Perched on the highest sand dune and nestled on the southern coastline of Texas, the Kenedy Ranch, constructed in 1882 by Mifflin Kenedy, resembles a steamboat, and its commanding position reflects a steamboat captain’s strategy and experience.
During the Mexican-American War, when troops were in need of supplies, Kenedy, then in his mid-20s and a transplant from Pennsylvania, maneuvered his steamship Corvette up and down the winding Rio Grande. And from there grew an empire and a ranch called La Parra. Kenedy’s empire grew to encompass 125 square miles that stretched for 35 miles along the coast. It was home to full ranch operations that involved 40,000 head of cattle, 300 employees, 800 horses and mules, an ice house, a commissary and an elementary school.
About a century ago, 200 of those mules and many ranch hands and cowboys moved that steamboat-style house a few thousand yards to the east to make room for the construction of a new ranch headquarters — a 30-room, three-story Spanishstyle mansion with a red tile roof that was known variously as the Big House, Kenedy Mansion, La Casa Grande, the main house, and what Sarita Kenedy East, granddaughter to Mifflin Kenedy, simply called “my ranch headquarters.” Materials were shipped from Corpus Christi on a barge to the wharf on Baffin Bay. Construction took five years to complete.
When Sarita passed away in 1961, she bequeathed to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) the main house, chapel and cemeteries, which sat on 1,000 acres. The stipulation was that the land “was to be used for some religious purpose in connection with the normal activities of the missionary society.” In 1973, the complex became known as Lebh Shomea House of Prayer, which in Hebrew means “listening heart.”
Today a mystique surrounds the Kenedy Ranch. The little chapel still hosts regular mass, more than 120 years after the first priest, Jean Bretault, OMI, held mass there. Bretault was a member of the famed Cavalry of Christ, a band of missionaries on horseback who served the communities along the Rio Grande River between Brownsville and Roma and along the Gulf Coast between Brownsville and Corpus Christi.
The Kenedy Ranch Museum, located a few miles away in Sarita, is divided into three rooms, each with a central theme. The first room is called the Adventure Room because it covers the first 300 years of South Texas and Kenedy family history.
The second room, the Economic and Social Development Room, features the growth of the area. It reveals the progress made from the Spanish Colonial period along the Rio Grande River north to Presidio La Bahia in present-day Goliad, completing the story with the introduction of the railroads and towns along the rail line from Kingsville of the Rio Grande Valley that includes the establishment of the Kenedy Ranch, La Parra.
The third room is the Faith and Devotion Room because of the Kenedy family’s faith and devotion to the Catholic Church in South Texas. The ranch workers, the Kenedeños, shared that belief, and the room stands as a tribute to the families who developed at the Kenedy Ranch.
In the Carriage House, next door to the museum, a short documentary is shown on the lives of the Kenedeños, the vaqueros and their families of the Kenedy Ranch.
Visitors can spend some time walking around the beautifully landscaped grounds with a lazy stream running into a pond where they might get to see one of the rare birds that frequent Kenedy County. The museum is also host to several festivals throughout the year and continues as a source of pride for Kenedy County and all of South Texas.
There’s a connection one feels here to the power of the spirit it took to pioneer in deep South Texas — and not just to pioneer but to stay, flourish and have a say in the future. There’s a connection to the land, the sky, the history and the tale of a steamboat captain who surveyed the terrain and carefully selected the highest elevation to boldly berth his steamboat and look squarely into the future.