The Ranchers

Some of the earliest explorations of the region noted the enormous possibilities for raising cattle. While some saw nothing but a treeless prairie, others saw vast expanses of pasture grass that was perfect for cattle. Many of the emigrants passing through the region noted that the grasses on the open prairie were often "stirrup high" on the horses, completely obscuring the belly of a pony. Cattlemen realized that the same grasses that nourished the millions of buffalo would also be perfect for raising cattle. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of wild longhorn cattle already roamed regions south of the spring, and gathering and driving these cattle north to the rail could prove to be a dangerous but profitable venture. 

Most of the first cattle operations were small in scale, with several hundred head spread out over pastures that were unfenced. Water sources kept the cattle in close proximity to the homesteads that were scattered across the prairie. The earliest ranchers in the area included Dave Rhoton and Bud Roberts, who both ranched just east of the town near Moss Spring, and B.F. Wolcott, who ranched south of the spring. Soon, men with the ambition and resources to take these small ranches to an entirely different level came to West Texas. C.C. Slaughter, one of the men who rescued Cynthia Ann Parker from the Comanche, developed the Long S Ranch which became one of the largest ranches in the world. Slaughter hired cowhand Gus O'Keefe to manage the huge ranch, which stretched from Big Spring to about 40 miles north of present day Lubbock. It encompassed over 1,000,000 acres - 2,400 square miles - and employed hundreds of cowboys. He founded the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, as well as Baylor Hospital, and Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. For many years, Slaughter was the single largest taxpayer in Texas. Another resident of the area, F.G. Oxsheer, was one of the first men to take the wild cattle from south Texas and drive them north to sell. He was also one of the first to use the windmill to extract valuable water from beneath the surface of the prairie. By the late 1890's Oxsheer owned over 1,200,000 acres of land and had the largest herd of registered Herefords in the United States.

The invention and mass production of barbed wire forever changed the plains of Texas. With the new wire, men could manage much smaller plots of land than previously possible, and the introduction of the windmill meant that their property did not need to be adjacent to springs or other surface water. Smaller pieces of land popped up and gradually began to crowd out the massive ranches of the cattle barons. The barbed wire and the windmill also opened up West Texas to farming. Soon, huge numbers of settlers began to come to the territory in order to settle on the prairies and try their hands at farming. As the closest available timber for sale was 90 miles away at Ft. Concho in San Angelo, most of the early settlers dug holes into embankments and constructed sparse accommodations in these "dug outs". Entire families often lived for many years underground with sodded roofs, a cow hide door, and a single stone or rough timbered wall. As the rail line developed, more supplies were able to move westward. Soon, mercantile stores began to pop-up and sell hard to find items, including the steel plough, which were simply too heavy to carry on horseback and too bulky to carry in a wagon. The railroad also meant that lumber could more easily be transported, and wood-frame businesses and homes began to be built along the rail line. The canvas tent city and earthen dugouts around the spring area soon disappeared.

With the many regular droughts and the day to day hardships of ranching in a desolate region, most of the massive ranches soon disappeared from the Big Spring area. To those who still owned land, cattle and farming gave way to something much more profitable - oil.