When Dan Waggoner began buying acreage in North Texas back in 1850, he probably never dreamed that his ranch would eventually encompass 800 square miles, sprawl over six counties, and be the largest ranch in the U.S. contained within one fence. Nor could he have envisioned that more than 100 years later, his descendants would become so estranged that litigation would continue for more than 20 years, and a court would finally order its sale.
But that’s exactly what happened.
Today, the historic Waggoner Ranch is for sale. At $725 million, the asking price is more than 4 times that of any published sales price of a U.S. ranch.
Dan Waggoner’s ranch was already large when a Kansas cattle drive in 1870 netted the family $55,000. The Waggoners immediately invested in more land, and it went from large to vast. For the next many years, it just kept growing. By 1900, the Waggoner reverse-triple-D brand was known all over Texas.
The ranch gained national attention when President Teddy Roosevelt came to hunt wolves on the property, and Will Rogers became a frequent guest, sometimes playing polo.
Finding enough water to serve vast herds of cattle was a problem then, as it is now, so the Waggoners kept drilling wells. Son Tom was irked because instead of water, his drillers kept finding crude oil. Today, although only 10% of the land has been explored for oil, more than 1,000 wells produce income on a daily basis.
Having each received about $50 million in land, cattle, and horses for Christmas in 1909, Tom’s children were wealthy beyond most people’s imagination, and they used that wealth to make a big splash. In the 1920’s the family was one of the most colorful in America.
Tom’s daughter Electra spent about $90,000 remodeling a home in Dallas to accommodate her vault of diamonds, emeralds, and pearls – along with her closetful of fur coats and 350 pairs of shoes. Meanwhile, her brother Guy went through 8 wives, while her brother E. Paul indulged himself with fine horses, good whiskey, and poker.
Tom, known to the kids as Pappy, became worried that his children would squander the family fortune, so in 1923 put his assets into a trust that would give his children and grandchildren income and ownership, but not control. For many years the ranch grew steadily richer as managers who ran the cattle, horse, oil, and other facets of the family business reported to the trustee.
E. Paul Waggoner had a daughter known as Electra II who became famous in her own right. Residing in a Spanish-style Villa on the ranch’s Santa Rosa Lake, she became nationally renowned for sculpting the busts of Dwight Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman, and Knute Rockne. Said to be the namesake of Buick’s Electra sedan, she was once romantically linked to actor Cary Grant.
She’s also the family member who instigated more than 20 years of litigation. In 1991, at age 78, she filed a lawsuit calling for liquidation of the estate. The family had been fighting for years, with “the other side” believing the ranch should simply be divided in half.
Two years earlier the last of several trustees had resigned, leaving Gene Willingham, husband of one of Electra II”s daughters, and Buck Wharton II, a grandson of Electra I, as co-directors. With offices only steps apart in the ranch’s Vernon headquarters, until recently the two spoke only through intermediaries.
Electra didn’t live to see the liquidation. She passed away in 2001, 12 years before the courts stepped in.
Family members who are still involved in the ranch from day to day are of course saddened by the fact that it will leave the family – and that they will have to leave the ranch. Gene Willingham and his wife have lived on the ranch since 1975, and feels that the cowboys and other workers are part of his extended family. Brooke Wharton, Buck’s daughter, is also involved from day to day. She not only grew up on the ranch, she co-manages the horse operation and had hoped to someday run the whole ranch with her brother.
Thanks to managers, trustees, and family members such as Brooke Wharton, the Waggoner Ranch is still a going operation, with more than 6,800 head of cattle, 500 Quarter Horses, 30,000 acres of producing cropland, and more than 1,000 oil wells.
One realtor who is co-brokering the sale hopes to keep it that way.
Bernard Uechtriz, of Briggs Freeman Sotheby’s International Realty of Dallas, shares the listing with Sam Middleton, of Chas. S. Middleton & Don of Lubbock. Should the property sell for full list price, each agency will receive $7.625 million in commission.
But Uechtriz seems driven by more than the commission. He knows that the right person could gain rich profits by selling off the property in pieces, firing the 120 employees, and letting the Waggoner name and brand fade into the sunset. There is some other land for sale in perth, that many people have been looking at. He hopes to avoid that by finding a buyer who will become a steward, and make his or her money by expanding the ranch, not by destroying it. He wants to become known as the agent who helped save the Waggoner Ranch.
Uechrtiz notes that there are several avenues for increasing profits on the ranch. For one thing, only 10% of the land has been explored for oil. Secondly, there IS water below, but it’s brackish. A desalinization plant would allow the ranch to sell much wanted water to nearby communities. Wind farms also present opportunity.
And finally, since it abounds in deer, feral hogs, quail, turkeys, and other water fowl, portions of the ranch could be leased out for private hunting.
We join with Uechritz in the hope that he finds the right buyer – one who will carry on the traditions of the Waggoner Ranch and keep the cowboy and ranching way of life alive for at least a few more generations.
To learn more about the Waggoner Ranch and its people, view the map, and read about the vast inventory of buildings and equipment that will be included in the sale, visit Bloomberg.com. (http://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-famous-texas-waggoner-ranch-for-sale/)
18170 Dallas Parkway
Dallas, TX 75287