The Drought of the 1890's

2014 accumulations of rainfall were above average across much of South Texas, making it easy to forget the severe drought conditions that devastated rangelands and wildlife habitats through much of 2011 - 2013. It is hard to argue with the fact that droughts are just plain bad news – a hardship. But is hardship the only outcome? Sometimes devastating droughts are just the thing that is needed to spur innovations. 

The drought of the early 1890s devastated much of the Southwestern U.S. In South Texas, this drought reached its worst during 1894. This is the same year that 17-year-old Charlie Hellen, both skinny and one-legged, arrived by train at Pena Station, the site of present-day Hebbronville. Charlie Hellen (aka, Charles Waugh Hellen, Sr.) family’s story is chronicled in “El Cojo” – an excellent book authored by Bill Hellen and Charlotte Brady Hellen. In the book’s appendix is a transcript of a 1935 speech that Mr. Hellen made to the Rotary Club in Hebbronville. By then, being in his late 50s, C.W. Hellen was a well-respected leader in the community. In his address to the club-members, he spoke about the awful conditions that he and his sister found when they first arrived to their El Sordo Ranch in 1894. The drought had devastated the cattle herd; and adding insult to injury was the fact that the cattle market was at its lowest point since the Civil War.

Mr. Hellen talks about the labor of men cutting prickly pear stalks and then carrying them with a forked stick to be passed through a brush fire to singe off the spines. It was only through feeding this prickly pear to their weakened cattle that enough animals made it through the drought to restock the rangelands when finally the drought broke. This was back-breaking labor, and the method was not very efficient. With a more efficient way to singe the spines of prickly pear, more cattle may have survived (or at least the labor would have been less).

Droughts do seem to be followed by innovation. The drought of the 1890s was followed by the invention of the gasoline fueled pear burner. In 1900, Mr. Lewis Snowden, of Tilden, TX (McMullen County) filed one of the first patents for an improved “cactus burner,” which is now widely known as a pear-burner. By 1906, David Griffiths, an agricultural scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had done work in Texas that showed that one man with 10 gallons of gasoline could singe enough prickly pear to feed 100 beef cows in a day. Today, over 100 years later, pear-burners are still in common use. The designs have changed, and propane is used more than gasoline, but the concept is the same.

For the South Texas cattlemen at the turn of the century, another well-known innovation – the artesian water well – was developed in response to the same drought of the early 1890s. In 1899, Robert Kleberg, working with Henrietta King, successfully developed the first artesian well in the area. Many such wells followed, and this innovation greatly improved the odds of a rancher surviving through drought.

As South Texas recovers from this latest drought, the survivors will create new ways to conserve native rangelands and maintain productivity through the next drought. We don’t necessarily need a better pear-burner at this point. But what we do need is to gain a more accurate understanding of the interactions among grazing and browsing animals. For example, we need to discover how to better predict, and then manage, the impacts from different densities of white-tailed deer, nilgai antelope, and cattle. We need to better understand the influence of fire on rangeland recovery, and how this is influenced by grazing. We need to better understand how to use all our management tools to control non-native and invasive grasses that threaten rangeland productivity.

Although the innovations needed now are different than those of a century ago, they may be just as important as a pear-burner for making it through the next drought.