Great Plains ranches can best be viewed as a built environment consisting of hay fields, pastures, ditches, corrals, fences, dugouts, wells, roads, and a variety of buildings. The ranch landscape is, in turn, an integral part of a broader ranch culture that includes occupational skills such as branding and fencing, traditional crafts such as saddle making and cooking, folk art forms such as barn dances and yard art, esoteric folk speech, and many other elements.
Plains ranch culture has its origins in Mexican haciendas, which were well established in southern Texas by the 1700s. Haciendas were large land grants with complexes of buildings that were essentially villages, including a large house and many outbuildings, cisterns, wells, ditches, fences, and corrals. Often the haciendas also included a church.
American ranchers in Texas continued to organize their ranches this way, since the hacienda was well adapted to the Great Plains environment and to ranching. As ranches spread north onto the Central and Northern Plains in the late nineteenth century, migrants from the East, South, Midwest, and Europe brought traditional forms and technologies that influenced the architecture.
Typically, the earliest ranchers relied on readily available construction materials such as wood, stone, mud, and sod. Ranchers also built with scrap material: unused buildings were torn down for their materials or moved to a neighboring ranch, a tradition that persists today. With the arrival of railroads in the 1860s, the choice of construction materials and of plans for ranch buildings expanded dramatically. Mass-produced products such as windows, doors, molding, and construction materials changed the character of ranch architecture. Land-grant universities produced numerous publications through their experiment stations and extension offices, as did agricultural journals. By the twentieth century, information on scientific farming and ranching practices from both academic and popular sources ordered designs for barns, poultry houses, corrals, and other buildings. The Midwest Plan Service, a consortium of universities that shared agricultural information, including building plans, began in the 1920s. It continues to order plans of pole barns and many other structures today.
The architecture and arrangement of ranches are, above all, utilitarian. Buildings tend to be clustered parallel and perpendicular to each other, in a linear or rectilinear plan. Most open toward the entrance of the cluster; some open toward its center. Barns and stables, with their attached systems of corrals and outbuildings, are most often located in front of the living area, so that a visitor passes them on the way to the house. The living area, including house and bunkhouse, is set farther back and often surrounded by trees and gardens. Ranch buildings tend to be near streams or rivers or at least a well, and irrigated hay fields are adjacent to the buildings. Unirrigated pasturelands are farther out, with line cabins (distant shelters for ranch hands) if the ranch is big enough to need them.
Within ranch complexes, the number and type of buildings vary according to the function of the ranch (sheep, horse, cattle, cowcalf, or yearling), the size of the ranch, the date of construction, the ethnic origin of the builder, and the location. Generally, the number of buildings has decreased from the nineteenth century on, as rural electrification and the availability of consumer goods have reduced the necessity for specialized structures such as icehouses, root cellars, and blacksmith shops.
Like other ranch buildings, houses were functional. Often, a homesteader's cabin was a single room or dugout made from available materials such as sod, dimension lumber, or railroad ties. Before widespread industrialization, traditional forms passed down through generations dictated the overall plan of ranch houses. They were not always simple, however; in southeastern Wyoming, for example, wealthy British remittance men built elaborate, stylish mansions. At successful ranches, fashionable houses were constructed from designs found in pattern books, with manufactured decorations. Only occasionally were architects retained to design individual houses or barns.
Barns, stables, loafing sheds (which afford protection for animals), and the networks of fences and corrals to which they are connected are the working heart of most ranches. The appearance and design of a barn depend upon the barn's function and construction materials, the ethnicity of the builder, and the latest trends in the scientific agricultural community. Most ranch barns are used to keep horses and store hay, tack, and other equipment, including tractors. Common barn types include three-bay barns and transverse-crib barns, which range in length from three cribs to as many as twenty. As with houses, earlier barns tended to follow folk modes, while later barns were often built with manufactured components and influenced by academic and government publications. Technological changes over time such as the addition of silos or mechanized hay carriers and forks affected the design. Large barns may also serve as social centers, where ranch families gather for dances.
Ranches may have many other outbuildings, including sheds of various kinds, openfaced stables, dugouts used for storage, chicken coops, springhouses, storehouses, and garages. Ranches also have a variety of fences and corrals, loading docks, gates, ditches for irrigation of hay fields, hay stackers, windmills, water tanks, and cisterns. Some structures such as dance halls, corrals for spring brandings and auctions, rodeo grounds, and dipping vats reflect the communal activities that take place at ranches.
Like any business, ranching has changed with the times. Many modern ranches have prefabricated trailers, modular houses, or Quonset huts. Older buildings may be abandoned, moved, put to other uses, or torn down to save on property taxes. Although most ranches still have horses, motorized vehicles have reduced their numbers and made large horse barns unnecessary. Many traditions persist, however, including overall organization. Computers and other new technology, changes in public land policies, the increased importance of agribusiness, and other factors will continue to change the face of Plains ranching.
Timothy H. Evans Western Kentucky University Eileen F. Starr National Park Service
Graham, Joe S. Hecho en Tejas: Texas-Mexican Folk Art and Crafts. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1991.
Noble, Allen G. Wood, Brick and Stone: The North American Settlement Landscape. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
Starrs, Paul F. Let the Cowboy Ride: Cattle Ranching in the American West. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.