This place just feels like Texas.
From the moment I rolled through the gates of the famous YO Ranch between Kerrville and Junction, I’ve wanted to mash my hair under a 10-gallon hat and kick a pile of cow chips.
Maybe it’s the dozen horses that ambled past the lodge while my husband and I sipped coffee. Possibly it’s the real-life windmill or collection of iron brands that decorate the common room where guests can play pool or toss back shots of whiskey.
This rustic getaway between Kerrville and Junction isn’t a dude ranch, staff will tell you. It’s a working, family-owned ranch. You can stay here, go for a trail ride or mix it up with the ranch’s resident longhorns. But your job is to relax and enjoy.
For many, that means hunting. Both whitetail deer and the ranch’s population of exotic species are the main draw. But anyone can stay at the lodge, a collection of 1880s-era cabins — one a restored schoolhouse, another a former Pony Express way station — which are popular for family reunions and corporate retreats.
Over plates of fried eggs and bacon, eaten at a wooden table spread with a red-checked cloth, we learned a little about the ranch’s history from Gus Schreiner, who manages day-to-day operations of the 30,000-acre spread.
Gus’ great-grandfather, Capt. Charles Schreiner, emigrated from Europe with his family in 1852 and purchased the land, the cattle and the YO brand in 1880. At its peak, the ranch covered 563,000 rugged acres spread over three counties.
Schreiner eventually split that empire among his five sons and three daughters. Walter Schreiner, the youngest, inherited the portion where I’m now sitting. When he died in 1933, his wife, Myrtle, took over management. She’s considered the first Texas rancher to lease land for hunting, a practice that helped the Schreiner family — and later many others — survive the Depression and drought.
She wasn’t the only person with entrepreneurial spirit in the clan. In the 1960s, Walter and Myrtle’s son, Charlie III, raised eyebrows by bringing in some of the area’s first exotics. A blackbuck antelope acquired from the San Antonio Zoo blazed the trail, followed by an audad from San Diego. Since then, more than 50 non-Texan species have been established at the ranch for hunting and conservation purposes. Among them are three endangered species from Africa — the addax, the dama gazelle and the scimitar-horned oryx.
The scheme eventually launched a whole new hunting industry in Texas, where old-timers once aimed guns mainly at deer and doves. Twice a year the ranch hosts auctions, selling surplus animals. Their offspring now populate exotic hunting ranches across the state.
"It grew like a tree. It dropped its leaves and some of the leaves fell over the fence," says Gus Schreiner, who grew up on the ranch and still lives here with his family. "Dad was a creative man. He did it for practical reasons and because he liked to be creative. Now it’s a staple of the ranch."
Today, hunting operations provide 75 percent of the ranch’s income, with hunters paying thousands of dollars for the chance to shoot axis deer, ibex, wildebeest and other species.
But Charlie Schreiner III loved the native species, too. Determined to preserve the breed, he established a registry for Texas longhorn cattle. The YO once supported 1,000 head of the famous bovines. In recent years, drought conditions have forced reduction of the herd to about 350, including one friendly fellow named Sparky.
"We worked the dirt all our lives," Gus Schreiner says of growing up here. "What’s special about it is everything. It’s a great place to live and raise your kids."
It’s not easy keeping a Texas ranch afloat, though. In 1986, the family sold part of the ranch to pay off debts associated with a hotel that has since been sold. That land became the adjacent YO Ranchlands subdivision.
Today not all guests come to hunt. Visitors travel from as far away as Japan and China to ride horses, eat grub at the Chuckwagon and cool off in a hilltop swimming pool. Photographers come for tours that take them up close to the unusual residents, and wanna-be cowhands can participate in a cattle drive. In the summer, kids can channel their inner cowboy (or girl) at overnight camps.
We say goodbye to Schreiner and pile into a pickup for a tour of our own. We roll over cactus-spackled terrain, stopping to greet a small group of longhorns. Then it’s on to a pasture full of exotics.
Debbie Hagebusch, director of tourism for the ranch, ushers us out of the cab and into the bed of her truck just as the first of a trio of giraffes approaches. Carlita lowers her spindly neck and delicately extends a long blue tongue, wrapping it around an oatmeal cookie Hagebusch offers up. She flashes a long-stemmed, whiskery grin.
Before it’s over, I’ve been slimed by that same blue tongue, searching for more cookies. (And no, the giraffes are not hunted.)
We roll on, meeting an elderly ostrich named Lady Bird Johnson, then watch as a bevy of blackbuck antelope and wildebeests trot past. We drive to another pasture occupied by animals with elaborately scrolled horns and unusual markings. A dainty dama gazelle says hello and a scimitar-horned oryx bellies up to the feed trough.
It’s not what a Texas ranch looked like when Capt. Schreiner first ran this operation. But today, even the exotics don’t seem so foreign out here in the Hill Country.