Down Home Ranch is a working farm and ranch, founded in 1989 by parents of a young daughter born with Down syndrome four years prior. The Ranch was inspired by the writings and work of Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and Rudolf Steiner and driven by the lack of resources available to adults with intellectual disabilities.
A New Life, a new story
In 1984, Judy and Jerry Horton and the younger three of their four daughters were living in Austin, Texas, looking forward to the emptying nest and enjoying in Austin a life filled with family, friends and music.
Their lives took a sudden turn when Judy learned she was pregnant with their fourth child. Several months later they welcomed Kelly Page Horton. Kelly was fat, bald, and beautiful – and bore the unmistakable marks of Down syndrome. A new journey had begun. Judy and Jerry began investigating every aspect of Down syndrome – medical, social, spiritual, legal, and financial. There was so much to learn! They knew Kelly would be fine as long as she was living at home, but what about when she graduated from high school? Where would she find friends? Where would she live? Who would care for her? Challenge her? Would there be financial help? Would she be able to work? Could she even find a job?
The Hortons knew that unless Kelly had support her throughout her life isolation, estrangement and loneliness would be a constant threat. Where would the community of love and opportunity come from for Kelly after her parents were gone?
Where would the community of love and opportunity come from?
A Journey Begins
The Hortons visited a wide variety of homes and facilities: state schools, boarding houses, foster and group homes, to a variety of village communities located around the country. A few were very attractive, even inspiring. The majority were barely adequate. Some were truly appalling. The clear winner? Village Communities, almost always inspired by families with a personal stake in them.
- Brookwood Community (daughter with damage from measles as a baby)
- Marbridge Ranch (son with intellectual and developmental disabilities)
- Safe Haven Farm (daughter with severe autism)
- Baddour Village (family member with intellectual disability)
The call to community won the day. The journey had begun.
Staking A Claim
Once the decision was made, a small board of directors was created, and on May 12, 1989, Down Home Ranch, Inc. was made official by the State of Texas. The search for land then took priority. It would have to be close to Austin and fulfill many purposes: agriculture, housing, offices, businesses, camping, and livestock. The purpose was to find a place that wasn’t isolated and had access to the local community.
A beautiful tract of 215 acres located 37 miles from Austin was found between Elgin and Taylor in southeastern Williamson and northwestern Lee counties. The board agreed, and closed on the property Sept. 20, 1990, purchasing it on a ten-year note. Since that time the Ranch has grown to 410 acres.
Jerry, Judy and Kelly moved onto the land September 9, 1991, installing a tiny mobile home underneath a canopy of large Spanish oaks. Jerry continued working in Austin at the University of Texas, but Judy quit her job and focused on caring for Kelly in their new home in the country and figuring out how to raise funds to build the Ranch. There were no usable buildings on the property, only a small, decrepit barn that barely served to house Blossom the donkey and Belle the tiny mule. Cattle roamed at will in the front yard and gardens. Friends came out to help clear away the old shacks and build the Ranch’s first chicken coop and henhouse. Gradually a homestead emerged. Eager to be of service to those the Ranch had been created to serve, the board authorized the Hortons to begin offering programs on a limited basis.
- May 12, 1989, Down Home Ranch, Inc. was officially recognized by the State of Texas.
- In 1990, while still living in Austin, the first issue of The Spirit was published and sent to the few hundred names on the Ranch mailing list. That issue told of the impending purchase of 214 acres of land on which the Ranch would be built.
- In 1991, neighbors helped trench and install a septic system and set up the mobile home. In September, the Hortons moved to the land and Kelly started kindergarten in Thrall school.
- In 1992, two men with disabilities began riding the bus from Austin to the Ranch two days a week to help clear brush and take down old fences.
- In 1993, the first greenhouse was donated to the Ranch and four local adults with disabilities began coming to the Ranch on Tuesdays and Thursdays morning for our first formal day program.
- In 1995 Ranch Camp, a sleepover camp for adults and teenagers with intellectual and physical disabilities began.
- In 1998, thanks to a generous gift by the board president, the mortgage was paid off three years early, and the Ranch qualified for foundation grants to begin building permanent structures.
- In 1999 the Pavilion was built.
- 2002-2018, Gabriel House opened, followed in quick succession by Martha, Barnabas, Teresa, Isaiah, Timothy, Sarah, Benedict, Anderson, Wilderness and Eagle Houses.
- In 2005, the Ranch qualified for status as a provider of Home and Community-Based Services, a Medicaid program administered by the Department of Aging and Developmental Services of the State of Texas.
- In 2006 the Hortons moved to Benedict House, having managed Gabriel House for four years.
- In 2007, DADS changed licensure to ICF/IID
- In 2008 the Swim Center was built; plus two lodges and two bunkhouses.
- At the end of the 2013 summer season, Ranch Camp ceased so that the Ranch could shift its main focus to the Residential program.
- In 2015 three micro-houses were built to provide independent living for three Ranchers.
- In 2016, DHR’s Day Program opened up to the greater community, including Ranchers who were not residents of the Ranch.
- In 2018, Ranch Camp kicked back off, serving 77 adult campers during three weeks of week-long overnight camps.
Jerry and Judy Horton, Founders of Down Home Ranch, undertook its creation with the vision that those who lived at the Ranch would have new opportunities and challenges throughout their lives, just like everyone else in the world, to achieve new dreams, form new ideals, and realize new visions. They emerged as national leaders in the movement to provide excellent, workable models for providing for the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They also helped found the Coalition for Community Choice to counter attempts to limit housing choices for people with IDD and exclude Village Communities from government support. The Founders retired from DHR in 2016 and are continuing to work to improve the lives of people with IDD.
None of this could have happened without the thousands of volunteers who have come forth over the years bearing gifts of time, treasure, and talent. The Ranch still depends upon these friends and we would love to count you among them. Learn how to give, so that Jerry and Judy’s work can continue.
Be part of our future, come on down and visit for a while. We look forward to seeing you!