Free Range Factions Face-Off
By Wanda Bobinger
The origin of "free range" or "open woods" in the rural south is somewhat obscure, but this system of land use developed very early in our history. It was a natural response to frontier conditions of low population density and what seemed to be limitless land. For many, "living off the land" was necessary for survival.
But From 1930 to 1950, local traditions gave East Texans the right to trespass and to range livestock on other people`s property. In addition, one could hunt, fish, cut fire wood or build stock pens on the property of another individual.
Of course, the tradition always had its abusers, but generally the system was based on cooperation and neighborliness, and a "code of honor."
By 1920, much of the south had progressed into a movement for game and stock laws. State legislatures were ending the free range, county by county, but in Texas the stock law required a local vote. The free range remained firmly in place in Polk County. Large lumber companies had bought up huge amounts of land and sometimes worked behind the scenes for the stock law, but remained officially neutral on the issue. They had learned quickly that East Texans regarded any attempt to fence the woods or to exclude stockmen and hunters from company laws as a declaration of war. The response was fire, wire cutters and felled trees across the fences.
Throughout the 20th century, when an individual, lumber company or government agency violated the rights of open range, East Texans retaliated by setting the woods on fire. Native American peoples had for thousands of years used fire as a basic tool. So also did the first Anglo Americans. The fires were used to clear stubble from cultivated fields, to eliminate fleas, ticks, snakes and other pests; to curb undergrowth and open the woods for travel and hunting; and to encourage the growth of useful plant foods for the ranging hogs and cattle.
As the stock law battles approached, timber companies and other large landowners moved very carefully at every stage of closing the woods. Powerful allies joined them, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Texas Forest Service. The timber company foresters hated the stockmen's range tires, but also loathed the roaming hogs for their destruction of pine seedlings. The US Forest Service made attempts to restrict the hogs, but the stockmen's reply was, "No hogs, no logs." Another slogan warned, "Where the hogs can`t go, the pines won`t grow."
Anti free range factions also gained influence and votes from townsmen who had always disliked livestock wandering in city streets. Another strong opponent to free range were railroad companies who were legally liable to stockmen for every hog or cow killed on their right-of-way.
The fever tick eradication program of the Texas Sanitary Livestock Commission had also affected the stockmen. The repeated dipping of cattle, horses and mules was compulsory - enforced, if necessary, by armed Texas Rangers. The cost of hiring people to round up and drive the stock to the dip-ping vats forced some small cattlemen to sell out.
After World War II, the major fight for stock laws began in earnest. More and more were buying automobiles, and motorists resented stock on the highways, sometimes stopping traffic for 30 or 40 minutes as the stock herds ambled across the highway.
In an election on April 16, 1954, the stock law went down in defeat once again. It may have been the hottest political issue that Polk County has ever seen. Approximately 3,000 people were registered to vote and a large percentage went to the polls. Polk County remained one of the five counties in Texas with no stock laws. There could not be another election for 12 months.
Things were quiet on the home front for two years, until February, 1957 when Joe Lee Kirgan Jr, editor of the Polk County Enterprise, published a front page editorial calling for a new election. A young Livingston woman had been killed on the Liberty highway when her car struck a cow. Kirgan's editorial asked, "Can all of the stock on the roads be worth the life of one human being?"
In the weeks that followed, the paper was filled with letters from both sides of the issue. Words w ere harsh and grew more intense with each passing week. An organizational meeting for the stock law campaign was held at the Livingston City Hall. Opponents showed up to heckle and threatened an economic boycott of the Livingston merchants. Kirgan stopped just short of calling the opponents communists.
Two weeks before the May 18 election, an old quarrel over free range hogs erupted in the Midway community, resulting in two men being shot. One died instantly from a bullet wound to the head. This shooting may have had a critical affect on the election.
On May 19, 1957, voters approved stock laws for Polk County by a narrow margin. But, on June 20, supporters of free range rallied by the hundreds on the courthouse lawn. They had hired lawyers and filed a lawsuit declaring the election null and void. The lawsuit lingered in the courts, but was ultimately dismissed.
The free range was closed from a legal standpoint, but do not imagine that Polk Countians rushed to begin building fences, nor did stock deputies intrude into the affairs of the stockmen/farmers. Overzealous enforcement was a good way to lose one`s re-election for sheriff.
Before and after the new laws, users of the open woods regarded fences with loathing. New fences could be completed one day and cut between every post for miles the next day.
The laws brought about great social change in this area. An old way of life for many was gone. This left a legacy of bitterness which led to many local conflicts even into the 1960's.
Visit the Polk County Museum site at www.livingston.net/museum