JA Ranch

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JA Ranch​​

Born 1879
Palo Duro Canyon of Texas

(Peaked in 1883 with 1,335,000 acres in six counties and a herd of 100,000 cattle)

The JA Ranch, founded jointly by John George Adair and Charles Goodnight, is the oldest privately owned cattle ranch in the Palo Duro Canyon section of the Texas Panhandle southeast of Amarillo, Texas. At its peak size in 1883, the JA, still managed by descendants of the Adair family, encompassed some 1,335,000 acres of land in six counties and a herd of 100,000 cattle.

The name "JA" is derived from the initials for John Adair, a businessman, originally from Ireland. Goodnight managed and expanded the ranch, while Adair provided the working capital. Upon Adair's death, his wife, the former Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie, took over Adair's interest in the JA. In 1888, Goodnight left the arrangement to establish his own ranch and in time ventured into other business activities as well. The ranch was added in 1966 to the National Register of Historic Places for Armstrong County.[1]​ ​

Cornelia Adair

Cornelia Wadsworth was born in 1837 in Geneseo in Livingston County in western New York. In 1857, she married Montgomery Harrison Ritchie (1826–1864) of Boston, Massachusetts, a descendant of the Federalist Party leader Harrison Gray Otis (1765–1848).[2] During the American Civil War, Ritchie served with the New England Guard. After the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia in 1864, he crossed Confederate lines to retrieve the body of his fallen father-in-law, General James Samuel Wadsworth, Sr., (1807–1864), and return it to Geneseo. Cornelia was reared near Geneseo on a farm that her ancestors had purchased from the Seneca Indians.[3]

A few months later, Montgomery Ritchie, who had fought earlier in the war under General Ambrose Burnside in North Carolina, died of an illness during the war.[2]

Widowed Cornelia Ritchie took her two sons, Arthur Ritchie and James Wadsworth "Jack" Ritchie (1861–1924), to Europe for their education. There she met and married in 1867 the wealthy landowner John Adair. The Adairs moved to New York City, where Adair had established a brokerage office. His uneasy temperament led the family west in search of what Benjamin Franklin had once described as the "safety valve" of economic prosperity through westward expansion.[4] They reached Sidney, Nebraska, and proceeded to Colorado, where they joined Charles Goodnight's buffalo hunt. Goodnight told the Adairs about the Palo Duro country of Texas, where cattle could thrive by grazing on the plains in the summer and spending the winter in the shelter of the canyon. The hunting trip ended in misfortune. Adair's gun accidentally discharged and killed his horse, and Adair himself was injured in a fall.[3][5]

Palo Duro country

​ In 1876, a year after the Kiowa and Comanche Indians had been forced onto a reservation, Goodnight became the first cattleman to bring herds onto the Llano Estacado, or the South Plains of West Texas. He drove 1,600 head of longhorns to the Palo Duro from Pueblo, Colorado, to establish the "Old Home Ranch" near the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River in southwestern Armstrong County near the site where United States Army Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie (1840–1889) had fought the Indians in 1874. Goodnight's ranch consisted of corrals and picket houses built from timber taken from the canyon.[6]

Goodnight outfitted his men and cattle for the winter and returned to Colorado to bring his first wife, the former Mary Ann “Molly” Dyer, a teacher from Weatherford in Parker County west of Fort Worth, to their new homestead. The Goodnights, the Adairs, and four cowboys, arrived at the Old Home Ranch with breeding bulls and ranching provisions. On June 18, 1877, Goodnight and Adair inked their five-year partnership, which stipulated that Adair would supply the capital and the "JA" initials, and Goodnight would provide the daily management of affairs. The agreement called for Adair to receive two-thirds of the property and profits. Goodnight would receive the other one-third plus an annual salary of $2,500. Goodnight borrowed his third of the investment from Adair at 10 percent interest. The ranch began with a meager 1,500 cattle on 2,500 acres.[6]

Expanding the ranch

Goodnight then purchased twelve thousand acres from Jot Gunter and William B. Munson, Sr., for seventy-five cents per acre. In the next two years, he continued buying premium pieces of property in a peculiar arrangement around a 75-mile stretch of the Palo Duro, careful to select the best grazing and watered land. In 1878, Goodnight drove the first JA trail herd, led by his ox, Old Blue, north to Dodge City in western Kansas, the nearest railhead.[6]

In 1879, Goodnight moved the ranch headquarter to the foot of the Caprock. He built a four-room house of cedar logs and supervised construction of a bunkhouse, a bookkeeper's residence, a wagon boss's house, a blacksmith shop, a wagonyard, and a milk and meat cooling shed. Later, the two-story, nineteen-room main house was added. The old Home Ranch house was then used as a line camp until it burned on Christmas Eve 1904, according to the historian and archivist H. Allen Anderson of Texas Tech University at Lubbock in an article in The Handbook of Texas.[6]​ ​

Goodnight as JA manager

​ Goodnight, who was described by his biographer, J. Evetts Haley (1901-1995), as “religious and reverential by nature,”[2] allowed no gambling, whiskey, theft, or fighting among the cowboys, nor would he hire a worker who had been dismissed elsewhere for those offenses. Goodnight's brothers-in-law, Walter and Leigh R. Dyer, worked temporarily for the JA during trail drives and roundups. Goodnight improved the quality of the cattle through the importation of blooded stock. In 1882, he built what is thought to have been the Panhandle's first barbed wire fence across a canyon bed to separate the purebred cattle (with a JJ brand) from the regular JA stock. He also maintained a buffalo herd, which he bred with cattle to produce the “cattalo,” or the ”beefalo”.[6]

By the time the Adair-Goodnight contract expired in 1882, the ranch had bought 93,000 acres. Goodnight acquired for Cornelia Adair the Quitaque Ranch, or the Lazy F, in Briscoe County. The ranch realized a profit of more than $512,000, a large sum at that time. The JA housed the Palo Duro post office. The two planned to renew the contract. Goodnight fenced the Quitaque and added the Tule Ranch in Swisher County. Other purchases brought the ranch to its peak 1,350,000 acreage, which covered portions of Randall, Hall, Donley, Armstrong, Briscoe, and Swisher counties.

Adair died in 1885, after only his third visit to the JA. Cornelia, widowed for the second time after eighteen years of marriage, continued the partnership but sometimes questioned Goodnight’s judgment.[2] For the rest of her life, Cornelia took an intense personal interest in the growth and operation of the ranch though she was often in England or Ireland. She insisted on a remuda[7] of all bay horse, and imported purebred Hereford cattle from England.[3]

In 1887, Goodnight withdrew from the arrangement and limited his ranching activities. Falling beef prices, the arrival of farmers to the canyon, the decline of the open range, and the arrival of the Fort Worth and Denver Railway were obstacles to continued large-scale ranching. In the dissolution, Goodnight acquired the 140,000-acre Quitaque Ranch in Briscoe County with 20,000 head of cattle and remained manager of the JA for another year.[6]​ ​

Later ranch managers

In 1888, Cornelia Adair named John Edward Farrington as manager though Goodnight had specifically trained Henry Webster Taylor for the position. Jack Ritchie, Mrs. Adair's son by her first marriage, served briefly as foreman of the JA’s steer division in Tule Canyon before he returned to New York City to handle the purchase of JA horses for the police department.[2]

Arthur Tisdale succeeded Farrington as JA manager in 1891 but was himself replaced in 1892 by Richard Walsh, an Irish immigrant who had been with the ranch since 1885. Improvements continued to be made through crossbreeding with Hereford and Angus stock. Walsh soon built one of the finest-quality herds of cattle in the nation.[6]

As the railroads brought more settlers, the JA began leasing and selling excess pasture. In 1891, the "Heckman school," named for homesteader John Heckman on whose camp the school was erected) opened near JA headquarters. It was for the education of the children of ranch employees and neighboring settlers. Over the years the ranch was gradually reduced in size as longtime employees began their own operations on former JA lands. In 1917, Edward D. Harrell purchased the acreage where the Old Home Ranch was located.[6]​ ​

U.S. Senator James Wadsworth

After Walsh resigned as manager in 1910, John S. Summerfield served for a year in that capacity. His successor was James Wolcott Wadsworth, Jr., a nephew of Cornelia Adair. Cornelia came across Wadsworth in England and offered him the vacant position. He was the manager until 1915, when he was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate from his home state of New York. He was also a former Speaker of the New York Assembly and a future member of the United States House of Representatives, serving in the House after his Senate tenure. Though Texas at the time was historically Democrat, many of the Adairs were Republicans or Republican sympathizers.[2]

Timothy Hobart

Upon Wadsworth’s popular-vote election to the Senate under the new Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, Timothy Dwight Hobart, a Vermont native living in Pampa in Gray County in the eastern Panhandle, became the new JA manager. Hobart discouraged Cornelia’s young grandson, Montgomery Harrison Wadsworth "Montie" Ritchie, from remaining at the ranch, perhaps because Hobart’s son wanted to become the manager. Montie Ritchie, who held dual British and American citizenship, was hence given all the toughest horses to ride, and he was once abandoned by the hands after a bronco bucked him.[8]

Cornelia Adair designated Hobart and Dallas attorney Henry C. Coke as executors of her estate. She died in England in December 1921. Earlier in the year, Cornelia had been at the JA and posed for a picture with the ranch hands on the celebration of her 84th and last birthday. In her will, Cornelia left most JA properties to son Jack Ritchie, and his heirs, including Jack’s sons. Her estate also put a financial burden on the JA for payment of her other debts. Not until 1948 was the Adair estate, with its accompanying debts and inheritances, finally resolved.[6]

Cornelia at one point had ordered Jack to vacate the ranch, motivated by Charles Goodnight’s allegations that Jack had been caught drinking and shooting craps with the cowboys. She intended for Jack to pursue a business career beyond “punching cows,” but instead Jack became a sportsman and worldwide adventurer.[3] Jack had told Montie how his own brief time at the JA had been the happiest of his entire life, and he encouraged his older son to consider management of the JA.​

Hobart had operated the White Deer Land and Cattle Company from 1903 to 1924 in Pampa and was more experienced in the sale of land than the management of cattle. He had recommended selling the ranch, as it sunk into financial problems stemming from the Great Depression and a decade of drought, but Montie Ritchie persisted with the first goal of paying off the debt. When problems persisted with Hobart, Montie Ritchie returned to England to secure the power of attorney from the then eight heirs to the ranch.[3]​ The White Deer Land Museum in Pampa commemorates the activities of the former land and cattle company.

G. L. Moody of San Angelo, in a letter to Timothy Hobart, explained the dilemma this way:​

​ With county, road, and school taxes steadily mounting even in the grazing sections of Texas, there is very little inducement left for the cattleman to buy large ranches at the present prices. All farm land colonization companies have disbanded because there is no longer a chance for steady long time employment. Because of present-day conditions, I would not take to organize a colonizing company, nor do I know anyone who could afford to do so except the large landowner who wishes to sell and colonize his own property exclusively.[9]

By the time that Montie Ritche returned to the Texas Panhandle in 1935, Hobart had died. Ritchie took over the ranch and remained there for the rest of his life.[3] The White Deer Land and Cattle Company maintains a museum in Pampa with a history of ranching and land management in the region.

The Montie Ritchie years

​ Montie Ritchie’s brother, Richard Morgan Wadsworth “Dick” Ritchie (1912–1940), was like their father Jack a sportsman but also an actor. He died from inhaling carbon monoxide, which leaked from a faulty heater on a yacht while he was fishing in the Gulf of Mexico near Corpus Christi.[2] Montie married the former Julia Elizabeth "Betty" Barrell of Boston,[2] who died when their only daughter, Cornelia Wadsworth "Ninia" Ritchie, was a child. Montie then married the former Hildegard “Hildy” Neill (August 23, 1917 – August 1992).​

By 1945, after a decade of Montie’s management, JA operations had been reduced to 335,000 acres over Armstrong, Briscoe, Donley, and Hall counties. Subsequently, a tract of 130,000 acres was divided into eight leaseholds. The JA obtains its water from the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River and its tributaries, as well as natural lakes, dirt tanks, and fifty-eight wells. The JA had twelve winter camps and five farms on which to grow livestock feed. The winter range in the Palo Duro afforded maximum protection, and the summer range was singularly free from land waste, just as Charles Goodnight had first told John Adair in 1874. Nearly two-thirds of the JA properties was rolling pasture land.[6]

In 1988, the JA comprised several ranch buildings, including a supply store and garage. The centerpiece of the ranch remained the "Big House". In 1960, the house was designated a national historic landmark. Ritchie in 1971 and 1988, respectively, donated two of the JA's historic buildings, the old milk house and an oat bin, to the National Ranching Heritage Center on the campus of Texas Tech. A herd of longhorns, the animal once termed by the western artist Frank Reaugh as the most beautiful of animal creatures, roams in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, courtesy of the JA.[6]

By 1990, the JA was substantially fenced and known for pure-bred Herefords and Angus bulls. Quarter horses were raised for ranch use, and a small buffalo herd was maintained; some commercial hunting of buffalo and deer was allowed. Tillable land continued to be leased. In 1998, the JA gave the state the last remaining wild herd of buffalo within Texas.[3] The Ritchie family also owns ranch land near Larkspur in Douglas County, to the north of Colorado Springs, where Montie's second wife, Hildy, spent most of her time.[10][11]

Montie’s daughter, Cornelia "Ninia" Bivins, the former wife of Texas state Senator Miles Teel Bivins (1947-2009) of Amarillo, himself a rancher, carried the JA into a relatively brief fourth generation. On Montie’s retirement in 1993, Ninia formed a partnership with Jay O’Brien of Amarillo.[12] The ranch consisted predominantly of black Angus and Charolais bulls. In 2005, a fifth generation took charge when Andrew Montgomery Bivins (born 1979), son of Teel and Ninia Bivins, joined the JA management team.[13]

Cookhouse at the JA Ranch

Montie Ritchie attributed the success of the ranch to its employees, whom he described as “men of imagination, men of skill, men of courage, men who braved the elements day or night, men who took pride in their crafts, loved their horses and understood their cattle, and were eager to enhance the reputation of the JA and proud to be a part."[3] Other than Montie Ritchie, the longest-serving JA employee as of 1940 was J. W. Kent, who retired that year after having worked a record fifty-seven years for the company.[6] Ritchie was the manager for fifty-eight years until his retirement in 1993. However, in 1989, Tom Blasingame, known as the "oldest working cowboy in the West," died after seventy-three years in the saddle, mostly at the JA.[2]​ Still another JA Ranch employee, Clarence Hailey Long, was the inspiration for the "Marlboro Man" advertising blitz by Philip Morris International in the 1960s.

Montie Ritchie assembled an art collection which was donated to the Dixon Museum in Memphis Tennessee.[3]

Though the JA was not as large or as famous as the XIT Ranch to its west, which included parts of ten counties, it was the largest cattle operation solely in the Panhandle and one still in the hands of the heirs of one of the original founders, John Adair, after the passage of more than 140 years.​


  1. Details for JA Ranch Cabin. Texas Historical Commission. Retrieved on September 20, 2019; activate site by typing in "JA Ranch".
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 JA Ranch exhibit, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 JA Ranch
  4. Joseph Schafer. Was the West A Safety Valve for Labor?. Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 24, No. 3 (December 1937).
  5. JA Cattle Company: An Inventory of Its Records at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library. lib.utexas.edu. Retrieved on September 20, 2019.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 H. Allen Anderson, "JA Ranch," The Handbook of Texas.
  7. JA Remuda. Ranches.org. Retrieved on September 20, 2019.
  8. Snooks Sparks. Ranches.org. Retrieved on September 20, 2019.
  9. Lester Fields Sheffy, The Life and Times of Timothy Dwight Hobart, 1855-1935: Colonization of West Texas (Canyon, Texas: Panhandle-Plains Historical Society, 1950), p. 227.
  10. Montie Ritchie. Ranches.org. Retrieved on September 20, 2019.
  11. JA Ranch in Colorado. Ranches.org. Retrieved on September 20, 2019.
  12. Jay O'Brien. Ranches.org. Retrieved on September 20, 2019.
  13. Ninia Bivins. Ranches.org (no longer on-line.).

Further readings

  • Armstrong County Historical Association, A Collection of Memories: A History of Armstrong County, 1876-1965 (Hereford, Texas: Pioneer, 1965).
  • Harley True Burton (1888-1964), A History of the JA Ranch, 1928 and 1966; no longer in print. Burton divided the history of the JA into four stages: (1) Indian, (2) Hunter, (3) Cowman, and (4) Farmers. He was also a former mayor of Clarendon in Donley County.
  • J. Evetts Haley, Charles Goodnight (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949).
  • Dorothy Abbott McCoy, Texas Ranchmen (Austin, Texas: Eakin Press, 1987).
  • Pauline D. and R. L. Robertson, Cowman's Country: Fifty Frontier Ranches in the Texas Panhandle, 1876-1887 (Amarillo: Paramount, 1981).​

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