Whar­ton rancher was larger than life

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - joe.holley@chron.com twit­ter.com/hol­leynews

PIERCE — Shang­hai Pierce, the larger-than-life cat­tle­man with the in­stantly mem­o­rable nick­name, was al­ways a man of vi­sion. Sev­eral years be­fore his death in 1900, he com­mis­sioned a ma­jes­tic mar­ble statue of him­self to mark his fu­ture grave, ex­plain­ing that if he didn’t do it, no­body else would. Thanks to his fore­sight, so to speak, you can visit the ru­ral Haw­ley Ceme­tery near Bay City and see Old Shang­hai stand­ing tall on a gran­ite pedestal more than 20 feet high. Wide-brimmed hat in hand, his sight­less eyes are set on the coastal prairie where his vast herds once grazed.

The rancher cred­ited with bring­ing the brah­man breed of cat­tle to Texas is still tend­ing to his legacy. His great-great grand­son, Lau­rance Ar­mour III, the fifth­gen­er­a­tion fam­ily over­seer of the ranch, told me ear­lier this week that in the old ranch house near

this faded ghost town south of Whar­ton, Shang­hai’s shade has been known to ap­pear.

“My brother woke up one night when we were grow­ing up, and he was stand­ing at the foot of the bed,” Ar­mour said, laugh­ing. “Shang­hai told him, ‘Don’t sell this place.’ ”

De­spite host­ing sev­eral ghosts, not just Shang­hai’s, the two-story, six-bed­room house be­neath a grove of live oaks is a com­fort­able and wel­com­ing place; I can see why the old rancher would want to hold on. The house, the land, the cat­tle — these were the essence of the man’s life. “The guy was driven, ab­so­lutely driven,” Ar­mour said. “He was al­ways wheel­ing and deal­ing, al­ways buy­ing and sell­ing.”

Es­cape from fam­ily busi­ness

He was born Abel Head Pierce in Rhode Is­land in 1834. At 16, he told his par­ents he had no in­ten­tion of bust­ing sod or ham­mer­ing red-hot metal in his fa­ther’s black­smith shop, so they sent him to Peters­burg, Va., where he worked as an ap­pren­tice in the dry-goods store of his un­cle and name­sake, Abel Head. The fu­ture cat­tle baron learned book­keep­ing, a skill that would come in handy for a man who would come to see him­self as a busi­ness­man above all.

At 18, tired of work­ing un­der the gimlet gaze of a sternly re­li­gious rel­a­tive, he stowed away on a coastal trad­ing schooner and ended up five months later at Port Lavaca. The ship’s cap­tain had taken a lik­ing to the teenager but ad­vised him to go ashore and catch on with a friend of his named Richard Grimes, who op­er­ated a cat­tle ranch near the mouth of the Colorado River. Pierce took his ad­vice.

Six-and-a-half-feet tall, gan­gly as a young colt, Pierce caught on as a rail-split­ter. “That’s one thing the cap­tain had no­ticed about Shang­hai. He was big and strong and wasn’t scared of work at all,” Ar­mour said.

He was pro­moted to wran­gler and given the task of break­ing wild horses af­ter Grimes’ daugh­ter-in-law ques­tioned why the rancher was risk­ing in­jury to a slave worth $200 when a 25-cents-a-day cow­boy could do the job.

Abel Pierce also picked up a nick­name on the Grimes ranch. Tall, his pants usu­ally too short for his long legs, he bought him­self a pair of Span­ish spurs with prom­i­nent row­els. With the spurs jan­gling around his an­kles, his fel­low cowhands de­cided he looked like a long-legged Shang­hai fight­ing rooster. “He hated the name, but it stuck with him his whole life,” Ar­mour said. “He wanted to be called Colonel.” (A nick­name that didn’t stick, per­haps be­cause he’d been a cor­po­ral with Hood’s Brigade dur­ing the Civil War.)

Bing Grimes, the son of the man who hired Pierce, was not as hon­or­able as his fa­ther. When Pierce told the younger Grimes he planned to go into the cat­tle busi­ness and wanted to take his first year’s pay in cat­tle, Grimes agreed — and gave him all the worth­less culls.

He left Grimes and went to work as a wran­gler and then bran­der for Wil­liam Demetris Lacy, a signer of the Texas Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence. Af­ter the Civil War, a mi­nor in­ter­rup­tion for Shang­hai, he and his brother Jonathan es­tab­lished El Ran­cho Grande on Tres Pala­cios River near Bless­ing. Shang­hai also mar­ried his for­mer boss’s daugh­ter, Fanny Lacy; his brother mar­ried her sis­ter.

Big, bold, brash, loud

Fanny and Shang­hai Pierce had two chil­dren — a daugh­ter, Mary Fran­cis, and a son who died at 4 months. Fanny died shortly after­ward, and Shang­hai sold out in 1871 and moved to Kansas City. His de­par­ture may have had some­thing to do with his grief but also per­haps with a lynch­ing in­ci­dent in­volv­ing cat­tle rustlers. Af­ter about 18 months, he came back home to Texas, and started buy­ing up land in Whar­ton and Matagorda coun­ties, even­tu­ally amass­ing a half mil­lion acres. He also put to­gether the first cat­tle drives from the Texas Gulf Coast to New Or­leans, herd­ing close to a thou­sand head to mar­ket de­spite the count­less streams, the bay­ous and the gator-rid­den swamps.

He was the quin­tes­sen­tial Texas cat­tle­man — big, bold, brash and loud. The late T.R. Fehren­bach, writ­ing in “Lone Star,” de­scribed Shang­hai and his peers “as wild and tu­mul­tuous and dan­ger­ous as the surly longhorns they drove to mar­ket.” They also were shrewd busi­ness­men, who “forged new ties,” in­clud­ing hook­ing up with the rail­roads that were be­gin­ning to push their way closer to Texas. The North­east, hun­gry for beef af­ter four years of war, had the mar­ket, and Texas had the cat­tle.

An old cow­boy named Ge­orge W. Saunders, quoted in the book “Trail Driv­ers of Texas,” knew Shang­hai from the rancher’s cat­tle-buy­ing trips. Shang­hai, he said, “was a large portly man, al­ways rode a fine horse, and would be ac­com­pa­nied by a Ne­gro who led a pack horse loaded with gold and sil­ver, which, when he reached our camp, was dumped on the ground and re­mained there un­til the cat­tle were classed and counted out to him; then he would empty the money on a blan­ket in camp and pay it out to the dif­fer­ent stock­men from whom he had pur­chased cat­tle. He would gen­er­ally buy 200 or 300 head at a time.”

In 1894, Shang­hai laid out the town he chris­tened Pierce, hop­ing it would be­come the Whar­ton County seat, but it never de­vel­oped. The mag­nif­i­cent ho­tel he built as its cen­ter­piece stood empty most of the time and was de­mol­ished in 1980.

Ranch house as hunt­ing lodge

Shang­hai had his own trou­bles, as well. He went broke dur­ing the Panic of 1891, the re­sult of an ill-con­sid­ered in­vest­ment in a Galve­ston bank, but, as his great-great-grand­son notes, he made good on his debts.

The Pierce Ranch sur­vived that cri­sis and oth­ers in the decades fol­low­ing Shang­hai’s death. These days it con­sists of about 32,000 acres of pas­ture­land, rice and row crops.

Ar­mour, who grew up in the Chicago area as scion of the fa­mous meat-pack­ing fam­ily, is low-key and unas­sum­ing, un­like his fa­mous an­ces­tor. Like most ranch­ing fam­i­lies, he has to worry these days about keeping his fam­ily’s legacy a thriv­ing en­ter­prise and mak­ing sure it stays in­tact through suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions.

The old ranch house, he told me this week, is be­com­ing a high-end lodge for hun­ters, busi­ness groups and fam­ily events. I didn’t men­tion it to Ar­mour, but I’m hop­ing that when guests re­tire for the evening they’ll get a spe­cial greet­ing: Ol’ Shang him­self at the foot of the bed, of­fer­ing a bel­low­ing-voice wel­come.


Joe Holley / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Lau­rance Ar­mour, who grew up in the Chicago area, is part of the fifth gen­er­a­tion to run the ranch founded by Shang­hai Pierce.

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