Beaches & Barbed Wire – the story of the Matagorda Bay cattle drive 

May 16, 2022

For over 100 years, Huebner Bros Cattle Company has been driving its herd of 800 head of cattle from their winter pasture on the Matagorda Peninsula across the Colorado River to their summer pastures on the family ranch south of Bay City, Texas. Cowboys on horseback and crews in flat bottomed john boats guide the cows across the river where they have spent the winter grazing the tall coastal, salt grasses on the 30-mile strip of land between the Gulf of Mexico and the bay. 

Twice a year since 1917, the cows have swum across the Colorado River drawing spectators to the small town of Matagorda to catch a glimpse of this time-honored Texas tradition. Keith Meyer, 42, a member of the Huebner family, made his first trip when he was six or seven years old and has made most of the cattle drives in his lifetime.

“I’ve grown up doing it and it’s been a part of the operation my whole life. It’s become more difficult to do,” Meyer says, “but it’s always been a part of the family operation.”

The small, coastal fishing town of Matagorda, with a population of just under 500, has not been immune to the rapid growth the entire state of Texas has experienced. “It’s blowing up, it really is,” says Meyer.  “A lot of houses and a lot more people and it’s just kind of year-round busy.  It’s a lot busier down there now. It’s really taken off which doesn’t make it easier for us to do it. I understand, you gotta adapt.” 

That resiliency and adaptability is part of why the Huebner Bros cattle company has been a successful cattle operation for over a century. Several years ago, the river was dredged creating a steep bank along most of the river that left the cattle with just one area to cross, making it increasingly more difficult. “The cows have to swim at an angle and the tides got to be just right, and there’s a lot of variables and not much of a window anymore without keeping them out of the RV park.”

For decades, the historic town has been drawing visitors from out-of-town to watch birds, chase fish, and enjoy the miles of beaches. While many things have changed in Matagorda, the Huebner Bros cattle drive has remained a constant. 

A multi-generational event

Growing up, Meyer worked alongside his grandfather and his father, who was the ranch manager for the cattle operation and now gets to see the next generation of cowboys and cowgirls holding the reigns. 

“You do have to have great help to do it,” he stresses. “I have been fortunate to have that in all of the years we’ve been doing it. You couldn’t do it with a new crew. It takes a lot of really good cowboys to know what they’re doing to do it. It takes a lot of planning to make sure you’ve got enough good help and pray that the weather cooperates,” Meyer chuckles.

Strong winds were blowing through the afternoon of the swim in mid-April. A young boy and girl, not older than ten years old, dawned brightly colored western shirts and sat confidently atop their strong, barrel-chested horses patiently waiting on the eastern shoreline watching as the cowboys urged the herd into the water. Cows and calves in every shade of brown made their way across the river fighting the tide, and headwinds, eventually landing on the banks of LCRA’s Matagorda Bay Nature Park. 

The youngsters, working amongst a team of seasoned cowboys, helped to guide the herd through the yellow wildflowers that flanked the bank of the river.  A chorus of deep bellows, splashing water, the humming of boat engines, and the yipping, and hollering of the cowboys served as the melody as the herd made their way to the holding pens before the next leg of the journey. A revered Texas tradition entrenched in this small coastal community continues for yet another year. 

Looking towards the future and what’s next for the cattle drive, Meyer says they’ll continue to, “play it year by year. It’s part of what we do. It’s been our winter pasture for over 100 years now. The cows want to do it and want to be there in the winter. They’re ready to go.”

MATAGORDA, TX – APRIL 19, 2022 – Moving cattle herd off Matagorda Island across the Colorado River before hurricane season.

Protecting the Coast

In 2021, Colorado River Land Trust worked with the Lower Colorado River Authority to permanently protect 934-acres of wetlands on the Matagorda Bay Peninsula just north of where the Huebner Bros’ cattle cross the river each spring and fall. The wetlands’ expansive barrier grasslands, dunes, and tidal marshes provide critical habitat for a spectacular array of wildlife, including resident and migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, waterbirds, and other wetland wildlife. 

The protection of the peninsula allows for continued access for environmental education and outdoor recreation as part of the 1,333- acre Matagorda Bay Nature Park where eager onlookers gather to watch the historic cattle drive. The conservation of these wetlands, where the Colorado River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, provides a tremendous opportunity to not only protect a diverse and productive habitat but also an opportunity to help ensure that a tradition deeply rooted in this coastal community can continue for the next 100 years.