faculty, members of the Texas Institute of Letters, and Mrs. Dobie was appointed by University of Texas chancellor Harry H. Ransom and Herbert P. Gambrell, president of the TIL, to plan the fellowship program. Wardlaw served as chairman and university English professor Wilson M. Hudson as secretary. After several adjustments in operational plans for the project, in 1968 the university regents placed the maintenance and administration of Paisano under the University of Texas at Austin, and the Texas Institute of Letters assumed responsibility for the fellowship stipends. This unique public-private partnership has guided a fellowship program for Texas writers, with only minor changes, continuously since 1967. From its inception until 1974, the project was administered by Frank Wardlaw, with assistance by Iris Tillman Hill. When Wardlaw left the university to become director of the Texas A&M University Press, its administration was transferred to the UT Graduate School. Assistant Dean Audrey N. Slate became the coordinator and liaison between the university and the Texas Institute of Letters.

Two fellowships of six months each are awarded by a committee chosen by the presidents of the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters. About eighty-five to ninety applications are received each year from writers who must be native Texans, or Texas residents for at least two years, or persons whose writing is substantially identified with the state. Except in the last case, there is no restriction on subject matter. The six-month stipend originally was $3,000; in 1992 it was $7,200. A letter to applicants from the president of the TIL seeks to apprise them of both the delights and dangers of the ranch: "Paisano is a well-loved place, and it can be a difficult one. Notes left behind by past Fellows tell stories of icy roads, rising water, rattlesnakes, fire ants, and cars lost in the creek. Before you apply, we ask you to consider seriously whether or not you and your work are suited to life at the ranch." A few variations in the fellowship plan have been tried. From 1972 to 1974 fellowships were awarded for a full year. A plan whereby the fellowships would be set aside for visual artists every third year was implemented in 1975–76 and in 1978–79, but the TIL Council decided to return to the earlier practice of awards for writers each year.

The ranchhouse and the property have been preserved much as those originating the project had hoped. Many items that Dobie used and treasured are still there: his handmade pine writing desk, bearing his date of stamp of 1911, a roadrunner made of mesquite by his friend and colleague Mody C. Boatright, and various prints inscribed by artist friends. Mrs. Dobie purchased and contributed an armchair from the Driskill Hotel with a large initial D carved into it. The ensuing quarter century also saw the addition of several items that enhanced the character of the house, such as the drawing of Dobie by Tom Lea and a photograph of Frank and Bertha Dobie at Paisano taken by and contributed by publisher-screenwriter Bill Wittliff. Among the many representations of the ranch in photographs, drawings, and paintings is a pastel, Paisano, Full Moon, by Houston artist Glenn Whitehead. The drawing, commissioned by the J. C. Penney Company for its Lone Star Lifestyle series in 1990, was featured in regional magazines. Prints were made available to the Texas Institute of Letters for fund-raising for Paisano. The house is well endowed with books: a set of Dobie's works, books by his friends Walter Prescott Webb and Roy Bedicheck, works by Paisano fellows, and publications about the land, including 1989 fellow Alan Tennant's annotated copy of his Snakes of Texas (1984), with a description of the snakes he had seen at Paisano.

Because the ranch becomes the writer's home for the duration of the fellowship, only a few special events have taken place at Paisano. An exception was a barbecue on March 25, 1983, held during a conference, The Texas Literary Tradition, sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts at UT Austin as part of the university's centennial. A memorial service for Frank Wardlaw was held at the ranch on August 16, 1989. In his introduction to the tributes to Wardlaw, A Man of Amazing Grace (1990), Glen Evans, a close friend of Dobie and Wardlaw, concluded: "It seems to me...that while Paisano in all its natural aspects is a fitting memorial to Frank Dobie, the literary and artistic achievements of the sanctuary should be a memorial to Frank Wardlaw. Why not? The two Franks loved each other's company."

Fellowship support, under the aegis of TIL, has been furnished by a number of foundations. Among early donors were the Carr P. Collins Foundation (Dallas), the Raymond Dickson Foundation (Hallettsville), the George Waverly Briggs Foundation (Dallas), the J. R. Parten Foundation (Houston), and the Eugene McDermott Foundation (Dallas). From 1983 to 1987 the Texas Commission on the Arts provided support for one fellowship, and members of the Texas Institute of Letters have contributed through the years. Since the beginning a fellowship named for Johnston has been supported by the Ralph Johnston Memorial Foundation. Since 1987 the other fellowship, the Jesse Jones Writing Fellowship, has been provided by the Houston Endowment. Additional gifts were made by the Johnston Foundation and the Hart Foundation.

The fellowship holders from the beginning to 1995 (with the month and year their residence began) have been Bill Porterfield (June 1967), A. C. Greene (February 1968), Eldon S. Branda (August 1968), the artist José Cisneros (February 1969), Jack Canson (August 1969), Robert Grant Burns (February 1970), Victor F. White (August 1970), Ben Freestone (February 1971), Wynn Parks (August 1971), Gary Cartwright (February 1972), photographer Jim Bones (August 1972), Claude Stanush (August 1973), C. W. Smith (August, 1974), weaver Ann Matlock (August 1975), photographer John Christian (February 1976), Kathryn Marshall (August 1976), Jan Reid (February 1977), Stephen Harrigan (August 1977), David Ohle (February 1978), potter Paulina van Bavel Kearney (August 1978), photographer Frank Armstrong (February 1979), Chip Hannay (August 1979), William Martin (February 1980), James Whittaker (August 1980), Laura Furman (February 1981), Harryette Mullen (August 1981), John Davidson (February 1982), Sandra Lynn (August 1982), R. G. Vliet (February 1983), photographer Alan Pogue (August 1983), Cheryl Cessna (February 1984), Terry Galloway (August 1984), Lisa Fahrenthold (February 1985), Sandra Cisneros (August 1985), Rosemary Catacalos (February 1986), Pat Ellis Taylor [Pat LittleDog] (August 1986), Tim Hatcher (February 1987), Catherine Agrella (August 1987), Dagoberto Gilb (February 1988), William Ripley (August 1988), Alan Tennant (February 1989), Allen Wier (August 1989), Martha Elizabeth (February 1990), Sheryl St. Germain (August 1990), Genaro Gonzalez (February 1991), Sigman Byrd (August 1991), Sarah Glasscock (February 1992), Ewing Campbell (August 1992), Sam Haynes (February 1993), Stephen Pate (August 1993), Catherine Bowman (February 1994), Lynna Williams (August 1994), Christian Wiman (February 1995), and Charles Behlen (August 1995).

Though the success of the Dobie project cannot be precisely measured, one can cite no fewer than fifty novels, collections of short stories, volumes of poetry, and works of nonfiction that have been published by Paisano fellows since their residencies. Not all of these works, of course, were written at the ranch, but they indicate a continuing productivity by the writers and artists who have been supported by the fellowship. There is no one typical experience of a Paisano fellow, but the ranch has nearly always had a profound effect on its residents. Sandra Cisneros, whose award-winning short stories in Woman Hollering Creek (1991) have attracted nationwide attention, wrote of her recent volume: "My new book is practically all Texas stories. I didn't write them at Dobie Paisano, but Dobie Paisano is what altered my destiny, what allowed me to decide not to march out of the state."

After their six months at the ranch, Paisano fellows have resumed their careers as teachers of creative writing, editors, newspaper columnists, or magazine writers-and continued to write. As A. C. Greene has written, however, "for some of the artists, their six months or year of living at Paisano brought fundamental changes, not just in their art but in their whole approach to life. For them, it was a season of self-discovery, so strong that they left Paisano changed completely from the person who first came through the tall front gate. But for has been a time to find time, a period and a suspension beyond and above the claws of care, beyond the reach of daily drudgery and worry which frustrates creativeness. For this period, at least, they own the clock, and whatever they do with this priceless gift is the measure of their art." As in the past, the future aesthetic products of Paisano will depend on what Mrs. Dobie described as the talent, temperament, and will of its occupants. "Not for everyone," she wrote, "is the serene beauty of cliffs, running streams and trees, or quietness. The Dobie-Paisano Project will stand or fall by the quality of work done there."

Daily Texan, July 9, 1991. Allen Hannay, "Paisano," Discovery, Winter 1983. Minutes of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System, September 20, 1968.

  • Education
  • Non-traditional Learning Centers and Special Programs
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Awards and Honors
  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Ranches Established After 1835
  • Visual Arts
  • Museums, Libraries, and Archives
  • Museums

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

Eldon Stephen Branda and Audrey N. Slate, “Paisano Ranch,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 5, 2020