Big Hat, Many Cattle

Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation South Texas Heritage Center Opens at the Witte to Preserve Ranching Past

By: Jennifer Pucci Starr
Photography by:  Greg Harrison.
Other photography courtesy of Witte Museum

The compelling history of South Texas has finally found a new home, as San Antonio’s Witte Museum opens the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation South Texas Heritage Center. Pioneers of the King Ranch family, the Klebergs, provide the lead gift for the Center, which recently opened Memorial Day weekend. Serving as the repository to highlight the Witte’s vast and remarkable collection of nearly 300,000 South Texas historical artifacts, the opening marks the first time this rich heritage and history of South Texas has been readily accessible in a permanent public collection.

In 2006, the Witte’s ground-breaking exhibition, A Wild & Vivid Land: Stories of South Texas, attracted over100,000 visitors, so the need for the new center was apparent. It was a display of real-life stories of South Texans in a new and compelling way and the large crowds proved that present-day visitors want to understand the past. This new space at the Witte lets visitors experience more the 150 years of rapid change and growth in San Antonio and South Texas. “Telling the stories of the men, women and children who lived here is the best way to tell the story of South Texas,” says the Center’s curator, Bruce Shackelford.

It is a story which includes the birth of both ranching empires and the American cowboy and it is fitting that this important King Ranch family plays a leading role in its telling. You likely know that Richard King first arrived in Texas in 1847 to take part in the U.S.-Mexican War. After the war, he founded steamboat companies on the Rio Grande River and eventually used the profits to buy land and establish his cattle camp in Southeast Texas. Over time he accrued more and more acreage and ran a full-scale cattle ranching operation. By 1925, King Ranch had grown from 500,000 acres to 1,173,000 acres and became the largest ranch in Texas. Today, King Ranch is still proudly active in large-scale ranching and farming operations and other industries, including energy.

While his grandfather, Richard King, founded the famed ranch, Robert J. Kleberg is credited with creating the ranch culture as it is known today, and for ushering in the modern era of Texas ranching. He served as President and CEO of King Ranch for 50 years. His wife, Helen, an accomplished horsewoman from Kansas, was also instrumental in ranch operations. Both were hands-on owners, capable of all the skills they expected of the ranch workers.

Ranching evolved as a way of life here in the 1700’s when Spanish missionaries and soldiers brought cattle, sheep, goats, horse and the ranching skills needed to care for the animals. Other immigrants later brought their own stock-raising traditions to the region, creating the Texas ranches of today and San Antonio served as an exchange point for products from surrounding ranches and farms.

As the largest city in Texas for more than 100 years, San Antonio had an international appeal, drawing people from around the world, which is emphasized at the Heritage Center. Interactive displays such as the recreated Main Plaza of San Antonio in the mid-1800s allows visitors to experience life as it was during those times, with traveling narratives of Tejano Freighters and the historical narratives of merchants, Texas Rangers, Spanish settlers, trail drivers, ranchers and farmers.

A life-size figure of a Comanche tribesman astride his horse and wearing an authentic headdress stands in the center of one exhibit hall since the Comanche tribe was the most powerful culture in Texas before 1870. Other artifacts on display from the 1800’s to the 1950’s include the guest register from the Menger Hotel, a sash worn by Sam Houston, Davy Crockett’s fiddle and a Mud Wagon from the King Ranch, among so much more.

The discovery of oil and gas deposits accelerated the growth of the area when demand for oil pipelines and workers to build them brought many Mexican laborers to South Texas, and led to communities burgeoning along the border with Mexico. Oil would eventually change the lives of all Texans and would provide the means for many to preserve the Texas ranch lifestyle that is still prevalent today.

The Center is housed in the historic 1930’s-era Pioneer Hall. With a grand two-story entry hall and an outdoor amphitheater architectural firm Ford, Powell & Carson, combine old with new as they expand the 11,000-square-foot Pioneer Hall with a 9,000-square-foot addition. The design concept integrates the existing river frontage using pedestrian walkways through zones of native Texas plants embracing the South Texas landscape and how it shaped the lives of the people here. The site also offers classroom space for educational programs for students.

For more information one the South Texas Heritage Center located at the Witte Museum, visit


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