Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

It started in 1951 in the Old Tascosa Room of the Herring Hotel. Oil barons and cattlemen spent their evenings there in this famous downtown Amarillo destination, making deals and kicking up their boots beneath frescoes painted by the western artist H.D. Bugbee. It was a fitting place for two young adults to connect, especially a man and woman coming from separate ranching legacies.

This is where Joan met Jack. “We danced all night,” says Joan Shelton, 93, about that first encounter. “And we’ve been dancing ever since.” 

Her husband, 98-year-old Jack Shelton, smiles in response. “The Lord has blessed us richly,” he says. Jack stands in his office surrounded by family photos and paintings of their ranch, the Bravo. Those blessings accompany hard work, and despite their advanced ages, the Sheltons supervise work the Bravo four or five days every week. 

A Century at the Bold Spring

The Bravo lies west of U.S. Highway 385 between Channing and Dalhart. The beautiful land tumbles its way into the Canadian River beneath sunsets as remarkable and vibrant as its owners. Once part of the famous XIT Ranching empire, the Bravo has belonged to the Shelton family for more than 100 years. 

In 1915, cattleman John Malcolm Shelton, who was then leasing land from the XIT Ranch, purchased 322,000 acres across Hartley and Oldham counties. “The purchase set my grandfather back a little under $4 per acre,” Jack says with a sly grin. He knows a good investment when he sees one. 

One particularly picturesque section of this purchase was called Ojo Bravo, or “Bold Spring.” The purchase gave John Shelton nearly 500,000 acres in total, where he ran at least 28,000 head of cattle. When he passed away in 1923, ranching operations transferred to his sons, J. Malcolm Shelton and James (Jim) Martin Shelton. 

Jack was born to Jim in 1925, with ranching in his blood. He grew up riding horses and helping around the Bravo. 

After serving in the United States Army during World War II, Jack attended the University of Texas at Austin until 1949, when booming ranch operations met the setback of limited manpower. At the time, Jack was just one semester from graduation. But the ranch needed him, and his loyalty to the family and the Bravo spurred him back to the Panhandle. He thought it might just be a year-long interruption. That one year became 74.

Nevertheless, Jack insists his story still hadn’t really begun yet, even once he came home from college. It wasn’t until the summer of 1951, when Jack was 26, that everything changed.

A friend set Jack up on a blind date at the Herring Hotel with a young woman named Joan Johnson. Jack describes it in his 2011 book Land of Our Fathers: The Story of the Bravo Ranch, as told to Jeanne S. Archer: “It was love at first sight; bliss and happiness ever since.” He was smitten from the beginning.

As it turns out, Joan Johnson had also been born into a ranching legacy. Her great-grandfather was the famous Chickasaw rancher Montford Johnson, whose legend in Oklahoma may rival Charles Goodnight’s fame here in the Texas Panhandle. 

By March 1952, Jack and Joan had married. “It was quick,” Joan says of their courtship, “but I knew I loved him.” Jack remembers feeling old at the age of 27, and knowing he “needed to get married.” 

Seven decades later, that hasty marriage has produced four children, 13 grandchildren, and 33 great-grandchildren. 

Country Pride

In late May this year, Joan stands on the front porch of the Amarillo headquarters of Bravo Ranch, located near Tradewind Airport. Gracious and whip-smart, she glows as she lists the various accomplishments of her family, including the latest high school and preschool graduations. It’s clear how connected those family ties are to the land, because she doesn’t hide her feelings. “We’d rather be at the ranch,” she says quickly.

Joan walks through the main lobby and back into Jack’s grand office, pointing out various photos of the Bravo. The furniture around the building is perfectly appointed. Joan has always been the keeper of an immaculate home, and recalls cutting her honeymoon with Jack short because they “needed to get back to the house on the ranch and fix it up.” Again, blessings accompany hard work.

Jack stands at his desk reviewing paperwork. Work rarely stops for this 98-year-old rancher. His sons, Malcolm and Jim, and grandson Neil, walk in together and pull up chairs. Interviews, like ranching, are a full-family affair. On this occasion, the three younger men are working from the office, answering emails and, as Jack describes it, “making sure we stay in the black.” He jokes that making sure the Bravo remains profitable is why the operation has enjoyed such longevity.

“The ranch is my favorite place,” Joan says, but admits “it requires more upkeep than people could imagine.” It is difficult to grasp the maintenance required to keep six homes and multiple other buildings running on a ranch that is more than 100 years old. 

The history of that century is being well kept by Jack and Joan’s family. Smiles spread across the faces of Malcolm, Jim and Neil as Joan recounts the familiar story of their blind date in 1951. The couple’s daughters no longer live in the area—they’re in Florida and South Carolina—but Joan makes it clear that they love the Bravo, too. 

The Sheltons take pride in different elements of the legacy they’ve built, and are grateful the land was unaffected by the catastrophic early 2024 wildfires to the east. Jack details improvements in the genetics of their cattle and efforts to make ranch operations more efficient. He straightens in his chair upon describing the newest solar wells on the property, which are replacing old windmills. 

Joan offers another perspective: “Well, I’m proud of all this love we’ve had for all these years.” She could count acres or decades or workdays or even cattle—the ranch is home to a thousand Angus cows and twice as many yearlings—but her pride is clearest when she mentions their 72 years of marriage. Then she points at a painting of the original ranch house on the Bravo. “Can you believe we had 30 people in there last Thanksgiving?” 

Ranching Relationships

With humility, Jack and Joan both speak of the parallels between running a successful ranch and maintaining a successful marriage. Both take nurturing, patience, flexibility and a willingness to address issues today rather than putting them off for tomorrow. 

“When times are hard, we just lean on each other,” Joan says, beaming with love for both Jack and the Bravo. Jack and Malcolm each make it clear that simply showing up is a critical part of their family’s legacy. In their words, they’re not “absentee ranch owners,” and clearly that’s important to the family.

They’ve never been absentee family members, either. Devotion to one another and the multi-generation family, past and present, resonates in every word and story. 

But like every legacy ranching operation, the Bravo faces challenges. Workforce is one of them, as grandson Neil explains. “It’s just in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “That makes it beautiful, but it isn’t easy getting younger people to want to make a living out there.” Neil is in his 40s and poised to make sure the family legacy, and the Bravo, remain strong. 

That doesn’t mean Joan and Jack are quite ready to hang up their boots. A typical day on the ranch might find him out supervising calves or the care of injured horses, while Joan tends the gardens and serves up feasts for 30. 

“My grandparents have built a legacy of love and commitment to each other, their family, their faith, and to the land that we love so much,” Neil says. That love of the land is far from an overstatement. Land has shaped the history of the Shelton family and the history of the Texas Panhandle itself. Caring for it is central to the Shelton family’s story. That’s not about to change.

Jack and Joan have spent a lifetime shaping the Bravo. And it seems the Bravo will continue shaping the generations of Sheltons that follow. 

Author

  • Matt Morgan

    Matt was born and raised in Amarillo, and his love for the city and roots here are deep. He currently serves several community organizations like Storybridge, Outdoor Amarillo, the Public Arts and Beautification Board and the Friends of the Public Library. Matt is a nonprofit professional in his daily work, but he loves moonlighting as a songwriter, poet and wannabe pickleball professional.

    View all posts