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JA Ranch Milk & Meat House c. 1880

JA Ranch Milk & Meat House c. 1880

Built around 1880 while the well-known frontiersman, trailblazer, and rancher Charles Goodnight was manager of the JA Ranch, the JA Milk and Meat House from the Palo Duro Canyon demonstrates a simple but clever method for keeping perishable food fresh and represents all spring houses erected in the developing West.

Typically, these structures had a meat storage/workroom fitted with huge hooks fastened to the rafters. From the hooks hung beef, elk, venison, buffalo, sheep and pork. The carcasses were covered with cloth or canvas sacks.

On the JA, 50 people were fed daily, so the supply of fresh meat was always being replenished. Slatted walls in the meat room allowed air circulation, yet they were spaced close enough to keep out predators. Lard was stored in large metal cans, and bacon was kept between layers of salt in wooden boxes.

The milk room was designed with thick walls, a double-glazed window, and a water trough. Water flowed from a spring or windmill into the trough, where crocks filled with dairy products, eggs and other perishable foods were placed. Wet cloths covered the crockery, and evaporation in the dark room aided the cooling process.

The JA Milk and Meat House, now at the NRHC, represents an era when such structures provided an easier way to preserve food, particularly for the large ranches. Not only so, but its former locality holds great significance, as the JA is among the best-known ranches in Texas, and perhaps the entire country, for its good management and cast of players who owned and operated the ranch, propelling the ranch into a prominent place in history.

Beef, elk, venison, buffalo, sheep and pork were suspended on large hoks hung from the roof beams in the south room (meat room).

The people behind the formation of the JA Ranch were Charles Goodnight, John Adair and Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie Adair—an unlikely partnership, or so many thought.

Goodnight was a hard-talking rancher, having been a scout for the Texas Rangers, a frontiersman and a trailblazer. He and his wife, Mary Ann, lived on their ranch near Pueblo, Colorado. John Adair was an Irish investment broker, frugal, polished and well educated. Cornelia Ritchie was the daughter of a wealthy New Yorker. She had been left as a young widow in 1864, when her husband and the father of their son, John Ritchie, died.

She remarried in 1869 to John Adair, who owned investment brokerage companies in Ireland and New York. The couple traveled between Great Britain and the United States each year. During the 1870s, it was considered fashionable to make expeditions into the “Wild West” to shoot buffalo and other game. It was on one of those trips in 1874 that the Adairs fell in love with the American West. John set up another brokerage house in Denver in 1875.

Goodnight, at this same time, was driving his herd to Texas in search of good grass and watering sources he had heard existed in the Texas Panhandle. He wintered along the way in New Mexico in late 1875. With the aid of an old Comanchero who knew the area, Goodnight settled his herd in Palo Duro Canyon in the fall of 1876. He established a camp and went back to Colorado, meeting the Adairs there in 1877. John Adair’s sources had suggested Goodnight as the best man to run a ranch for them as an investment project. The men decided to visit the Palo Duro and discuss a possible ranch partnership.

The men, their wives, two cowboys and other necessary hands started out on their trip from Pueblo to Palo Duro. The group arrived in the canyon in May 1877 and stayed in the two-room log house Goodnight had erected earlier.

Charles A. Goodnight

On June 18, 1877, a partnership was struck, specifying that for five years Adair would provide Goodnight with a salary and pay all ranch expenses. Goodnight was to manage the ranch and develop the herd. At the end of the five years in 1882, Goodnight would pay back Adair’s investment plus interest and split the ranch so Adair would have two-thirds of it plus cattle and profits. Goodnight would get one-third. They settled on John Adair’s initials for the brand.

Some people thought it an unusual bonding of a tough character like Goodnight with a well-branded Irishman and his wealthy wife from back East, but cattlemen subsequently joined forces with businessmen in land and cattle ventures. The JA was among the first ranches in the West to be financed by business investors’ money.

After years of successful operation, the partnership dissolved two years after Adair’s death. Meanwhile, Goodnight set up his own ranch near Quitaque from his third of the partnership division, and Mrs. Adair kept the JA.

Cornelia spent most winters on the ranch and returned to England in the summer. She sent her son, Jack, back to England when he developed a strong interest in ranching while managing the Tule spread under Goodnight the year after John Adair passed. Jack eventually called England home, marrying and having three children of his own. One of them, Montgomery Harrison Wadsworth “Montie” Ritchie, was fascinated by the ranch life his father experienced. So, upon graduation from Cambridge in 1931, Montie made his first trip to the JA and never left. He stayed to run the ranch until his death at age 88.

The JA passed to his daughter, Cornelia “Ninia” Ritchie. And with managing partner Jay O’Brien, she continued the operation of the highly respected ranch.

Story & Photos by Hannah Hudgens, NRHC Marketing Intern


Dedicated to the NRHC in 1972, the c. 1880 JA Milk & Meat House now stands to represent a method of preserving food and perishables before refrigeration was common, especially on large ranches in arid country. To demonstrate its ingenious operation, water can be circulated through the JA Milk & Meat House using the nearby c. 1898 Eclipse Windmill. After significant storms in August 2023, the Eclipse Windmill is undergoing extensive repair by NRHC’s historical preservation crew as of June 2024.

JA Milk & Meat House with Eclipse Windmill at the National Ranching Heritage Center. Photo by Adrian Hawkins, NRHC Communications Manager