By Megan McKinney
In 1881, the Farwell brothers’ passion for real estate collided with the Texan obsession with size when the Texas state capitol in Austin burned. Determined to erect the largest capitol in the nation, with a dome seven feet taller than the national capitol in Washington, the Texas legislature appropriated more than three million acres to pay for it.
In exchange for providing the gargantuan $3 million building, the brothers received the immense XIT Ranch, the largest ranch of the Old West. In the late 1880s, it was the most enormous fenced range in the world and larger than the state of Connecticut.
The three-million-acre-plus property stretched across nearly all of the Texas Panhandle, sprawling from the old Yellow House headquarters, near what is now Lubbock, Texas, northward to the Oklahoma Panhandle, in an irregular strip that was roughly 30 miles wide.
Two cities in the Texas Panhandle were named Farwell for the brothers: one in Hansford County and the other in Parmer County, and several towns were founded on the edge of the ranch, including Channing, Texline and Bovina.
The size of its spread earned it the brand XIT, which, according to legend, stood for Ten (counties) in Texas. However, it is more likely that the letters XIT were chosen because they could be branded with a straight iron and were difficult for potential rustlers to alter.
The Farwells owned the ranch through their Capitol Syndicate but went to England to raise money to stock and operate it. They incorporated the Capitol Freehold Land and Investment Company in London in 1884 and sold shares to wealthy Englishmen, including the Earl of Aberdeen and Henry Seton-Karr, a member of Parliament. John V., the idealist, believed Texas was an excellent gateway for immigrants coming to this country, and he wanted to give them the opportunity to settle on the XIT.
Cattle were imported from Scotland because the brothers desired a purebred ranch, and they established a tradition of involvement in ecological and environmental issues continuing in the family today. From the outset, the long-range plan was to raise cattle only until the ranch could support agriculture.
At that point, John and Charles expected to subdivide the acreage and sell it off gradually. Wells for water were drilled, and $500,000 was invested in 100 dams and 325 windmills. At its peak, 150 cowboys branded 35,000 calves in one year. But there were rules.
The Farwells did not allow their cowboys to carry firearms, drink alcoholic beverages, play cards, abuse stock or slaughter beef without permission. And they held Bible readings on the ranch, where no work except the most essential was allowed on Sundays. John made occasional visits well into his 80s; while there, he would hold church services for the employees.
The ranch was not without problems, including fugitive outlaws on the range, fence cutting, rustling of cattle and the presence of wolves preying on stock—particularly during calving season. There were also droughts, storms and prairie fires.
Blizzards tore through every four to five years, destroying the plum and apple trees planted at watering holes. Although during most years the ranch operated without profit, the land was gaining in value. In the late 1890s, with British investors agitating for redemption of their bonds, the Farwell Capitol Syndicate began selling off pieces of the ranch. By 1909, the British had been repaid, and the last of the cattle was sold in 1912. Heirs continued to operate the ranch until 1963, with the final parcel sold and the ranch completely liquidated.
The Farwells of Lake Forest, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Robert F. Carl