MONTEGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., March 18, 2012 — On May 2006, PBS aired the first episode of a “real life” series titled “Texas Ranch House.” Watching it recently, I was intrigued. I have also read many comments on the series, both from when it first aired and later. All these facts have given me a snapshot of the middle of this century’s first decade when compared to 1867 (when the Ranch House experiment “took place”). The show pointed to factors that don’t speak well for what our enterprise management has become.
The series, as anyone can find out by a simple Google search, is about a number of people that are put on a Texas Ranch, simulating the conditions of 1867. People were chosen from all over the US and other western European countries to portray the different roles that one would expect in that era.
For those that haven’t watched the miniseries, here is the scenario:
* An upper middle class family from California was selected to play the role of the ranch owners. The father was a hospital administrator in charge of thousands” of employees. The mother, also a college graduate, was a stay at home mom with lots of interests. The three teenaged daughters were all attractive, articulate and high performers in school. The family was very religious and appeared traditional and somewhat conformist;
* A young woman from Chevy Chase, Maryland served as the domestic help. She was a graduate student and a good horse rider of long standing;
* A number of young men, many in their teens and early twenties, were to be the hired help (cowboys). Most of them were students or young professionals;
* The cowboy foreman was a retired Army colonel;
* The bunkhouse cook was a chef who had been homeless some years back and now worked in a famous New York City culinary school;
* Native Americans were from a Comanche tribe (the tribe which shared the region in 1867 with the settlers);
* The ranch was equipped with a ranch house, a bunk house for the cowboys, a vegetable garden, thousands of acres and other things that a typical ranch would have had in that era.
The objective of the series was to show how modern participants fared with the life and accompanying hardships in that venue during that era. It was to last two and half months and they were to endure the extreme conditions of Texas in the summer, the gathering of enough wild cattle to make the venture sustainable, the rigors of ranch life and the hazards of renegade Native American groups in the area.
As an example, water had to be pumped by hand from a well and carried to the buildings and to the garden for watering. They had to find, brand, and finally drive enough cattle (approximately 200 head) 50 miles to a fictional military fort manned by African American participants portraying Buffalo soldiers.
From the beginning the foreman decided that he was going to take just a supervisory role. He would give vague instructions to the cowboys on building the corrals where the captured cattle would be kept. The perception of the hired hands was that he slept all day, coming out several times a day to only give instructions without actively participating. He was soon gone after getting into a physical confrontation with the cook.
One of the hired hands with some real cowboy experience was promoted to foreman. The cook soon got the boot also when his poor kitchen practices and lack of cleanliness and wholesome food made the cowboys sick.
While the owners could have enjoyed the bounty of their vegetable garden, they apparently didn’t, nor did they offer to share it with the help, except in special circumstances. In fact when the family was told about the existence of the vegetable garden, they didn’t act very happy. One of them commented that they didn’t like vegetables very much. And this wasn’t the worst of it.
After a few days, they refused to dress like the show creators had told them since it was very hot. The women would spend most of their time just lying around in what was to the women of that era their underwear, complaining about the heat and the mosquitoes. (Although against the rules, this still would not have impacted the sustainability of the ranch.)
At the same time, the owner expressed fear for the women’s safety and gave the cowboys a talking-to when they first arrived. He told them that he didn’t want any fraternization with any of the females in the main house. This set up a lack of team feeling from the beginning and helped contribute to an “us and them” mentality that pervaded the series.
There are so many details that can be analyzed in the series, but probably the most important was the attitude of the owner and his relationship to the cowboys doing the hard work. He himself would only sporadically physically participate in the critical activities of the ranch. His main excuse was that he had to keep the books and manage the enterprise. He would also agree on plans of action with the foreman and the hired hands and then renege on them after talking with his wife.
One special action of his was rather odious to the cowboys. He had offered to give a horse to those that wanted it at the end of the episode as part payment. When it was claimed, he refused. As for the “cowboys,” there were also some very interesting points of contention. Some of their actions could have been seen as sexist. One of them was denying the woman that had been brought in as a domestic the right to ride when they lost two of the cowboys. While apparently a sexist response, it is probably what would have happen in 1867.
One of the cowboys had to take over the cook’s duty when he was fired and the other had to leave due to personal problems. While the family did hire an extra hand, this wasn’t done immediately. The hand then took over the foreman’s duties as well as management and his cowboy duties.
It didn’t occur to the owner that he could have consolidated the cooking duties by having the females in the main house, all five of them, take over this responsibility. All during the series, there were two separate, but unequal food providing systems, one for the main house and one for the hired hands.
There was also an episode in which Comanche braves stole a number of horses and in a separate action held hostage one of the cowboys. The owner “negotiated” a trade that was very disadvantageous to the ranch’s survival. All along he kept on saying that he would not “deal with terrorists.” Finally during the cattle drive, the owner appeared to want to take an active role, but after a hard day in the saddle he returned home to his own bed.
The sale of the cattle marginally made the goals for the expenses of the ranch; however, it wasn’t enough to give the ranch a realistic future. In the final episode, experts contracted by PBS analyzed the process and the results and were highly critical of the ranch management. They believed the ranch would not be economically sustainable; one of the criticisms was extremely poor recordkeeping on the part of the owner.
It was also disconcerting that when the females in the main house expressed their experiences, one source of criticism was how unfriendly the cowboys had been toward them. I guess they hadn’t been told of the request by the man of the house to the cowboys not to fraternize with them.
The main point that I took away from watching this series is that perhaps too many in our current management culture don’t have the ability to synthesize their thinking nor to inspire their workers to set and reach goals. It also made me think that some people believe they deserve everything without even trying.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, Agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, civil engineer, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, Environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker, and, not surprisingly, pacifist. You can find his articles - ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket – in 21st Century Pacifist http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/21st-century-pacifist/ at The Washington Times Communities. Follow Mario on Twitter @chibcharus #TWTC and Facebook at Mario Salazar.
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