Hunting and history may seem unlikely partners, but they go hand in hand at Picosa Ranch in Texas. The ranch is the former family home of Governor John Connally who was Governor of Texas in the 1960s and served as Secretary of the Navy for President Kennedy and as Secretary for the Treasury under President Nixon.
I’d have loved to be a guest at one of those occasions when Air Force One landed on the ranch airstrip and the Connally family entertained the President and First Lady on the ranch in good ‘ol Texas style.
These days Picosa Ranch has remodelled itself as a luxury ranch resort offering a bespoke service for those who’d like to get the 5-star Presidential treatment with a range of activities available at your wish and command, from hunting and shooting to horseback riding and rodeo, or just chilling by the pool over a barbecue lunch with a few beers and shooting pool in the Lodge barn.
Our day on the ranch began when we met Governor Connally’s grandson, Bubba Ammann, who is now Vice President of Operations at Picosa Ranch and showed us around the Main House. This was the family home of John and Nellie Connally and the place where Bubba grew up – as Bubba told me: “Everything I did out here was the first – the first time I learned to drive, the first time I learned how to shoot, the first time I learned to swim. The history I have of myself and my family was all here on the ranch growing up as a young boy.”
The Main House is full of architectural features that Nellie Connally collected and brought back to use when the house was being constructed – the carved wooden doors and wrought iron staircase came from the Japanese Embassy in London and the ebony dining table and chairs were salvaged from a Mexican Monastery.
The floor of the reception room is covered with a specially woven carpet, with the Connally cattle brand woven into the border made up of the initials of J and N for John and Nellie. After the death of John Connally the ranch was bought by the Kowalski family who provided catering services over the years to the Connallys and still use the ranch as a family base. The Main House is available for guests to rent, together with the Guest House which is just across the garden on the other side of the pool.
Bubba showed us around the games area upstairs and Governor Connally’s office which is full of memorabilia, photos and information about his years as governor and the story of his years in politics. Most fascinating was that the newly elected Governor Connally and his wife Nellie were both in the car in front of President and Mrs Kennedy when John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
As the first shot wounded President Kennedy, Governor Connally felt a blow to his shoulder and exclaimed: “My God they’re going to kill us all.”
His wife Nellie pulled him down into her lap and out of the line of fire and then another shot came, hitting President Kennedy in the head and killing him. John Connally spent nine days in hospital recovering from the puncture wounds to his back, lung, chest and thigh and fractures to his ribs and wrist.
There were many theories and stories about the assassination and Bubba told me: “Both my grandfather and my grandmother were both in the car with the Kennedys that day in Dallas and it’s been very interesting growing up with that in our family, especially because no-one really knows the answer of what happened that day. My grandfather always told me that he thought that it was from one direction and from one person and three shots, so it’s very interesting to hear what other people say over the years.”
On display in the office is the stetson that was due to be presented to President Kennedy with his initials, JFK, in the brim, which of course he never got to wear and the tickets for the reception that was planned for that evening.
We walked across the lawn, past the swimming pool shaded by a huge Magnolia tree that was grown from a cutting from the tree at the White House and was given to Nellie Connally by Mrs Richard Nixon. The guest house was designed in the 1970s by leading architect of the American south-west, O’Neil Ford, to accommodate cattle buyers who came to do business on the ranch but has now been remodelled into four luxurious guest suites.
The style is “Cowboy Deluxe” with plantation shutters, terracotta floors and equestrian artworks with antique and leather furnishings. Just the sort of place where you might live out your fantasy and kick off your cowboy boots after a hard day rounding up the cattle on the ranch and sit with a beer, leafing through the Stud Manager’s Handbook that I saw on the shelf.
We took a little game-spotting tour from one side of the ranch to the other in one of those golf buggys where the kids had a bird’s eye view from the high level seating at the back, stopping to see some of the exotic animals that are kept and even bred on the ranch, including a cute baby zebra.
There are Oryx, Addax, Waterbuck and Zebra looking just as much at home as they might on the plains of Africa as well as the herds of Texas longhorn cattle. We passed one of the several stocked fishing pools on the ranch where you could while away a few hours hoping that the catfish might bite.
We arrived at the South Range Lodge where an enormous barn has been made into a plush indoor living area, stuffed with hunting trophies. Guests can eat in here or hang out with friends and family around the stone fireplace, playing shuffleboard or shooting a game of pool. Coming from England I wonder why anyone would want to stay indoors when the sun’s shining but then I remember that in the sweltering Texas summers you need to get inside just to cool off in the air conditioning and that winters are mild and sunny so a gathering around the fire would be perfect.
We tried our hand at some clay shooting at the Wobble traps, taking it in turn to hone our skills ready for the quail or dove shooting season or watching from the shady pavilion. The Wobble traps launch the clay targets from both sides and at different heights each time and the children took to it like naturals. Luckily we had John and Dan as instructors who were endlessly patient and left us feeling that it was all perfectly easy and no problem at all if we never hit a thing.
My oldest son William and husband had done quite a bit of shooting and were well away hitting the targets, while Sophie Anne fired away in true “Annie get your gun” style. I managed not to disgrace myself and hit at least one of the clays that I aimed for – luckily it was the one time when the video camera was pointing at me! I doubt that I’ll ever make it as a cowgirl and the next day I had a lovely blue bruise in my shoulder to show for my shooting efforts.
After the shoot-out, we were given a ‘Welcome to the pit’ in the sunken patio with barbecue kitchen where Chef David was turning out the grilled chicken sandwiches and I had a delicious salad of noodles and giant prawns. This area in front of the South Range Lodge guest suites was only built last year and makes a fun place to relax by the lagoon style pool for the afternoon, unless you head for the Lodge to try a game of pool or shuffleboard as the boys opted to do. In Texas, luxury is about having as many flat screen TVs as you care to watch at once, even when you’re having lunch al-fresco.
Picosa Ranch doesn’t have a rate card of activities – the ranch is normally booked for groups of families and friends who can rent all or part of the ranch for a special experience that’s tailored to whatever they enjoy. The ranch has a strong emphasis on hunting and shooting, but family activities are also available such as horseback-riding with mini rodeos, archery and hay bale climbing. You can also swim and cool off at either the pool by the Main House or the lagoon style pool by the South Lodge Guest accommodation and sightseeing trips into nearby San Antonio are easily arranged. Our day at Picosa Ranch was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable of our Texas holiday and as they don’t have a royal family in the USA, I’d say we were given the Presidential treatment.
If you’d like to book Picosa Ranch for a gathering of family and friends, you can contact them to discuss your requirements and get a quotation for a luxury, tailored experience that will create many happy memories.
Picosa Ranch, Floresville, Texas: Our thanks to Picosa Ranch for hosting our day on the ranch