The Spade Ranch actually was two separate ranches in West Texas, each under different ownership, but whose histories are linked by barbed wire and a distinctive brand. The first ranch was begun in the Panhandle by John F. (Spade) Evans, who formed a corporation with Judson P. Warner, an agent who sold Joseph F. Glidden's barbed wire. On August 25, 1880, J. F. Evans and Company purchased twenty-three sections of land in Donley County near Clarendon from J. A. Reynolds. Although it is not known who originally designed the unique brand, which resembles a shovel or spade, it was first used on a herd that Evans and Warner gathered in Lamar County. The partners trailed these cattle to the abundant Panhandle grasses and turned them loose on open range near Saddler Creek. Their first camp was established on nearby Glenwood Creek, but later they erected a log house on Barton Creek, which they designated as permanent headquarters. Since neither Evans nor Warner had much time from other business interests to spend in Donley County, they turned active management of the Spade over to such capable men as Baldy Oliver and Dave Nall. Alfred Rowe worked briefly with the Spade outfit when he was starting his own operation, the RO Ranch, in 1880–81. Warner supervised the fencing of the Spade pastures. During roundup time the Spade men worked in cooperation with the neighboring RO.
Meanwhile J. Taylor Barr was operating from the headquarters of his Renderbrook Ranch near Renderbrook Springs in Mitchell County, twenty-five miles south of Colorado City. In 1882 brothers Dudley H. and John W. Snyder bought him out and enlarged the outfit so that by 1887 it consisted of more than 300,000 acres in four counties. After the terrible droughts and blizzards of the late 1880s, Isaac L. Ellwood, co-owner with Joseph F. Glidden in the barbed wire patent, bought the Spade Ranch, including the brand and some 800 cattle, from Evans and Warner. Seeking to establish a new market for his product, Ellwood also purchased the Renderbrook Ranch from the Snyders and stocked it with the Spade cattle. Although the Donley County land was sold out piecemeal over the following year, he continued to use the Spade brand on all subsequently acquired cattle. In 1889 Ellwood obtained the 128,000-acre north pasture of the Snyder brothers' ranch and named it the Spade Ranch. He had the brand registered in Mitchell County in 1889 and in Hale and Lubbock counties in 1891. In 1902 the Spade was enlarged by the addition of adjacent tracts to a total of 262,000 acres, extending eight to ten miles in width and fifty-four miles in length. The main headquarters was located in southeastern Lamb County, while the South Camp, nucleus of the Spade's south pasture addition, was in eastern Hockley County near the site of present Smyer.
Ellwood made his oldest son, William Leonard, manager of his Texas ranches. In 1910, after Ellwood's death, W. L. and a younger brother, Erwin Perry Ellwood, jointly inherited the Spade and Renderbrook ranches. Both ranches were enclosed with six-wire fences, and five-wire cross fences divided them into pastures averaging forty sections each. The water problem was solved by the use of wells and windmills placed at intervals of four miles. The Spade and Renderbrook were stocked with about 15,000 cattle each. Although the Ellwoods first used Red Durhams, they soon found that Hereford cattle were better suited to the dry South Plains environment and so changed to Hereford bulls in 1919. The Renderbrook, being farther south, was used principally as a breeding ranch, and the young steers were transferred to the Spade to graze. Each year prior to 1908 from 3,000 to 5,000 four-year-old steers were freighted to market in Kansas by the nearest railroad, usually at Bovina or Amarillo. From 1908 to 1912 Spade cattle were driven to Abernathy. Then in 1912 the Santa Fe Railroad built through the ranch to Littlefield, enabling the Spade to ship its cattle from a switch without having to drive them long distances. J. Frank Norfleet was the first foreman of the Spade Ranch in 1889. He was succeeded by D. N. (Uncle Dick) Arnett in 1905. This marked the beginning of the Spade's "Arnett Dynasty," during which Arnett relatives ran the ranch.
In 1924 W. L. Ellwood put the northern acreage on the market as farmland. That October 6,200 three-year-old steers were shipped. The following spring a second roundup brought in 5,200 more cattle. By 1926 about 80 percent of the northern division land had been sold, and the town of Spade had sprung up near the old headquarters. Subsequently the ranch headquarters was moved to the South Camp. Three Santa Fe Railroad branches across the Spade gave rise to the towns of Anton, Ropesville, Wolfforth, and Smyer. By 1938 Ellwood Farms, as the enterprise was called, had sold approximately 189,000 acres, most of which had been placed under cultivation. Of the 914 original purchasers, 84 percent were Texans. Nearly half of the buyers secured Federal Land Bank loans, and during the 1930s a federal government model farm rehabilitation project was located on former Spade land. By 1947 colonization of the old Spade Ranch lands was completed, with the Ellwood estate retaining only 21,754 acres in Hockley County. Spade cattle were still being run in the 1980s on the Renderbrook Ranch by some of the Ellwood heirs. In 1970 the Ellwood estate gave the old Renderbrook-Spade blacksmith shop to the Ranching Heritage Association in Lubbock; it was one of the first buildings to be reassembled on the grounds of the Ranching Heritage Center. Over the years the Spade Ranch has been praised for its innovative use of modern technology. During the early twentieth century, ranch managers installed a telephone system and used automobiles on the ranch. In the 1970s they used embryo transplantation in breeding practices.