Showdown at Waggoner Ranch
It’s second only to the King Ranch in size, and second to none in its history of drink, divorce, and dissension. For years, its two feuding clans have agreed on only one thing: They want to break up their vast eight-hundred-square-mile spread and close this chapter of Texas history.
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FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY the 520,000-acre Waggoner Ranch has been an inseparable part of the culture and fabric of the Red River country west of Wichita Falls—and of Texas itself. It is the nation’s biggest ranch within the confines of a single fence, a spread so vast that it extends across six counties and covers more than eight hundred square miles. On the map of Texas it appears as a great emptiness south of Vernon, occupied only by the thin strip of U.S. 183/283. From the highway, its pastures seem timeless and impregnable. And so they were, for a hundred years and more. Then, twelve years ago, the two branches of the Waggoner family that control the W. T. Waggoner estate, which in turn controls the ranch, locked themselves in a lawsuit no one can win. One side wants the ranch divided equally but otherwise left intact. The other wants to sell the ranch and divide the assets. It seems inconceivable that they can’t agree on a compromise. Both families are already fabulously wealthy, though the wealth is in the land rather than their pockets. But selling the ranch—or, worse still, permitting the court to liquidate it—would cost both sides dearly in taxes and prestige. Why do they fight on?
The answer lies in the rich and rowdy heritage of the Waggoner clan. Bickering and backstabbing have been a way of life in the family. It is as much a part of the legacy as horses, cattle, oil, opulent mansions, divorces, and drunken sprees. By all rights the Waggoner Ranch ought to be the equal of the King Ranch in Texas lore. Both ranches once covered more than a million acres. Both were famous for breeding, the King Ranch for Santa Gertrudis cattle, the Waggoner Ranch for cutting horses. But the difference is that the cattle barons of the King Ranch led private, almost secretive lives, running their empire themselves and living on the land, while the Waggoners turned their ranch over to professionals, moved away, and pursued flamboyance. As a consequence, the King Ranch scions moved comfortably in elite Texas social, political, and business circles, while the Waggoners never achieved the same degree of prominence. So it was the King Ranch whose legend was set down for posterity by the distinguished Texas author Tom Lea, while the Waggoners’ escapades were left to be recorded by the English author John Bainbridge—a few passages in his 1960 book called The Super-Americans, about the excesses of Texas’s oil millionaires. Yet the Waggoner Ranch has outlasted its South Texas rival in one respect: It is still under the direct control of its founding family.
But for how much longer? That’s what folks in Vernon, Electra, Seymour, and other towns near the Waggoner Ranch are asking as they watch one of Texas’s greatest ranching empires teeter on the brink of disintegration. It’s like watching the death of a huge and magnificent animal: People can’t bear to look, yet they’re powerless to turn away. All during the spring and summer of 2003, they talked of little else. How could things have spun so wildly out of control?
NORTHWEST TEXAS WAS OPEN RANGE in the 1850’s, when Dan Waggoner and his fifteen-year-old black slave trailed 242 Longhorn cattle and 6 horses to Wise County. Hostile Comanches and Kiowas, plus a few foolhardy nesters trying to scratch out a living, occupied this endless stretch of grassland. The mesquite trees that now dominate the land arrived later, their seeds transported in cow droppings as herds from South Texas passed through on their way to railheads in Kansas. Waggoner, a widower, and his young son, William Thomas, settled on Catlett Creek, near present-day Decatur. As the frontier pushed westward, he expanded his herd and bought more land, in Clay and Wichita counties. In 1869 Dan made seventeen-year-old W.T. a full partner, gave him $12, a group of drovers, and fifty hard-used saddle horses, and sent him to Abilene, Kansas, with a herd of five thousand steers. They wintered the herd that year in Clay County and the following spring drove it to market, netting a profit of $55,000. That became the seed money for the Waggoner empire. By the 1880’s, the Waggoners’ Victorian mansion, El Castile, was the most prominent structure in Decatur. (It still is, except for the magnificent Wise County courthouse.) In addition to land and cattle, the family owned five banks, three cottonseed mills, and a coal company.
As their cattle business grew, the ranch needed more grazing land, especially as barbed wire began to close in the open range. Dan and W.T. began courting Quanah Parker, the Comanche chief, with their eyes on the Big Pasture, a huge block of Indian land just across the Red River in what would eventually become Oklahoma. Quanah saw his alliance with the Waggoners and other cattle barons as a way to better the lives of his people—and his own to boot. As Parker biographer Bill Neeley has noted, ethics and morality played no part of this business arrangement. Quanah delivered the land to the Waggoners and other cattle barons—at one time, Waggoner and son leased 650,000 acres for an annual payment of $30,000—and the cattle barons made Quanah rich and famous. They built him a grand home on West Cache Creek, the only permanent structure between Fort Sill and the Texas border, and the chief decorated the roof of his “Comanche White House” with fourteen stars, symbolizing his generalship in battle. They plied him with extravagant gifts: engraved pearl-handled revolvers, diamond stick pins, junkets to Fort Worth, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. They almost killed him with kindness, literally. On a Dan Waggoner-financed trip to Fort Worth, Chief Yellow Bear was asphyxiated and Quanah nearly was when the Indians blew out the gas lamp in their hotel room before retiring.
By the turn of the century, settlers were overrunning Indian reservations, and the open range was all but gone. The Big Pasture, however, remained available for grazing and hunting. In one last attempt to keep the range open, W.T. and fellow cattle baron Burk Burnett sent their pet Indian to Washington, D.C., in 1905 to ride in President Theodore Roosevelt’s second inaugural parade—and to invite Roosevelt to go wolf hunting on the Big Pasture. The 1905 hunt was a classic Waggoner production. The party bagged seventeen wolves (some of which were really coyotes), and the president beat a five-foot rattlesnake to death with his quirt. After dinner by the creek, Dan suggested that they all ride into Frederick, Oklahoma, personally setting the pace. Roosevelt remembered later: “We broke into a lope a mile outside the limits, and by the time we struck the main street, the horses were on a run and we tore down like a whirlwind until we reached the train.”
In the meantime, the Waggoners had been buying out small farmers on the Texas side of the river, paying $1 an acre and often less. One story has it that a gunslinger named Jimmie Roberts, originally hired to deal with rustlers, was sent out to make farmers an offer they couldn’t refuse. The farmers probably didn’t need intimidating. A drought in the last part of the nineteenth century made the land where the Waggoner Ranch now sits nearly useless for growing crops. The settlers, most of them German or Czech, moved north of Paradise Creek, which runs just beyond the present northern boundary of the ranch. This land sits atop the Seymour Aquifer, while the ranch itself is bone-dry. One of the striking sights as you leave the ranch is the sudden appearance of enormous green fields of cotton, wheat, and alfalfa. The little village of Lockett, where the descendants of those settlers now live, is wet in another way: It is the nearest spot where citizens of Vernon can buy beer and liquor.
W.T. WAGGONER HAD BUILT A GREAT RANCH, but in 1909 he was 57 years old and thinking about its future. The squabbling that has ensnared the ranch for almost a century began on Christmas Day of that year, when W.T. divided the ranch that he and his dad had founded into four large tracts. He kept the east side of the ranch, called White Face, for himself. The three smaller, 85,000-acre parcels—Zacaweista, Four Corners, and Santa Rosa—were gifts to his three children, Electra, Guy, and E. Paul. W.T. asked his children to draw cards for the three parcels. He secretly wanted his favorite, Electra, to draw Zacaweista, because it was nearest to his homestead. When E. Paul drew Zacaweista instead, W.T. declared a misdeal and had them draw again. Electra prevailed, as usual. The family feud began the moment the old man rigged the game.
The gifts were not entirely altruistic. W.T. hoped that his kids would learn to ranch and develop a sense of responsibility. What he got was just the opposite. The rich and spoiled siblings nearly squandered the family fortune on wild parties, all-night poker games, trips around the world, and divorce settlements. Legend has it that Electra once blew $1 million in a single day at Neiman Marcus. Guy, who eventually settled on another ranch the family owned in New Mexico, married eight times. E. Paul, a whiskey-drinking, poker-playing party animal, stayed married to his wife, Helen, for fifty years, but few people doubted the rumors that he kept mistresses in Mexico and South Texas.
Concerned about the future of the ranch, W.T. reclaimed all land and assets in 1923 and placed them in a so-called Massachusetts trust, a draconian arrangement in which he, as the trustee, controlled everything, including one of the biggest shallow oil fields in the world. Under the terms of the trust, each of the children owned one third of the 100,000 shares in the estate, elected the board of directors of the trust and served on the board themselves, and retained their homesteads. But even as board members, they were powerless to exercise any authority over the ranch, except to elect future trustees. W.T. (and future trustees) would have the sole right to make all management decisions.
Meanwhile, the Waggoner family tree was sprouting more branches. Electra married A.B. Wharton, a Philadelphia blue blood she met while traveling in the Himalayas. After a big wedding in Decatur, the couple honeymooned in Europe and then planned to settle in Philadelphia. But W.T. was determined to keep Electra nearby. He built the newlyweds an eighteen-room mansion in Fort Worth, where he later built a twenty-story office building as the base for his empire. The family made their main homes in the city and returned to the ranch for weekend getaways and holidays. Thistle Hill, as Electra’s mansion was called, stands to this day on the crest of Summit Avenue, near downtown.
In the Roaring Twenties, Electra Waggoner was the most infamous socialite in Texas. Shortly before she ended her eighteen-year marriage to A.B., she purchased another magnificent home on Preston Road in Highland Park and named it Shadowlawn. Waggoner biographer Roze McCoy Porter writes that Electra spent $90,000 remodeling the one-year-old mansion and another $55,000 on draperies. One closet was filled with fur coats, another with 350 pairs of shoes, and yet a third with the latest gowns from Paris and New York—and she was said never to wear one more than once. She hosted parties of celebrities, movie stars, and barons of capitalism, including the daughter of J. P. Morgan. At one dinner party, two Texans pulled six-guns from their dinner jackets and shot up the ceiling. All-night parties that started at Shadowlawn sometimes ended up on the ranch, after a trip by private railroad car, so that Eastern dandies could be treated to the sights of cowboys branding and castrating calves.
Electra died in 1925 at the age of 43, her life and much of her fortune spent on extravagance. She left an enduring reputation and two children from the first of her three marriages: Tom Waggoner Wharton, who died of syphilis at age 25, eight-times married but childless, and A. B. “Buster” Wharton Jr., a polo player, playboy, and famous drunk who died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1963. You can still see Buster’s polo fields across the road from the big house Electra had built, next to his landing strip, and the skeet- and trap-shooting range where he and his guests gunned down live pigeons. Buster too had multiple spouses (four, to be exact), but his only heir was A. B. Wharton III, known as Bucky. Now 56, Bucky is one of the protagonists in the battle over the future of the ranch.
E. Paul was a dapper, dashing Hollywood-style cowboy, with a mustache and mischievous eyes. Joe Roberson, who was the estate’s auditor for many years, describes him this way: “Big belt buckle, expensive boots, a bottle of whiskey.” E. Paul had a good eye for horses—he bought Poco Bueno, the great cutting horse sire—and loved to be seen as the ultimate cattle baron, but a retired Waggoner Ranch foreman named G. L. Proctor told me, “He wasn’t much of a rider. I never saw him on horseback except during a parade.” E. Paul was a famous charmer, though his wife, Helen, perhaps saw his romanticism through more practical eyes. When Judge Tom Neely, who is in charge of the current lawsuit to break up the ranch, was a young attorney in a previous round of Waggoner lawsuits during the sixties, he and other lawyers found some of E. Paul’s letters to Helen. They were mailed while she was socializing in New York with her daughter, named after E. Paul’s sister, Electra, and known as Electra II. “He went on and on about how heartbroken he was and how much he missed them, but he didn’t write them. The letters were typed by his secretary,” Neely told me. “In one, he wished Electra happy birthday and said, ‘I bought you a $2,500 bond.’”
The second Electra was, like her namesake, a globe-hopping socialite (she was once linked romantically to Cary Grant by Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons), but she also was an acclaimed artist, who knew all the celebrities of her day and sculpted busts of many of them. There is a photograph of her in the Red River Valley Museum, near Vernon College, along with a large collection of her work: busts of Will Rogers, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Hope, Knute Rockne, Amon Carter, John Nance Garner. She was strikingly pretty, with a long, sensitive face and dark, sparkling eyes. Her best-known work is the statue of Will Rogers on horseback at the entrance to the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum, in Fort Worth.
Electra II married twice, the second time for keeps to John Biggs, a Texan who worked for International Paper Company, in New York, in 1943. Neither of her parents came to the wedding; biographer Porter reports that E. Paul and Helen were having marital problems. Biggs’s brother-in-law was the president of General Motors, and he later named a Buick model for Electra. John and Electra had two daughters—a third Electra and Helen. It would be Helen’s husband, Gene Willingham, who would one day become Bucky Wharton’s main opponent in the struggle over the Waggoner Ranch.
IT’S A PERFECT OCTOBER MORNING, cool and crisp, and the ranch spreads out in every direction, 25 miles north to south, 30 miles east to west. We could drive the 60 miles from Bull Run Pasture, on the northeast corner, where the 10th Cavalry camped in 1871, to the David Camp, on the southwest corner, and never venture outside the Waggoner fence. Jim Hughes, a longtime attorney for the Waggoner estate who was being groomed to become a trustee before the feud cost him the opportunity, slows down as a dozen or more wild turkeys scamper across the highway and disappear into thick stands of mesquite. Before the day is done, we’ll spot hundreds of deer and numerous herds of feral hogs, fifty or sixty in a bunch, wee piglets scurrying to keep up. We see a bunch of javelinas too, and a bobcat as big as a mountain lion. After the first freeze, 120,000 geese will land on Santa Rosa Lake and feast on winter wheat fields. Much of the ranch is covered with mesquite, cedar, and prickly pear, and when the sun softens late in the evening, the dull green of the vegetation and the deep red of the soil give the ranch the pastel serenity of a Mexican village.
One thing you don’t see on the ranch is windmills. There are none to be seen, because there is not a drop of groundwater. The Wichita River, the two branches of Beaver Creek, countless small streams and tributaries, and dozens of stock tanks supply the ranch’s water. “W.T. discovered oil while trying to drill for water,” Hughes tells me. “They say he was as mad as a nest of hornets. What the hell could he do with oil! He ended up using it for cattle dip, and the well became Electra’s city dump.”
Near the entrance to Zacaweista, once the home of the first Electra, we stop at the grave of Poco Bueno. A granite tombstone, set in the center of a small, neatly trimmed pasture, marks the grave of the greatest cutting horse of all time. “They buried him standing up,” Hughes informs me. “Or so people say.”
Hughes grew up in Vernon and has been hunting and fishing on the ranch since high school. He knows the ranch, its cast of characters, and its skeletons and stories as well as any outsider. The history of the land and the Waggoner family is so entwined with myth and legend that nobody can untangle the truth. The ranch’s famous reverse triple-D brand, for example, supposedly got that way when a blacksmith inadvertently read W.T.’s hand-drawn design upside down.
Passing under a granite arch, we head down a long, paved driveway to Zacaweista, an Indian word meaning “good grass.” It’s the name of both the ranch headquarters and the sprawling rock-and-wood home that Electra built in 1910. The house sits on high ground, mostly hidden by oak and pecan trees and a fieldstone wall. It’s now the home of Electra’s grandson, Bucky Wharton, his wife, Joline, and their two children.
The headquarters at Zacaweista is a small, self-contained village built around a park that the cowboys call “the square.” In its center lies the grave of Tony Hazelwood, a legendary Waggoner cowboy and longtime foreman, who died in 1965. No Waggoner is buried on the ranch, only this one cowboy and a few early settlers in unmarked graves. Bucky’s home sits on one side of the square. On the other three sides are a number of buildings constructed of identical reddish-brown stone, quarried on the eastern part of the ranch. They include a bunkhouse for single cowboys, more homes for the foreman and senior cowboys, a cookhouse, several maintenance sheds, and a truck barn. One of the most interesting properties at Zacaweista is the gothic stone barn where Buster Wharton bred his polo ponies.
Though there are more than two thousand miles of road inside the ranch, there are hardly any road signs or navigational landmarks. “You get in here far enough, it just swallows you up,” Hughes tells me. After a hard rain, this endless maze of graded red clay becomes a network of quagmires. But there has been no substantial rain for days now, and we kick up a trail of dark red dust as we head toward Santa Rosa, the area that E. Paul inherited and where his daughter, the second Electra, grew up. It’s now the residence of Gene and Helen Willingham. The Willingham house is a low, ranch-style brick structure, set behind a wall of trees. On a slight rise behind this house is a much grander two-story Spanish-style villa with a red tile roof, a swimming pool, and a formal garden.
“That’s where Electra Waggoner Biggs lived and where she kept her studio,” Hughes tells me. It’s been vacant ever since. Though it’s a nicer house, the Willinghams have never moved up there. Perhaps they are afraid of ghosts.
BUCKY WHARTON DIDN’T THINK OF THE RANCH as his heritage until he was in high school at Culver Military Academy, in Indiana. He had grown up in Albuquerque, where his mother, the third of Buster Wharton’s four wives, had moved after their divorce, when Bucky was two. As a boy, Bucky visited the ranch at Christmas and during the summer, but he was never close to his father and knew nothing about cattle or oil. “Growing up, the ranch didn’t seem like a big deal,” Bucky told me. “I just knew that life there was a lot different from life in Albuquerque.” In 1963, when Bucky was fifteen, Buster Wharton died, leaving a will that gave his share of the Waggoner estate to his widow and his shotguns to Bucky. But Bucky’s mother was not about to give up her son’s inheritance without a fight. “I think there were twenty-five or twenty-seven attorneys involved,” he recalled. “I remember my mother taking me to Fort Worth to talk to her attorney.” Ahead was a legal battle over whether Buster had the right to dispose of property that Electra, his mother, had left in trust to him and his bloodline. As it turned out, he didn’t.
We were talking in Bucky’s office, a large corner suite on the second floor of the long, low W. T. Waggoner Estate Building just off the main highway in Vernon. Photographs of his wife and children occupied a bookshelf beside four footballs labeled “Coach Bucky Wharton”—gifts from former University of Texas coach David McWilliams, who’d invited Wharton to join him on the sidelines at several UT games. Bucky looks more like a Little League coach than a cattle baron. He’s not a large man, but his pleasant and unassuming manner and his quiet, considered confidence give him stature. His most arresting feature is his green eyes, which are reminiscent of the luminous eyes that made his grandmother, the original Electra, such a commanding figure. He usually dresses in jeans, a polo shirt, and cowboy boots; in the three times I was with him, he never wore a hat or tried to act like a cowboy. Though he wouldn’t talk about the lawsuit, he spoke freely about his bewildering transformation from New Mexico schoolboy to co-owner of one of the country’s most famous ranches.
In the late sixties Bucky attended the University of the Americas, in Mexico City. Shortly after leaving, he got his draft notice, at the height of the Vietnam War. He was a nineteen-year-old Army sergeant at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when he learned that the lawsuits had been resolved and that he was heir to 50 percent of the W. T. Waggoner estate. The other half belonged to Electra Waggoner Biggs, through various trusts. The summer after his discharge, in 1970, Bucky decided it was time to move to the ranch and begin his real education. Settling into an apartment attached to Buster’s former home at Zacaweista, he enrolled at Midwestern State University, in Wichita Falls, and commuted between ranch and campus, pursing a degree in business administration while learning the ins and outs of the estate. “I worked for six months with various people in the oil and the ranching divisions,” he told me. “I worked a couple of weeks gauging wells. Joe Roberson showed me how to read the books. It was a crash course, but I learned more in those six months than I’d learned my whole life.” In 1975 he married Joline, a young woman he had met in Albuquerque seven years earlier. She joined him in the apartment, and they set to work remodeling the Zacaweista mansion, which had sat vacant for nearly a dozen years.
“It was in terrible condition,” Joline explained as she showed me through their home. “Houses back then were very dark, with low ceilings and small windows. We opened it up.” Today the home is bright and welcoming. The entryway is glass, and there is a skylight over the vaulted ceiling above the staircase. Instead of six bedrooms, it now has four. Buster’s card room, on the second floor, which was once walled in leather, now has the original wood exposed. An enormous picture window with a panoramic view of the ranch replaced the porthole-size window of 1910. When I asked Joline if they had found any memorabilia from Electra’s time, she laughed. “Not a shred,” she told me. “After Bucky’s father died, Lula [the last of Buster’s four wives] stripped this place. She took everything—the furniture, even the light fixtures.” Handsome and trim, Joline once competed in the New York and Paris marathons and still gets up before first light to run. Cowboys ambling from the bunkhouse to the cookhouse for their five-thirty breakfast see her loping across pastures, dodging bulls and pump jacks.
“The color of this ground is the color of the ranch,” Bucky told me as we bumped over the maze of rutted roads, he driving his Toyota Land Cruiser and talking nonstop and I jumping out to open gates. Even the water in Beaver Creek was red—a sign, Bucky said, that it was fresh and contained no gypsum. Bucky’s pride in this place was unmistakable. He pointed to an impenetrable thicket of mesquite and told me, “Thirty years ago we cleared that pasture, all the way to Beaver Creek. Now look at it! We’ve root-plowed, sprayed, pulled it up with a tractor, dug it up with a backhoe. It’s a constant battle.” Over these past three decades, Bucky has absorbed every inch of this ranch and most of its colorful history.
Traveling to the Four Corners line camp, where Guy Waggoner’s great home once stood, I tried to imagine that day in the twenties when Anne Burnett Waggoner, the fifth of Guy’s eight wives, decided she’d had enough. Guy had a weakness for the ladies; he once skipped town with the lead actress from a traveling burlesque show. Anne was the granddaughter of W.T.’s friend Burk Burnett and hardly the type to sit around waiting for a roving husband. One morning she packed, jumped in her car, and headed for town, not bothering to stop and open any of the ten gates on the way. “She finally pulled up in front of the Vernon drugstore, pieces of gate and fence hanging off the car,” Bucky tells me. “She left the motor running, didn’t even bother to shut it off, and walked to the depot and took the next train out of town.” When Guy moved to New Mexico, Tony Hazelwood, who hated his guts, showed his disrespect by storing oats on the home’s prized hardwood floors. The house eventually fell apart and was torn down. Its absence symbolizes the fate of the Guy Waggoner clan in the history of the ranch.
AFTER GUY DIED, E. PAUL AND BUSTER faced the issue of what would become of his shares in the Waggoner estate. Either Guy’s two children would become their partners or E. Paul and Buster would have to buy them out. They chose the latter. Meanwhile, W.T.’s widow, Ella, ran the ranch as dowager empress until her death, in 1959. Buster received income from his share of the estate, but he had no role in the ranch management and was happy to leave the ranching to E. Paul. Buster never liked cows; the only thing about the ranch he cared about was horses, especially his polo ponies. He either didn’t care or didn’t notice that E. Paul’s clan—especially his socialite wife, Helen—considered Electra’s line of the family to be tainted and Buster to be an irresponsible spendthrift, and they were plotting for the day when they could force the Whartons out.
Hunting big game in Africa and hosting extravagant parties at the ranch occupied most of Buster’s time. Millionaire ranchers from Argentina and the elite of East Coast society came in their private planes for weekends of polo and debauchery. “I can remember the Firestones and the Beverages and the cream of New York society flying in for those matches,” Don Ross Malone, a Vernon attorney and son of the former game warden for the ranch, told me. “My first job was walkin’ hots”—cooling down winded horses—”between chuckers. I got two dollars a match.” Cecil Smith, the world-famous ten-goal player, rode with Buster’s Waggoner Ranch team.
By the late fifties, forces were marshalling to ensure total control for E. Paul and his heirs. The cost of buying out Guy’s third of the estate had put a crimp in the flow of dividends, and Buster was running short of money. He borrowed a large sum from his nonagenarian grandmother, Ella, who later transferred the note to E. Paul. In early 1963 Buster filed a lawsuit, seeking a dispensation to sell shares, but he died before the matter was litigated.
By that time, Ella had died, at the age of one hundred, and her successor as trustee was John Biggs, the son-in-law whom E. Paul had groomed for the job. Biggs’ second in command was comptroller Killen Moore, a onetime Internal Revenue Service agent. After Biggs fell ill with cancer in the early seventies, Moore was essentially running things, and the board—which then consisted of Electra II and Bucky—appointed him trustee after Biggs died, in 1975. Behind his back, other employees referred to Moore as Rasputin. Quietly and efficiently, Moore began to purge anyone friendly to the Wharton half of the trust: Jim Hughes, who most people had believed would succeed Biggs as trustee; Joe Roberson, the auditor who was being groomed as comptroller; Bill McBroom, the head of the oil division; and Ross Malone, the game warden.
Moore astonished Bucky by trying to buy his stock in the estate. “Killen knew that Bucky was strapped with legal fees from the court battles of the sixties,” Hughes told me. “He offered him pennies on the dollar for his fifty percent share.”
“It was a paltry amount,” Roberson agreed. “He offered to pay Bucky’s attorney fees and pitch in an extra one million. Killen told Bucky, ‘Take this, go back to New Mexico, and live your life. You have no voice here and you never will.’”
Though their homesteads are only a few miles apart, the families of Bucky Wharton, the original Electra’s grandson, and Gene Willingham, Electra II’s son-in-law, might as well live on separate continents. They seldom speak and hardly ever socialize. At Christmas, they exchange gifts—by messenger. “I saw them together at a backyard wedding two years ago, but they stayed on opposite sides of the yard,” Jim Hughes told me. “It’s a weird deal. Gene’s got to drive within fifty feet of Bucky’s house every morning and again every evening to get to his own place. What must be going through his mind?” But the Willinghams aren’t talking—about the lawsuit or anything else.
Since Electra II’s death, in 2001, the board has been composed of these two men who rarely speak to each other. Gene is, by all accounts, gregarious and outgoing, a typical good ol’ boy who enjoys playing dominoes at the country club. He was teaching at Will Rogers Elementary School, in Houston, where Helen Biggs was also a teacher. They married in 1969. When Helen’s father died, in 1975, they moved to the ranch, where Gene gradually assumed the position of head of the family. By contrast, Bucky is reserved, private, and serious about his business affairs. He owns a bank, an oil company, and a cattle company, but he is happiest when he is working outdoors or having dinner with his family.
Waggoner Ranch cowboys like and respect both families and consider them fair and generous. “I’ll tell you one thing: Mrs. Biggs [Electra II] was the nicest person in the world to me,” said Jimmy Lee Smith, who cowboyed at the ranch for 38 years, rising from cowpuncher to foreman and ranch manager. “When my wife got sick with cancer, Gene and Buck got the company plane to fly her to M. D. Anderson. Mrs. Biggs called ahead and had the director meet us on the front step. They were super, super people.” Nevertheless, Smith resigned in 1997, tired of being caught in the middle of the power struggle. At that time, Gene wanted to sell leases to hunters and Bucky didn’t. The cowboys sided with Bucky, who felt that hunters left litter, cut fences, and left gates open. The dispute seemed to highlight Bucky and Gene’s contrasting attitudes—one loved the land, the other loved the money. As Smith put it, “They were a beer-and-champagne twosome.”
Bucky and Gene run the operation from offices in the W. T. Waggoner Estate Building. They communicate by written memos, even though their offices are separated by only a few feet. When it is necessary for them to be in the same room, they let third parties do the talking. In a deposition filed with the court in 2001, Bucky acknowledged: “We do not meet face to face, just he and I. We always meet with our employees present, and nothing is really handled.” They have quarreled over which wells to cap or abandon, over control of the corporate airplane, over the purchase of bulls and the size of cow herds. Nothing is too trivial to spark an argument.
SOME PEOPLE THINK THAT THE LAST chance for a settlement died with Electra II. She was a genteel and educated woman, polished at Miss Wright’s finishing school at Bryn Mawr, a person who hated the details of ranching but respected and loved the tradition. Some people believe that she would never have permitted the sale of the Waggoner Ranch. But Gene and Helen seem determined to do just that. Gene has told people that the ranch would sell in no time, the whole 520,000 acres. Potential buyers include a group of Japanese investors, Ross Perot Jr., Boone Pickens, even the Mormon church—or so go the rumors. There is also a rumor that the Willinghams have already bought a home in Fort Worth.
After her husband died, Electra II did not keep up the pressure on Bucky, as John Biggs and Killen Moore had done. Moore resigned as trustee in the early eighties, at a critical moment for the estate. Originally, the trust was supposed to expire after twenty years, in 1943, but the terms of the trust allowed it to be routinely extended in twenty-year increments until 1983. With the trust on the verge of expiring, Bucky and Electra II agreed to extend it until March 31, 2003. At the same time, they amended the bylaws to allow either party to give “notice of termination” within certain windows of time—an amendment that would later prove crucial in the battle over the ranch. Things were working smoothly at that moment, but neither side believed the harmony would last. In the late eighties, as the oil revenue began to peter out, the new trustee of the Waggoner estate, Charles Prather, resigned. The two sides have never been able to agree on a replacement. Without a trustee to keep them at arm’s length, they set off on a collision course.
Two years after Prather’s resignation, Bucky gave notice of termination of the trust in a letter to Electra II’s family. This was probably a bluff. Bucky wanted to make it clear that he believed the situation was untenable. He didn’t want to sell the ranch, but he thought it could be divided, that a line could be drawn on a map so that each side would have a separate but equal share. “I’ll draw a line and you take first pick,” he offered. “Or you draw a line and I’ll take first pick.”
To Bucky’s surprise, the Biggs family responded by filing suit, asking the court to liquidate the estate. That’s the case that has been snaking through Judge Tom Neely’s Forty-sixth District Court, in Wilbarger County, for these past twelve years.
Bucky wanted the ranch to be divided, not liquidated. After the Biggses requested liquidation, he hired Hughes and Roberson to draw a map, splitting the ranch in a way that would be acceptable to both sides. The United States Department of Agriculture, as part of a conservation project, had surveyed every foot of ground on the ranch, and Roberson fed this information into a database. They gathered information on the value of individual pastures, with the help of foreman Jimmy Lee Smith. Another formula was used to calculate mineral rights, pipelines, cattle, horses, equipment, other assets. When they presented the map to Gene, they say, he asked for more details. When they supplied them, he fumed. “I didn’t ask for the nuts and bolts,” he said and walked away.
For several years there were no further attempts to settle. Then, in 1997, Bucky and Roberson drew another map, this time setting aside the two homesteads, and again offered Gene first choice. “We met in the boardroom at the Waggoner building,” Roberson told me. “Bucky and Gene and their lawyers were there. I was there. After a time everyone seemed in agreement on all except one point—maintenance of the dam at Santa Rosa Lake. The dam was right on the dividing line. Who was going to be responsible for it? Lonny Morrison [Gene’s attorney] said he knew an expert who could advise on that matter. He’d consult with him and get back to us. Then he left the meeting and that’s the last we heard. After that, negotiations were dead in the water.” Gene remembered it differently. In a January 2003 deposition, Gene said he sent Bucky his own draft of the map but never got a reply. “The last e-mail I got from him,” he testified, “[was] five years ago.”
At midnight, March 31, 2003, the clock ran out on the W. T. Waggoner trust. Now the fate of the ranch was up to the court. In May, Judge Neely heard the motion for partial summary judgment and made his ruling. The Waggoner Ranch was ordered liquidated. At least that’s what everyone outside the two families, their lawyers, and the judge believe happened. That’s how it was reported in nearly every newspaper in Texas, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the Houston Chronicle.
But when I talked to Judge Neely in October, he told me, “No, that wasn’t my ruling.” The two sides had agreed to this wording: “An event has occurred [Bucky’s notice of termination] which requires the winding up of … the estate.” Judge Neely accepted this language.
So what does it all mean? Nobody’s sure. Apparently they just agreed to continue to disagree. Neither the Willinghams nor the Whartons have the funds to buy the other out. The assets of the estate have been estimated at $200 to $300 million, but it would surely fetch far less if liquidated. Moreover, a sale would be taxed and so would the distribution of the money. Maybe that’s why Judge Neely told me that he has no intention of setting a deadline. “My docket’s not that crowded,” he said. No one, it seems, wants to witness the breakup of a mythic Texas ranch—except the Waggoner heirs.
A FULL MOON HANGS OVER WEST Diving Board Pasture. But we are so far from the lights of town—any town—that half an hour before daylight it’s still pitch black. The cowboys are already waiting on horseback just outside the loading pens, cutting up like schoolboys awaiting the bell for recess. They have been up since three and have had a hefty cookhouse breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon, potatoes, biscuits, and gravy. They can’t wait to get started. Yesterday a helicopter herded one hundred mother cows and their calves into a “trap”—a corner of the large pasture—and soon cowboys on horseback will be stripping the calves away from their mothers, herding them into separate pens and loading them onto trucks for transportation to other parts of the ranch.
“I guess you could say it’s traumatic, but in two or three days the calves will forget they ever had mamas,” Weldon Hawley says in response to my city-boy question. Hawley is the ranch manager, and I’m sitting in the passenger seat of his pickup, holding my third cup of coffee. Hawley has a cell phone handy, and the ranch radio under the dash crackles with voices from isolated posts miles away. As the sun begins to crawl over the horizon, Hawley marvels at the endless prairie. “Look out there! Some people don’t see it, but she’s beautiful. This is what she’s good at, raising cattle.” Hawley is 52 and has been at the ranch since 1972, working his way up from cowpuncher to straw boss to headquarters boss and finally to ranch manager. “This is the job I set my sights on,” he says. “G. L. Proctor was foreman when I got here, and I made him my model.”
The ranch has about thirty cowboys, many of them second- and third-generation Waggoner employees. They work six and sometimes seven days a week, from daylight until the job is done, often late at night. “The only time we don’t work,” Hawley tells me, “is when it’s raining and light-ning, or when it’s very hot. We try not to put stress on the livestock.”
While the last of the calves are being loaded onto the trucks, I talk to a 22-year-old cowboy named Shane Bone, a handsome young man in dusty brown chaps and a well-used cowboy hat. His daddy worked this ranch for fifteen years, and Shane grew up on Cowboy Row. Now he lives in the bunkhouse. “All I ever knew is the Waggoner Ranch,” he tells me. “I tried college in Vernon for a little while, but it wasn’t for me. No way I could live in the city.” He means Vernon (population: 12,000).
Cowboys are a different breed. Cowboying isn’t a profession, it’s a life, but if the Waggoner Ranch is broken up into pieces, that life will exist no more. The cattle will be sold, along with the trucks that haul them, and the vast pastures will be chopped up, and who knows what will replace them. This will still be ranchland, for that’s all it’s fit to be, but not ranching on the grand scale that allows men to be cowboys. It’s a trade that suits only a select few for whom the life satisfies rather than restricts. They still talk here of Paul Whitley, an unmarried cowboy who in 1950 rode his horse to Cedar Top, the most remote camp on the ranch, and lived alone in a primitive cabin until his final illness, in 2002. These are the men who made the ranch work while the Waggoners were off in Fort Worth or New York or Europe.
Back in town, I am introduced to 79-year-old G. L. Proctor, the old cowboy who Weldon Hawley has modeled himself after. Since his retirement, in 1991, Proctor has lived in Vernon, raising a few cows and tending his yard. “I can’t sit down, never could,” he tells me. Proctor, whose daddy was a Waggoner cowboy too, went to work for the ranch in 1937, at age thirteen. In 1965 he replaced Tony Hazelwood as foreman. In his entire life, he never drew a paycheck from anyone but the Waggoners. He sits across the table from me in his starched jeans and freshly shined boots, ramrod straight, his hat resting in his lap, his gray hair slicked down.
“What does it take to be a good cowboy?” I ask.
“Be alert all the time and ready to go,” he says in a strong, sure voice. “A good cowboy does what the foreman tells him and waits for his paycheck and for the sun to go down.”
Now the sun is going down on the Waggoner Ranch, perhaps forever. I ask him what he thinks of the family feud that threatens to end the way of life that he knew. “It doesn’t seem real to even think about it,” he says. “The only thing I can figure, it was give to them. Didn’t any of them have to work or suffer to get it. That’s the only reason anyone would want to sell.”