Mollie Stevenson Jr., the ranch's regal matriarch, is a former model and the first living African-American member - along with her mother, Mollie Stevenson Sr. - of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth. At 67, she and family members run a working ranch, with horses, cattle, hay production and oil. The family also supports youth rodeos, hosts school tours and developed the nonprofit American Cowboy Museum.
The museum is dedicated to exposing youngsters to women, African-Americans and other minorities who throughout American history have been ropers, riders and ranchers.
On the walls of the comfortable ranch house that Stevenson shares with Elicious Scott, her husband of nearly 20 years, are photos and memorabilia that trace the ranch's origin to the early years of Houston. In one venerable photo, a white-bearded fellow wearing a weathered 10-gallon hat, his jeans stuffed into his boots, sits in a wooden chair that he has tilted back against the wall of a frame house. His name is Edward Ruthven Taylor. On the wall next to the photo of Taylor is an old photo of a strong-looking black woman in a plain dress looking straight into the camera. Her name was Ann George.
The story of the Taylor-Stevenson Ranch begins with those two people, a white landowner and a black slave. They were Stevenson's great-grandparents. Her great-great-grandparents, Edward Wyllys Taylor and Aaroline Taylor, came to Texas from Massachusetts in the 1840s. Building a home on land that's now the site of Wortham Center, E.W. Taylor served in later years as president of the Houston Cotton Exchange and Board of Trade.
When the Civil War erupted, E.R., the son, was away at school in New York. In 1862, the 16-year-old came home and joined up with Waul's Texas Legion, a unit raised in Brenham. He ended up getting captured at Vicksburg and contracting consumption (tuberculosis).
Once he was released from prison and the Rebel army, his father purchased 21-year-old Ann to look after him. Over time, her cooking skills and her familiarity with herbs and potions restored the young man to good health. Over time, also, the couple fell in love.
Nothing unusual about interracial love in the South, of course. What's unusual about E.R. and Ann is that, unlike most slave owners with black mistresses, they lived together openly as husband and wife. Even though it was illegal in Texas for them to marry - not to mention dangerous to live under the same roof - they had six children, all of whom, Stevenson notes, graduated from college.
In 1875, Ann persuaded E.R. to buy land south of town, where they could grow hay, raise cattle and tend turkeys. Three decades later, the family found gas in their water well, which gave rise to the Pierce Junction field, the oil field closest to Houston. In 1921, Hugh Roy Cullen made his first strike at Pierce Junction. Howard Hughes reportedly used his rotary drill for the first time in the Taylor pasture.
Ann George Taylor died in 1909, her husband in 1924. Their granddaughter, Mollie Stevenson Sr. (everyone called her Mollie Sr. and her daughter Mollie Jr.), was a graduate of Fisk University and a gifted pianist who accompanied the renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers. She also played at the Rice Hotel, which she was required to enter through the back door.
She was at home on horseback, as well. Her father, Major Taylor, would wait until she came home from Fisk for the summer before rounding up and branding his cattle and driving them to the salt grass near Freeport. She was the best cowhand he had.
Mollie Sr. is credited with saving the ranch in the years after the deaths of her parents and grandparents. Thanks to the airtight will E.R. Taylor had drawn up years earlier, and his granddaughter's determination to take on challenges in court and out, the land and oil rights remained with the Stevensons.
Mollie Jr. learned ranching from her tough, strong-willed mother. Her interest in education came from her father, Ben "Big Ben" Stevenson, a football All-American at Tuskegee Institute (now University) who coached for many years at Houston's Booker T. Washington High School.
Mollie Sr. died in 2003 at age 91. Since then, her daughter and other family members have worked to keep the ranch going both as a business enterprise and to further the family's educational mission.
"It's hard work," Mollie Jr. says. "It really has to be in your blood, because it's not easy."