HK Ranch Fourth of July in Texas

Joan Nathan shares stories of the Koontz family barbecues and how they celebrate the Fourth of July in Texas.

| July/August 1987

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    Mary Sue Koontz and her late husband Henry Koontz, all dressed up and ready for their Texas Fourth of July barbecue party.

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A more subdued tone marks this sprawling kingdom of a ranch now that the boss is dead, killed a couple of years ago when his car was demolished by a pickup in the hands of a 20-year-old who had put away way too much bourbon, or something. But the barbecues the boss and Mary Sue held after stock sales or to celebrate holidays with friends and family have become legends in a state where legends don't rise easily. His voice, unabashed and penetrating, can still be heard in his neighbors' memories, booming across the prairie as they celebrate the Fourth of July in Texas. 

HK Ranch Barbecue: Fourth of July in Texas

I just love the Fourth of Joo-ly," blared Henry Clay Koontz, the boss. It was late in the evening on a hot and humid south Texas Fourth of July, and Henry was looking out from the upper deck of the HK Ranch pool house to the pasture, where two cowhands were setting off a 30-minute fireworks display that eclipsed the starry night itself. Just a few hours earlier, this same field had been filled with HK cattle, some of the most highly prized Brahman breeding stock in the country. A wind surfer on the pond had scared off a hundred or so. Now the endless prairie seemed deserted except for a lone trailer. Sitting with Henry Clay, guests could see the wide-open range on all sides. On the other side of the ranch house, Joe Padilla, the Mexican head cook, and the top ranch hands were still dishing out the barbecue vittles.

The annual HK Ranch Fourth of July in Texas was fun, Texas-size, orchestrated by Henry Clay and his wife, Mary Sue, for about 200 friends and family members. The ranch, a division of the 35,000-acre family-owned Keeran Ranch, was started in 1867 by Henry's great-grandfather, Captain John N. Keeran, a Texas pioneer. In 1878, Keeran imported the first humpbacked Brahman cattle from India into the Western Hemisphere. Henry Clay's mother was a well-known Brahman breeder and followed in the family tradition. "See those lights there. That's the Luaca Bay, and to the south is the old port of Indianola. That's where my great-grandfather, along with Shanghai Pierce, brought the Brahmans into Texas." Place-do, where the ranch is located, is dotted with gooseneck oil wells and rice and milo fields. It lies about 100 miles south of Houston and 14 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

Guests approach the HK Ranch through a gate that's decked out in red, white and blue crepe paper flying from the top of a 15-foot centennial yucca plant. A few miles into the ranch on a din road, they pass the original Keeran family homestead, a large white building with 19 columns, now belonging to Emily Keeran Campbell, or Aunt Emma, as she is called.

At a second checkpoint, beyond another fence enclosing yet more prairie, a yes-sir-ee cowboy in Stetson hat and boots meets each guest with a red bandana wrapped around an icy Lone Star beer, while Sousa marches rouse it up in the background.

Mary Sue tells the story that when she and Henry Clay got married, she didn't want to live on the ranch. "We moved into my little house in Victoria, and he drove back and forth to the ranch every day. That lasted about two months, and then late one night he got a phone call. I could tell he was talking about buying and moving . . . something." Fed up with the commute, he was arranging to move a house 20 miles from Victoria to the HK Ranch.

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