Caesar Kleberg and the King Ranch by Duane M. Leach
In this beautifully produced book, Duane M. Leach, former president of Texas A&I University (now Texas A&M University-Kingsville), provides a thorough account of one of the most influential but frequently overshadowed figures in Texas's most famous ranching enterprise. Caesar Kleberg became acquainted with the art of insider politics early in his career. As the personal assistant to his father, U.S. Representative Rudolph Kleberg, from 1896 to 1900, he traveled the halls and backrooms of Congress. His love of cattle, ranching, and the outdoors, however, drew him back to Texas. When his uncle and aunt, Robert J. Kleberg and Alice Gertrudis King, invited him to join them in the management of the King [End Page 351] Ranch in 1900, he eagerly accepted. Over the next half century, Caesar would become the right hand of the Kleberg family operation, acting as business manager, advisor, confidant, and lobbyist for the King Ranch. His unswerving loyalty, his talent for breeding horses and cattle, and his extensive political connections made him a central pillar of its success.
Written and published in cooperation with the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Caesar Kleberg and the King Ranch places a particular emphasis on Kleberg's pioneering conservation efforts. He was a state leader in managing ranchland for both cattle and wildlife, ensuring that the lands in the ranch's Norias division would provide ample native and exotic game for visiting gentlemen to hunt. These efforts secured him a position on the Texas Game, Fish, and Oyster Commission and have led many to label him "the father of wildlife conservation in Texas" (279).
While this conservation legacy is important, the greater significance of the book lies in its account of the political maneuvering and business savvy required to keep the ranch afloat. The majority of the topically organized chapters focus on Caesar's part in this herculean endeavor. Here Leach's extensive access to the King Ranch archives and his oral interviews with prominent family members provide a wealth of material. The author brings readers into smoky midnight poker games, railroad boardrooms, and the South Texas brushlands. He deftly traces the way the King Ranch leadership connected their ranching operation to markets and protected it from tax assessors, shifting political factions, and Mexican border raids. The result is a hybrid biography and business history that uses Caesar's life to flesh out the political world of South Texas, a world that included figures like James B. Wells Jr., John Nance Garner, and Archie and George Parr. The Kleberg's success in this high-stakes game allowed them to bring railroad access to South Texas, establish Kingsville and its university, and sustain a ranching empire.
Leach's portrayal of the Klebergs does not ignore their faults. These were hard-drinking, masterful men who gambled in business and for pleasure, and tough, uncompromising women who believed "God helps those who help themselves" (7). In their politics, the Klebergs were states' rights Democrats who embraced the role of patron, demanded personal loyalty, and had few qualms about leveraging political power for personal economic gain. That being said, there is no air of the iconoclast about Leach's writing. He approaches his subjects with discretion. The result is an excellent, if sympathetic biography of one of South Texas's most powerful men. Caesar Kleberg and the King Ranch is an excellent introduction to the King Ranch and its place in the larger political economy of the state and nation. [End Page 352]