History of the Swenson Ranches
The historic Swenson Ranches trace their origin to Svante Magnus Swenson, the first Swedish immigrant to arrive in Texas, landing near what is now Galveston in 1838. The famous SMS brand, with two backward S’s was one of the first registered in Texas and was derived from Swenson’s initials. Swenson, a close ally of Sam Houston, played an active role in the state’s early history. He served as Travis County Commissioner in the 1850’s and as the first Treasurer of the State Agriculture Society. Swenson opened one of the first stores in Austin, introduced the Colt revolver to the frontier, and established the Swedish Pipeline which brought thousands of Swedish families to settle in Texas after the Civil War. A cabin from Swenson’s farm east of Austin, called Govalle, is enshrined today at Zilker Botanical Gardens in Austin as part of the Swedish Pioneer Village.
By 1850 Svante had established himself in the general merchandise business in Austin. His large frontier trading post traded saddles, boots, blankets and many other supplies. Through his trading, Swenson began acquiring substantial amounts of land. Swenson also invested in railroad bonds and school bonds which entitled him to even more acreage. By 1860 Swenson had accumulated over 680,000 acres in Texas, much of it the unsettled territories on North Texas, north of Abilene. It was from these lands that the Flat Top Ranch was organized and is still owned by S.M. Swenson’s direct descendants.
Because he was an ally of Houston’s and a vocal opponent of secession from the Union, Swenson was nearly assassinated at the beginning of the Civil War. With continuing threats on his life, he fled to Mexico in 1863 hidden under straw in a covered wagon. After the Civil War he settled in New York City where his wife and children joined him. He sold off his holdings around Austin, but maintained ownership of the land in the northern parts of Texas.
In 1882 these lands were fenced and organized by Swenson’s sons, Eric and Swen Albin, and the vast ranching operations began. Initially the sons leased the ranches from their father and when Svante died in 1896, they inherited the properties. At this time there were three ranches: Ericsdahl, Eleonora and Mount Albin.
The Ericsdahl Ranch which was located 7 miles east of Stamford was split up and sold to Swedish immigrants in the early 1900’s. Eleonora became known as the Throckmorton Ranch because it was in that county. The Mount Albin Ranch became known as the Flat Top Ranch because of a prominent mesa on the property. This is the ranch that Chas. S. Middleton and Son, LLC, has for sale today.
The Swenson brothers hired one of S.M. Swenson’s nephews as the first manager of the overall operations. He was responsible for stocking the ranches and overseeing the construction of the headquarters, barns, and corrals, as well as the drilling of water wells. The first herds were comprised of 1,800 high-grade Durham Shorthorns and 180 Hereford-Shorthorn crosses along with registered Hereford bulls. The original remuda was driven up the Chisolm Trail from Round Rock, Texas where many Swedes had settled. The horses were a mix of Spanish and Arabian stock. The first ranch hands were mostly Swedish immigrants who had settled first in towns around Austin, like Round Rock, New Sweden and Elgin and many others came directly from Sweden.
The ranches continued to grow as the family purchased the Scab 8 Ranch in 1900, adding another 79,000 acres of land to their holdings and renamed it the Tongue River Ranch. In 1906 they purchased the Espuela Ranch with other partners which gave them access to over 200,000 acres more. This ranch became the Spur Ranch and while much of it was sold off in the 1920’s, the family still owned 65,000 acres of it until the 1970’s.
In order to make it easier to get their cattle to market, the Swenson brothers convinced the Texas Central Railroad to extend its rail line from Albany, Texas, 38 miles to the east, to the place that is now Stamford, Texas. The family donated the initial 640 acres from the Flat Top Ranch for the town and helped lay it out. The present headquarters for the Swenson Land & Cattle Co, was built in the town, on Swenson Street, in the 1920’s. Some of the property that is part of the Flat Top Ranch remains inside the town limits, including a recent purchase of about 132 acres that contains substantial cattle pens for feeding, weaning, etc. The Texas Cowboy Reunion Rodeo grounds, still the largest working cowboy rodeo in the US, was founded in Stamford by the Swenson heirs in 1930 on land that they also donated from their Flat Top holdings.
In 1902 the Swenson brothers hired Frank S. Hastings as manager of their far-flung ranches and over the next two decades committed to the breeding and improvement of the SMS cattle. Under Hastings’ supervision, SMS became among the first ranches to participate in the "mail order" calf business. The cattle won many awards and developed a reputation for quality that remains today.
Eric Swenson, Svante’s oldest son, remained as president of the ranches until his death in 1945. He was succeeded by one of his sons, Swen R. Swenson. In 1978 the holdings totaling over 250,000 acres were divided among four family groups. Three of the groups have since sold their ranches. The remaining group, whose land includes the Flat Top Ranch, was headed by Bruce B Swenson, one of Swen R. Swenson’s sons, and included Bruce’s brothers, Rod and Perry Swenson. The three brothers have passed asway and the company that owns the Flat Top Ranch is now the Swenson Land & Cattle Co. and is chaired by Steve Swenson, one of Bruce’s sons. All the board of directors and shareholders are descendants of Svante Magnus Swenson.
In recent years Swenson Land & Cattle has continued as a strong cow/calf operator and almost always gets the highest price for its class of cattle at Superior Livestock Auctions and other venues. Whole Foods, a frequent buyer of some of the cattle, has audited the operations twice in the last five years and awarded the ranch its highest rating for Animal Welfare for an operation with this number of cattle. The ranch hands, now headed by Mark Voss, have won several ranch rodeo competitions over the past several years in places like Wichita Falls and Abilene. Wildlife is abundant at Flat Top and hunting leases have contributed a substantial revenue in the past 10 years or so. The company sells a small amount of cattle to Svante’s Ranch Direct, a company owned by several S.M. Swenson descendants. They sell grass finished beef through farmers markets, a web site and food truck in the Austin area.
As the years have gone by and the family tree continues to grow, shareholders have become more and more dispersed throughout the US and their interests have become more diverse. With many shareholders now in their mid-to late 60’s, the board reluctantly voted to sell Flat Top in order to provide some liquidity to those who wanted some. It was not an easy decision, to think that this heritage that traces directly back to S.M. Swenson, would pass from his great great-grandchildren and future descendants. However, the family has concluded that this the right time in their lives to do this.
Clark, Mary Whatley - The Swenson Saga and the SMS Ranches (Austin, Texas: Jenkins Book Publishing Co. 1976)
Baize, Wayne – Swenson Land & Cattle Company (2014)
Anderson, H. Allen - SMS Ranches (Texas State Historical Association)