Robert J. Kleberg, Jr., and Helen C. Kleberg’s early lives were radically different, but their lifelong devotion and enduring love had a lasting impact on both King Ranch and the world beyond. They complimented each other in many ways. Their intellectual curiosity, despite living on a remote ranch in South Texas, was a driving force in their lives. Both were avid readers and strived for excellence in all their endeavors.
Helen Mary Campbell was one of four children. Her father was a congressman from Kansas, and her mother well educated. Raised in Washington, D.C., she graduated from the National Cathedral School and served as president of the Junior League. Helen was intelligent, independent, and detail oriented. She had a passion for horses and loved the outdoors.
Bob Kleberg spent his early years between the remote prairies on King Ranch in South Texas and Corpus Christi, where he attended school. On the ranch he learned at an early age to ride, cut cattle, rope, and shoot. After graduating from Corpus Christi High School he attended the University of Wisconsin where he studied agriculture and animal husbandry. He loved land and livestock and excelled in his studies. But his education was cut short when his father suffered a debilitating stroke and needed him at home to help manage the day-to-day affairs of the ranch. Two years later his father passed away. Bob was named President and CEO of King Ranch, a position he held over 50 years until his death in 1974.
Bob’s family had a long, rich history in South Texas. His grandfather was Captain Richard King, founder of King Ranch, and his grandmother was Henrietta Chamberlain, a Presbyterian minister’s daughter. Richard King was born in New York in 1824 to Irish immigrants and, by age nine, was apprenticed to a jeweler in New York City. He soon tired of the tedium of work in the jeweler’s shop and stowed away on a ship bound for Mobile, Alabama. He spent the next ten years working on steamships on the rivers and coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The steam boaters were his parents and the frontier his schoolroom.
In 1846, King received a letter from his friend Miflin Kenedy, whom he had met in Florida while serving in the army during the Seminole War. He told King the Mexican war had created a boom for steamboaters on the Rio Grande where Zachary Taylor’s army was transporting men and supplies. Men capable of piloting shallow craft vessels on a river filled with snags and mud bars were critical for Taylor’s campaign. King, who had no money, no family, and no roots, was eager to join his friend in Texas. Shortly after his arrival, King was assigned to Kenedy’s steamship, the Corvette. The two riverboat pilots forged an enduring friendship. After the war, they founded a successful shipping company, M.Kenedy and Company, and later partnered on buying land.
Captain King’s initial land purchase, for what was to later become King Ranch, transpired in 1853 when he bought a 15,000 acre tract of land known as the Rincon de Santa Gertrudis. The land was purchased for $300. The following year another 53,000 acres was added. King was a steamboat captain, not a cattleman, but he hired men who had expertise, including vaqueros from Mexico who had worked cattle and horses all their lives. He was not interested in replicating a Southern cattle farm where cattle were raised as a sideline; his vision was to raise beef cattle on a large scale.
The Civil War not only made King a wealthy man from trading cotton and supplies with the confederacy, but it opened up the great Northern markets for beef. After the war, unattended cattle that roamed freely on the prairie could be bought for $5 a head and sold for $40 a head in the Northern markets. King was highly adept at organizing long drives to the railheads of Kansas where the cattle were loaded on trains and sent to the Northern markets. The revenue from the sale of beef cattle allowed King to continue land acquisitions.
By the time of Captain King’s passing in 1885, he had amassed over 600,000 acres. The entirety of his estate was left to his widow, Henrietta, who charged her future son in-law, the young lawyer Robert Justus Kleberg, to run the ranch. Robert had prevailed as opposing counsel in one of Captain King’s numerous lawsuits. King was so impressed by the young lawyer that he immediately hired him take over the voluminous and complex legal affairs of the ranch. Shortly after Captain King’s death, Robert Kleberg and Alice Gertrudis King were married.
Robert Kleberg was innovative and industrious and his contributions to the ranch were numerous. After many failures, he was responsible for drilling the first artesian well in South Texas. Not only did water open up the possibility of a railroad through South Texas, but it also enabled the ranch to fence pastures, allowing improved beef cattle production through herd management. With the availability of water, he experimented with planting fruits and vegetables of all kinds. These early experiments helped found the South Texas citrus industry. He was a strong advocate for the deep port in city of Corpus Christi, and negotiated the first oil lease for Mrs. King. Though initially unproductive, this represented the first step in what would later become a major revenue source for the ranch.
When Robert J. Kleberg, Jr., succeeded his father in running the ranch he brought with him a strong work ethic and deep understanding of the land and livestock. Like his father, he was constantly looking for ways to improve the ranch. Bob created a global multi-million acre ranching empire. His vision was to produce beef protein for the world. He understood the importance of protein in human development and bringing food production to disadvantaged regions of the world.
Bob and Helen’s legacy of philanthropy grew from a shared passion for cultural, civic, and environmental issues, which continues today through the establishment of their family foundation in 1950, the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation. The Foundation strives to continue their legacy by supporting and improving quality of life in South Texas communities, investing in scientific research and innovation, the arts and humanities, and wildlife and habitat stewardship.
Lea, Tom, The King Ranch vol.1 and 2, Little, Brown and Company, 1957
Broyles, William, “The Last Empire”, Texas Monthly, Oct. 1980
Photographs King Ranch, Inc., Kingsville, Texas