Ira Griffith Yates, Jr., rancher and early owner of the Yates oilfield, the son of Martha E. (Voss) and Ira Griffith Yates, Sr., was born in Hopkins County, Texas, on October 29, 1859. After Ira, Sr., was killed in Lamar County in 1865, Martha Yates moved with her six children to Wilson County. When she died in 1871 or 1872, her children were left to fend for themselves. Ira, Jr., was twelve or thirteen years old when his mother died, but he had already been working with his brothers digging peanuts since he was eleven. After their mother's death, Ira and his brothers signed on as cowboys, working for a Mr. J. Thompson. The Thompson family's governess taught him how to read and write when he was fourteen. When he was nineteen Yates began buying cattle and horses and driving them to market in San Antonio. He was working as a cowhand for J. N. Upton when he married Anna Shockley Brooks, the daughter of a Methodist minister, in Karnes County on January 26, 1883. Not long after his marriage Yates traveled to the area of Tom Green County, in search of a lost brother reported seen along the Concho River. Impressed by the abundant grass and water he found there, he returned to the Upton ranch and convinced Upton to send him and his family to the area with a herd of cattle. Later, he bought a spread of his own near the town of Crow's Nest. Over the next twenty years Yates threw himself into a variety of businesses and occupations in Tom Green, Crockett, and Upton counties. During the 1890s he ran a ranch for John Nasworthy and went into business with him in a combined butcher shop and livery; in 1899 Yates served a term as city marshal of San Angelo and that same year bought a ranch in Lipan Flat. After that venture, he worked for the National Livestock Commission Company and did some independent trading on the side. In 1911, in partnership with Louis L. Farr, Yates bought a ranch in Crockett County. About 1913, while still living on that ranch, he paid 216 cattle (valued at fifty dollars per head) for a failing dry-goods store in Rankin, despite the advice of friends who warned him against the venture.
By 1915 Yates's store was doing $5,000 worth of business per month, a "pretty durn good" performance considering the area's sparse population. The store's profit-making potential attracted the attention of Thomas Hickox, a Pecos County rancher and businessman who was looking to unload his 16,640-acre River Ranch in Pecos County. The property was unfenced and plagued by disputed boundaries, frequent droughts, and "greasy" well water. In early 1915 Hickox proposed to trade the River Ranch to Yates for the store. Friends such as Nub Pulliam, who had once owned the property, warned him against the deal, saying that "even buffalo know better than to cross the Pecos-that a crow would not fly over it, and it was not worth the taxes." He made the trade anyway. As his granddaughter, Mrs. Estelle Holmes, later explained, Yates "didn't know beans about groceries," but he did know ranching and was anxious to own such a large parcel of land. Under the terms of the deal consummated on June 1, 1915, Yates agreed to pay an additional $16,559 over the next three years to pay off the existing mortgage on the land and to cover charges to the state's Permanent School Fund. Soon afterward he bought even more land, including a 3,600-acre vacancy (a strip of land unaccounted for during the original surveys) that ran through the middle of the property. In the 1920s the Yates Ranch was still struggling to make a profit when Ira approached Levi Smith of the Transcontinental Oil Company in San Angelo and convinced him to drill on his ranch despite its location. Although oil had been found in West Texas, experts did not believe that there was any west of the Pecos River. Sharing the lease with Transcontinental, Ohio Oil (which became Marathon Oil) drilled four wells on Yates's ranch before they struck oil on October 28, 1926. Yates became an instant millionaire. He proceeded to sell oil leases from his front porch and accumulated $180,000 in one day. The oil boom town of Red Barn sprang up around the Yates homestead. In 1938 Yates donated 152 acres for the new town of Iraan. He and his wife also donated Yates Hill at Camp Louis Farr to the Concho Valley Council of Boy Scouts. After his wife's death, Yates erected the Annie Yates Memorial Citadel for the Salvation Army in San Angelo. Ira Yates died on April 12, 1939.
Is history important to you?
We need your support because we are a non-profit organization that relies upon contributions from our community in order to record and preserve the history of our state. Every dollar helps.
J. J. Bowden, Uncertain Riches: The Discovery and Exploitation of the Yates Oil Field (Austin: Eakin Press, 1991). Marathon World: One Hundred Years on the Frontier (Findlay, Ohio: Marathon Oil Company, 1987). Pecos County Historical Commission, Pecos County History (2 vols., Canyon, Texas: Staked Plains, 1984). San Angelo Standard Times, August 25, 1964. Wall Street Journal, December 7, 1981.
Oil and Gas Industry
Oil Entrepreneurs and Wildcatters
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Yates, Ira Griffith, Jr.,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 28, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
February 1, 1996