by Mary G. Saltarelli

Granbury Magazine– Fall 1984

Midway between Lipan and Bluff Dale, on the Hood County and Erath County line, lies a rolling cattle ranch whose rugged fingers grasp much of the lore that was frontier Texas.  Such legendary Texans as Belle Starr and Charles Goodnight loom large in the ranch’s early history, along with Indian battles, stagecoach stops, and the days of the open range and hard-riding cowboys.

Today the I.T. Ranch comprises nearly 12,000 acres of waving grassland dotted with spreading live oaks and spindly mesquites and criss-cossed by several creeks and streams.  It is owned by the Houston family and run by Tommy Houston of Bluff Dale.

History abounds at the I.T. Ranch.  Historic buildings and remnants of old homestead sites remain, as well as legends handed down from one owner to the next.  In the southwest corner, north of Berrys Creek, are the scattered chimney-rock remains of a scattered chimney rock remains of a 19th-century log cabin, now covered with long bluestem grass and shinnery.  Tommy Houston’s father, I.T. Houston, III, believes that the cabin was an early home of Charles Goodnight, a Texas cattleman and Indian scout, who blazed the Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail across Texas to New Mexico in 1866.  “Our first ranch foreman, Sloan Baker, and the former ranch owners, the Jarvis family, told us the cabin was Goodnight’s,” says I.T. Houston.

Famed Texas land merchant Jacob De Cordova originally owned the I.T. ranchlands.  In 1857, he advertised “50,000 acres of land on the head-waters of Kickapoo Creek and the Paluxy River, in Erath County, twenty miles from the new and flourishing town of Stephenville” in an effort to attract settlers to Texas.  The present-day I.T. Ranch was among that 50,000 acres.

While De Cordova searched for buyers for thousands of acres in the Bluff Dale vicinity, a small community sprang up on Berrys Creek.  Today, the original community cemetery remains on the creek bank, and the remnants of Goodnight’s log cabin are across the creek on the I.T. Ranch.  “At the time, this land was open range land, free for the taking, with thousands of prime grazing acres,” says I.T. Houston.  For a young and ambitious cowboy, the Berrys Creek area was choice property for raising cattle.  Though I.T. Houston “read everything I could find on Charles Goodnightt,” he was unable to document the tale of Goodnight’s cabin on his land.  But he contends, “This was a logical spot for him to begin raising the herds that he would drive to Fort Belknap.”

In 1879, Frank and Addison Putnam of Massachusetts acquired most of the land that now belongs to the Houston family and they established the Put Ranch.  The Putnams later formed the Erath Cattle Company with Frank Putnam as majority stockholder.  The Erath Cattle Company amassed additional land and cattle until the Put Ranch encompassed over 22,000 acres of the Cross Timbers and prairie lands north of Bluff Dale.  The Erath Cattle Company advertised its “PUT” cattle brand in a Granbury newspaper in 1886, offering a $100 reward for information on its missing cattle.

The two-story Put Ranch headquarters was built about 1883 and the house remains on the I.T. Ranch today.  The frame building is western in flavor, with stone chimneys on either end.  Ben Blanton, a Tolar native who now lives in Granbury, first saw the ranch headquarters in 1916 and, he says, “It looked then just like it does now.”

“The old ranch house used to be a stage stop,” says Tommy Houston, “and the Put Ranch had the first dipping vats for cattle in this area.  Tick fever was so bad that the ranchers could lose up to a third of their herd, so they drove their cattle here to be dipped and the cowboys stayed and ate at the ranch house.”

During the 1960s, an elderly man visited the I.T. Ranch.  He told Tommy Houston that, as a young boy, he had driven some cattle to the ranch dipping vats from Tolar with his family, and he spent the night on the ranch headquarter’s large second-floor veranda or “sleeping porch.”  During the night, an owl noisily scattered some roosting chickens, and he got up to quiet the ruckus.  Unfortunately, he forgot he was on the sleeping porch, and he fell off and broke both of his legs.  His family returned to Tolar with their cattle and he remained at the ranch until he recuperated.  He reminisced that the most exciting event during his convalescence was the arrival of the stagecoach every few days.

Adjacent to the old ranch headquarters is a small commissary, or country store, where the ranch cowboys and stage passengers could stock up on supplies.  The cowboys were paid in cash, and the ranch headquarters still contained the old cash safe when the Houston family bought the ranch.

The I.T. ranchlands were once traversed by many well-worn and rutted wagon trails or roads.  “You could see the old ruts across the pasture.  In the spring they came in real green, headed straight across the field,” says Tommy Houston.  He has some uncut rough stones, dug from the sides of these trails, with crudely chiseled messages.  Ranch manager Joe Welton describes them as “early road signs” and interprets the barely visibly “T S 11 MI (followed by arrow symbols)” to be, “To Stephenville, 11 miles.”

A local legend has existed for years that Belle Starr, the notorious “bandit queen,” was captured in the east pasture of the Put Ranch.  “They say Belle was captured there and it’s been called Starr Hollow pasture ever since,” says Joe Welton.  Starr Hollow pasture is now on Mrs. Marvin Leonard’s Starr Hollow Ranch and is part of the Starr Hollow Country Club.

In the same pasture, at an earlier date, a bloody battle between some Indians and settlers took place.  Now called the “Starr Hollow Massacre,” it is also a legend that has been handed down through the generations of residents living near the I.T. Ranch.  “My father told me the story, and I remember the old-timers in Tolar talking about it,” says Ben Blanton.  “What I know is all hearsay.”

The massacre began as a band of wandering Indians traveled up the Paluxy River.  Near the small community of Rock Church, the Indians found some clean laundry hanging out on the brush to dry.  “They killed a woman at Rock Church, while trying to steal her laundry,” explains Blanton.  In response to this outrage, the settlers in the area pursued the band of Indians.  The Indians ran north and eventually took cover in Starr Hollow Creek.  “They ran into a ravine or creek,” says Blanton.  “It had just rained, and they were under a rock ledge, protected by the falls as rainwater poured over the ledge.”

The settlers were unable to spot the Indians, so a young pioneer volunteered to peer over the rock ledge.  As he did, he was shot in the chin by an Indian arrow, and he died from the blow.  Eventually, the group of settlers flushed the Indians out of the ravine and massacred them.  “I believe there were four or five adult Indians and one of them was a woman, and they say there was a child with them, too,” adds Blanton.

Wolfe Creek begins its journey to the Paluxy River on the I.T. Ranch, where it is fed by a flowing freshwater spring.  The spring has formed a deep swimming hole in the creek that is known locally as Hoskins Hole.  The aged ruins of the Hoskins family homestead are near the deep-water hole.  A large depressed area exists in the ground where the Hoskin’s home once stood, and a well shaft, line with limestone, remains where residents long ago dug through the earth to bring the fresh springwater closer to their front door.  The Hoskins family farmed the pastures that surrounded their home, and yet another local tale has survived about them.

During a journey from their homestead for supplies, they left their son behind to watch the farm.  While his family was gone, he rode his horse into Hoskins Hole.  Both horse and rider were sucked into the cavernous waterhole and the boy fell off.  The horse bobbed to the surface and swam out of the hole.  When the family returned home, they found the riderless horse, but not their son.  Live oaks line the banks of Wolfe Creek and Hoskins Hole, and the next day they found his body, intertwined in the massive tree roots that reach down into the water.  He was left in the water and legend has it that he still remains in Hoskins Hole.

“Several local people have told me the story of Hoskins Hole, and it’s always the same,” says Tommy Houston.  Despite the tragic tale, Hoskins Hole became a favorite swimming and picnicking spot for early Bluff Dale area residents.

The Erath Cattle Company sold the entire Put Ranch to J.J. Jarvis of Fort Worth in 1898.  Jarvis was the first president of Add-Ran Christian University in Thorp Spring, which later became Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.  The Jarvis family operated the ranch for 44 years with the “JJJ” brand.

The Houston family purchased the I.T. Ranch in 1942.  Tommy Houston remembers catching his family’s ranching fever at an early age.  “I remember coming out here with my grandfather since I was three years old,” he says.  “When I was 15, I moved here and lived with the family that was running the ranch.  I have always liked it here.”

Houston now hires young, college-age ranchhands, who are willing to learn, to help him run the operation.  “I teach them what really has to be done on a ranch, like fixing fences, repairing windmills, training horses, working cattle and calving heifers,” says Houston.  “It’s not all like it is in the movies.”

The I.T.’s daily routine may not be as romantic as Hollywood-style ranching, but the old ranch’s historic sites and legends are comparable to the most colorful western ever produced.  And although the outlaws and stagecoach of yesteryear have long since vanished, the cowboys are still there, fixing fences, repairing windmills and working cattle, as they have for over 100 years.

Today, in 2006, the I.T. Ranch is known as the Tommy Houston Ranch and is still comprised of a 12,000-acre cattle ranch with horse facility.  The ranch specializes in cutting, reining, heading / healing, and roping.  Quarter horse mares are bred.