MIDLAND Young Lee was an outstanding calf dragger. Once, Lee heeled 604 head of cattle in a single working day — and only missed with one loop.
That might not mean much anywhere else in the world, but in the cattle country of the Southwest in the first half of the 20th century, it was enough to bring sighs of admiration.
He had the knack — and the speed — to ride through a herd of restless cattle, silently throwing a nicely formed loop on the ground precisely at the spot where the calf would step, then snapping the rope taut and dragging the surprised animal by its hind legs to a crew of waiting cowboys who quickly “did the honors” of turning it into a steer.
As quickly as the crew finished with one calf, Lee was dragging up another.
In fact, the late historian J. Evetts Haley — who knew from personal experience as a rancher and cowman what qualified an individual as an outstanding cowhand — called Lee “a magnificent hand at heeling the calves. Nobody could approach him.”
Lee could speed along the ranch work of cutting and branding calves at a time when big ranches in the Midland country of West Texas typically counted in the thousands the number of calves they worked in a normal branding.
“He could keep, as I recall, about three sets of flankers busy, dragging calves. In other words, he’d be dragging about three or four calves to the minute,” Haley said.
His name was Young Thomas Lee, but nobody in the Midland country ever knew him as anything other than Young Lee. He was gnarled and brown from years spent on the range working cattle on horseback for the “C” Ranch northwest of Midland, the Frying Pan Ranch in Winkler County owned by Tom and Evelyn Linebery, the ranch known as Clabber Hill north and west of Midland, the huge Quien Sabe, as well as ranches owned by the Wolcotts, Roy Parks and others.
Lee was born in Brown County on Jan. 2, 1880, to Brooks Williams Lee and his wife, Jennie Millican Lee. At an early age, he showed an unusual proclivity for the work of the range. His mother once said “she could hardly keep him in school because of people wanting him to come and help ’em at that early age with the work.”
Young’s father was one of Midland’s earliest settlers, having been born in 1851 in Navarro County, Texas. According to an account in “The Pioneer History of Midland County, Texas, 1880-1926,” Young’s grandfather, Gresham “Dude” Lee, was born in Tennessee in 1819, the son of Ephraim Lee of Virginia, a cousin of R.E. Lee.”
The spirit of the great Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, was obviously part of the makeup of Brooks Williams Lee who eventually settled in Brown County. Because of Indian troubles that had arisen during the Civil War, he joined Company C of the Minute Men. He was married to Nancy Jennie Millican on Feb. 27, 1873. In 1885, the Lees moved their family to Midland County.
As his fame for cattle work spread, little Young Lee’s reputation in the Midland country became tremendous. He worked on some of the best ranches in the Midland region and in 1923 served as trail boss on the last trail drive from the Permian Basin, pushing a herd of 2,000 cattle from Midland to Friona.
One of the hands on that drive, Holt Jowell, later recalled that Lee was a good trail boss, but he “wouldn’t buy enough tobacco.”
In an article in “True West” magazine in 1969, Paul Patterson wrote, “Young Lee never made newspaper headlines from border to border as did rodeo ropers of his time – Clay McGonagill, Joe Gardner, Allan Holder and that bunch. But there wasn’t a working cowboy from Canada to Mexico who hadn’t heard of Young Lee, even though his base of operations seldom extended beyond Five Wells or the C or Clabber Hill in the Midland-Odessa country in Texas.”
Ask anybody in the ranching business who was the best calf-dragger in the first half of the 20th century and the answer will be Young Lee, who died Nov. 23, 1965 at the age of 85. He was without question a calf-dragger par excellence.
Editor’s Note: Information for this article came from the files of the Midland County Historical Museum, the books “The Pioneer History of Midland County, Texas 1880-1926,” “Cowboys Who Rode Proudly,” and taped interviews with the late historian J. Evetts Haley and Mrs. B.T. Westermann, daughter of Young Lee.
Modisett is a longtime West Texan who writes about historical places. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org