The Biggest Ranches
From the fabled King to the formidable 06, the twenty most storied spreads in Texas.
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IN TEXAS IN 1998 THE RECIPE FOR FAME AND FORTUNE CALLS FOR NERDS, not herds. But you couldn’t get the owners of the state’s twenty largest ranches to trade their hundreds of thousands of acres—not even for millions of dollars in Dell Computer stock.
Compiling this list of latter-day land barons wasn’t easy. For one thing, there is no central clearinghouse for information on ranch ownership, so we had to do a lot of old-fashioned reporting. We consulted books and tax records and articles in newspapers and magazines, quizzed ranch historians, and interviewed the owners themselves whenever possible.
For another, we had to decide what the word “ranch” means. Despite the near-ubiquity of the term, there is no official definition; Patrick Murfee, the administrator of the Ranching Heritage Association in Lubbock, actually laughed out loud when we asked for one. After talking to him and other experts in the field, we settled on four criteria that a Texas ranch must meet.
1. On the land in question, livestock—cattle, goats, horses, and the like—must be raised for profit.
2. The land can be noncontiguous but must be managed as one ranch—an important point, since many ranches, including the King Ranch, are made up of several chunks of land, some of which are hundreds of miles apart but are overseen by the same person or group.
3. The land must be in Texas. (Nearly 50 percent of the ranch owners on our list have acreage in other states or countries.)
4. The land must be primarily owner-operated; that is, owned and run by the same people, or at least members of the same family. Leased land doesn’t count. That’s why the venerable Kenedy Ranches aren’t on the list.
Read on to learn about the state’s ranching royalty—beginning, as always, with the reigning King.
LOCATION Brooks, Jim Wells, Kenedy, Kleberg, Nueces, and Willacy counties
PRIMARY USE cow-calf, feed yard, farming, horses, oil and gas, wild game hunting, birding
the tremendous success of texas’ largest and most storied spread was not a foregone conclusion. When Captain Richard King founded the ranch, he knew almost nothing about cattle ranching; he was a New York jeweler’s apprentice who stowed away on a ship to Alabama, later becoming a pilot, and ended up making a fortune in the steamship business on the Rio Grande. But he made up for his inexperience by making smart decisions, like buying land with the area’s only source of fresh water and coaxing an entire Mexican town (whose population included vaqueros) to move to Texas and work for him. Today King Ranch, Inc.—it was incorporated in 1934—has diversified interests ranging from agribusiness to oil and gas, and it is co-owned by Captain King’s heirs and other stockholders.
For more on the King Ranch, see “When We Were Kings,”.
LOCATION Brewster, Culberson, Dimmit, La Salle, Maverick, McMullen, Uvalde, Webb, and Zavala counties
PRIMARY USE cow-calf, farming, Angora goats, oil and gas
THESE DAYS MOST TEXANS LUCKY ENOUGH TO inherit large ranches eventually downsize them. Not Dolph Briscoe, Jr., who was Texas’ governor from 1973 to 1979. Now 75, Briscoe inherited 190,000 acres when his father, Dolph Briscoe, Sr., died in 1954. Since then, he has more than tripled his holdings, making him Texas’ largest individual landowner. He also leases an additional 100,000 acres in Maverick and Cochran counties.
For more on Briscoe and his ranches, see “Briscoe’s Bounty,”.
LOCATION Archer, Baylor, Foard, Knox, Wichita, and Wilbarger counties
PRIMARY USE cattle, quarter horses
ALTHOUGH W. T. “TOM” WAGGONER AND HIS FATHER started out leasing thousands of acres, at the time of his death in 1934 Waggoner owned the largest chunk of contiguous ranchland in the United States. More than sixty years later, the Waggoner Ranch is still Texas’ largest piece of privately owned land, with 524,000 acres spread over six counties—all of it bordered by a single fence.
When Waggoner parceled out ownership of the ranch to his three children, he stipulated that it couldn’t be divided; as a result, it has remained intact despite family discord. Today half of the Waggoner Ranch is owned by the estate of Waggoner’s granddaughter, 86-year-old Electra Waggoner Biggs, and her children and grandchildren; the other half is owned by Electra’s cousin, 51-year-old Albert B. “Buck” Wharton III. Electra and Buck have been feuding for the past decade and live in separate houses on the west side of the property.
O’Connor Family Ranches
LOCATION Goliad, Refugio, and Victoria counties
PRIMARY USE cow-calf
THOMAS O’CONNOR WASTED NO TIME MAKING HIS MARK in the New World. In 1834, at the ripe old age of fourteen, he arrived in Texas from Ireland. At seventeen he fought in the Battle of San Jacinto—the youngest Texan to do so. And by the time he celebrated his twenty-eighth birthday, he had registered the TC brand.
The family’s greatest achievement, however, may have been its indirect contribution to the development of the first breed of cattle produced in the U.S. In 1910 Tom’s grandson, also named Tom, gave Henrietta King and her son-in-law Robert Kleberg a hyper-healthy black half-bred Brahman-Shorthorn bull whose offspring produced a King Ranch cow. When that cow was mated with a Brahman bull in 1920, the result was Monkey, the famous deep-red bull calf that became the foundation for the Santa Gertrudis breed.
When O’Connor died in 1887, he left the ranch to his children, who left it to their children, and so on down the line. Today about a dozen of his descendants share ownership of the land.
Jones Family Ranches
LOCATION Brooks, Jim Hogg, and Starr counties
PRIMARY USE cattle, oil and gas, wild game hunting
CAPTAIN A. C. JONES WAS NOT AT ALL PLEASED WHEN HIS SON, William Whitby Jones, announced he was going to be a rancher. And not only that: He was going to do it in an isolated, drought-prone, bandit-ridden section of South Texas. It wasn’t as if W.W. had no other options: He was a graduate of Roanoke College in Virginia and the Draughn Business School in New York, and his father owned a thriving bank and mercantile store in Beeville; he could have run either or both. But the son held firm, and in 1897, at age 39, he bought 6,000 acres in Jim Hogg County that were once part of the Las Animas Spanish land grant. Over the years Jones and his wife, Louella Marsden, and their children added some 373,000 acres. Today his grandchildren and great-grandchildren own and operate the family ranches.
LOCATION King County
PRIMARY USE cattle, horses
SOMETIMES FICTION IS MORE ENTERTAINING THAN FACT. According to lore, Missouri cowman Burk Burnett won a ranch in a high-stakes card game and named it after his hand: the Four Sixes. Yet Burnett himself denied the lively Wild West story, as do his ancestors, who say he bought the ranch from the Louisville Land and Cattle Company and named it after the brand already imprinted on his first herd: 6666.
Whatever the case, no one disputes the majesty of the Four Sixes, which is managed by Burnett’s great-granddaughter, 62-year-old Anne Winfohr Marion, and her husband, John, a former chairman of Sotheby’s. In addition to the revenue they’ve generated through traditional operations, the Marions have earned a few dollars a less likely way: In the sixties and seventies Marlboro featured the Four Sixes’ red-and-white barn in its cigarette ads, making the ranch noteworthy not only in Texas but also on Madison Avenue.
East Family Ranches
LOCATION Brooks, Cameron, Hidalgo, Jim Hogg, Kenedy, Kleberg, Starr, and Willacy counties
PRIMARY USE cattle, oil and gas
THE EAST FAMILY IS ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING ranching clans in the state, but they won’t talk to the press. And public information about them and their holdings is scarce—strangely so, given their connection to the well-examined King Ranch. What little we do know comes from books like Tom Lea’s two-volume 1957 classic, The King Ranch. According to Lea, Tom T. East—described only as a local rancher—married Alice Kleberg, the granddaughter of King Ranch founder Richard King, in 1915. The newlyweds went to live on East’s San Antonio Viejo Ranch about 75 miles from the King Ranch. When the Easts fell on hard times, they sold their 77,000 acres to the Kings. (Not long after, the King Ranch’s first producing oil well was found on the San Antonio Viejo.) In 1935, when Alice Kleberg’s estate was settled following her death, title to the San Antonio Viejo was trans-ferred back to the Easts.
Today the East Family Ranches are owned by the Easts’ surviving son, Robert, and Evelyn East, the widow of his late brother. Robert owns the San Antonio Viejo, the Casa Verde, and the San Pablo; Evelyn owns the Santa Fe.
LOCATION Brewster, Pecos, and Reeves counties
PRIMARY USE cow-calf
LIKE THE LEGENDARY BUT NOW DEFUNCT XIT RANCH, La Escalera was born of Texas’ desire to have a grand statehouse. Originally given to the GC&SF Railway in exchange for money and materials used to the build the Capitol, La Escalera was bought in 1884 by Edwin Giddings of Colorado. Actually, the property was called the Elsinore back then, or the E L for short. The name changed in 1992 when San Antonio contractor Gerald Lyda, Sr., bought the property from Douglas Giddings, Edwin’s grandson. Lyda, who had just transferred the title to his 360,000-acre Ladder Ranch in New Mexico to Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, christened the new ranch La Escalera (Spanish for “ladder”). Keeping the name in some form was more pragmatic than sentimental: Lyda had five thousand calves already carrying the Ladder brand. “To keep from rebranding them, I went to Spanish,” he says.
Lyda has added 38,000 acres to La Escalera since he bought it, bringing the total up to 226,000 acres. He also owns the 46,000-acre Lake Ranch in Reeves County, which is run by his son Gene.
Reynolds Family Ranches
LOCATION Culberson, Dallam, Hartley, and Jeff Davis counties
PRIMARY USE cow-calf
ONE OF THE FIRST PERMANENT RANCHERS in the Davis Mountains area, Barber Watkins Reynolds moved his family from Arizona to Texas in 1845, eventually settling on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River just east of Fort Griffin. His choice was excellent economically and socially: His cattle business thrived, and five of his children married the children of his neighbor, friend, and sometime business partner Joe Beck Matthews.
Reynolds’ two eldest sons, George and William, were in the cattle business for sixteen years before they founded the Reynolds Cattle Company in 1884. (As trail drivers, they participated in the ride that became the basis for Lonesome Dove.) Their holdings consisted of the Long X Ranch—once 250,000 acres, it is now 150,000, parts having been sold to actor Tommy Lee Jones and Emmett McCoy (see page 123)—and the 100,000-acre Rita Blanca, which was carved out of the old XIT. Passed down from generation to generation, that land has been divvied up into four parcels, each of which is owned by a descendant of George or William.
A. S. Gage Ranch
LOCATION Brewster and Presidio counties
PRIMARY USE cow-calf
ALFRED S. GAGE WAS BORN IN VERMONT IN 1860, moved to Dallas at age eighteen, and four years later, took a job with his brother Edward, a Dartmouth College graduate who had started a land business. But within a year, he got restless and went to work as a cowboy on a ranch in Archer County. After Edward died in 1892, his company was reorganized and renamed the Alpine Cattle Company, and 32-year-old Alfred returned to be its general manager. In 1913 he bought out the other stockholders, merged Alpine’s 170,000 acres with more than 230,000 that he owned, and created the A. S. Gage Ranch.
At the time of his death in 1928, Alfred still owned those 400,000 acres, and they were split evenly between his daughters, Dorothy Gage Forker and Roxana Gage Catto. Forker’s half has been subdivided numerous times, but Catto’s half remained intact and is now owned by her daughters, Roxana Catto Hayne and Joan Negley Kelleher, the wife of Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher.
LOCATION Gray County
PRIMARY USE cow-calf
THAT THE JA SURVIVED EVEN ITS FIRST YEAR is surprising when you consider the odd couple who started it: rancher extraordinaire Charles Goodnight, whose claims to fame include inventing the chuck wagon and co-founding the Goodnight-Loving Trail, and John George Adair, an urbane Irish aristocrat who, legend has it, wore silk pajamas—even while camping. Despite their differences, their partnership arrangement—Goodnight ran the ranch, Adair put up the money—produced one of Texas’ most beautiful and well-run spreads, the King Ranch of the Panhandle. It was also one of the largest—at one point the JA encompassed some 1,300,000 acres—but over time chunks were sold off.
In 1887, after feuding with the Texas Legislature over various things, Goodnight decided he was “sick of land and men” and asked Adair’s widow, Lady Cornelia Ritchie Adair, to buy him out. She did and then promptly gave the ranch to her son by her first marriage, James W. “Jack” Ritchie. When he died, he passed it on to his son, M.H.W. “Monte” Ritchie, who owns it today. Now 87, the U.K. native lives in Amarillo but still visits the JA every week.
Clayton Williams Ranches
LOCATION Borden, Brewster, Jeff Davis, Pecos, and Presidio counties
PRIMARY USE cow-calf, yearling
SAY WHAT YOU WILL ABOUT CLAYTON WILLIAMS, the Republican candidate for governor in 1990, but the man adores his ranches. “I don’t have the heritage of the Four Sixes,” he says, “but I have a love of the land, and I’ve managed to buy it with profits made somewhere else.”
Indeed he has. Almost as soon as Williams made his fortune in the oil patch, he started buying property. The 66-year-old, who is the president and CEO of Midland-based Clayton Williams Energy, bought his first ranch, the 26,880-acre Henderson Cove Ranch in Alpine, in 1975. (He renamed it the Happy Cove “because we’ve spent a lot of happy days there.”) Since then, he has acquired three more ranches, including his biggest ranch, the 78,000-acre West Pyle in Pecos County, in 1993. He also recently purchased 10,000 acres of farmland in Fort Stockton that used to belong to his father.
For Williams and his wife, Modesta, who comes from an old ranching family, ranching is best described as a moneymaking hobby—though as with all hobbies, there are non-monetary benefits as well, or at least he hopes. “We tried to raise our kids there in summertime to teach them how to work,” he says. “They learned how to work—and also to drink beer, I’m afraid.”
LOCATION Armstrong and Briscoe counties
PRIMARY USE cow-calf, yearling and stocker cattle, wheat
THE LAND THAT BECAME THE TULE RANCH—named for the Tule Canyon, which runs through it—was purchased in 1883 by Charles Goodnight and John George Adair. It was bought by Mattie Hedgecoke in the thirties at a time when chunks of the JA Ranch were being sold off (see page 121). Hedgecoke, in turn, sold 27,000 acres to D. M. Cogdell, Sr., in 1953, and Cogdell acquired a few more acres each year until his death in 1964. Those acres were inherited by his sons, Billy and D. M. Junior, who themselves acquired a few acres each year. In 1994 Billy bought out his brother’s half of the Tule and is now its sole owner.
Killam Family Ranches
LOCATION Duval and Webb counties
PRIMARY USE cow-calf, yearling and stocker cattle, oil and gas
SINCE O. W. KILLAM GREW UP ON A FARM IN MISSOURI, you’d think it was his love of ranching that led him to buy the 10,000-acre Villegas Ranch in Webb County in 1927. In fact, the lawyer and onetime Oklahoma state senator was interested in finding oil. Six years earlier, he had drilled his first well on some leased property in Webb County—also the first commercial oil well south of San Antonio—and out gushed the black gold that became the foundation of his family’s fortune.
In the years since, the Killams have acquired two more ranches with oil and gas reserves, the 95,000-acre Ortiz and the 102,000-acre Duval County (27,000 acres were recently partitioned to a branch of the family and are run as a separate ranch). And they’ve consistently invested some of the money made from oil in their cattle operations. Today the ranches are owned by O. W. Killam’s grandchildren, who run them much the way he did.
LOCATION Jeff Davis, Pecos, and Reeves counties
PRIMARY USE cow-calf
WHILE MANY OF ITS COUNTERPARTS ON BIG RANCHES use helicopters to round up cattle, the McCoy family employs a team of cowboys who live in camps on its land. It’s a practice rooted more in necessity than nostalgia: The ranches are hilly and mountainous, situated as they are in the Trans-Pecos outback, which can make it trickier and more expensive to veer from tradition. “The way we do it just works a heck of a lot better for us,” says 75-year-old Emmett McCoy, who owns the ranch with his wife, Miriam, and four family members.
The former roofer, who grew up in Houston and Galveston, didn’t start his large-scale ranching operation until the late eighties. In 1988, using profits from McCoy Corporation, a building-supplies company he founded after World War II and ran until he retired last year, McCoy bought the 22,000-acre Seven Springs Ranch about 165 miles north of Big Bend National Park. In the years since, the family has acquired nearly 150,000 more acres, including the historic Rockpile Ranch, which was once owned by the Reynolds family, and the U Ranch, which was previously part of the King Ranch.
LOCATION Dickens and King counties
PRIMARY USE cattle, quarter horses, farming
AS TEENAGERS IN POST—CIVIL WAR MISSISSIPPI, friends and distant cousins Eugene F. Williams and D. B. Gardner left their families’ plantations in search of more interesting and lucrative opportunities. Williams ended up in St. Louis, where he joined the Brown Shoe Company, eventually becoming a partner. Gardner headed to Texas, where he worked on ranches—first as a cowboy, then as a foreman—and finally saved enough to buy part of a modest ranch of his own. In 1881 Gardner heard that the Pitchfork brand was for sale for $50,000 and got another man, Col. J. S. Godwin, to invest. The next year, Williams arrived and bought Godwin’s share; together, he and Gardner founded the Pitchfork Ranch near Guthrie.
Though cattle has always been the ranch’s main source of revenue, the Pitchfork is known for its horses—though not the kind originally envisioned. Its first quality horses were Thoroughbreds brought to the ranch by Williams’ polo-playing children. But Thoroughbreds didn’t suit the cowboys’ needs, and in 1940 the Pitchfork switched to quarter horses, producing some of the finest in the country.
Today the ’Forks (as it is called) is owned by Williams’ descendants.
Yturria Family Ranches
LOCATION Cameron County
PRIMARY USE cattle, oil and gas, wild game hunting, birding
ALL SOUTH TEXAS RANCHES HAVE STRONG MEXICAN INFLUENCES, but the Yturria ranches are unique: Of all the founders of large Texas ranches in the nineteenth century, Francisco Yturria was the only one of Mexican ancestry. Born in Matamoros in 1830, he came to the United States as an eighteen-year-old apprentice to his father’s friend Charles Stillman, the premier merchant in the Rio Grande Valley. Yturria started his own mercantile business just two years later and soon founded the first bank in South Texas. The bulk of his fortune was earned later, however, when he went into business with Stillman and Richard King, the founder of the King Ranch, during the Civil War.
Although Yturria founded his ranch in 1860, he rarely visited it until 1906, when he and King and other investors founded the area’s first railroad. When he died in 1912, he passed it on to his adopted children, who split it in half. Today more than thirty of Yturria’s descendants own different portions of the ranch.
Bass Family Ranches
LOCATION Aransas, Atascosa, Brooks, Hidalgo, Johnson, Kenedy, Kleberg, Parker, Red River, and Tarrant counties
ACRES 150,000 (est.)
PRIMARY USE cattle
HUNTING DOWN INFORMATION ABOUT THE TEXAS RANCH HOLDINGS of the notoriously tight-lipped Bass family is nothing less than serious sport. The Basses, like the Easts, refuse to discuss the subject publicly, and neither the family nor its employees will confirm acreage, location, or any other details. Not that you can’t find out a few things by digging: According to our sources, the Basses have three well-known Texas ranches. Lee Bass owns the El Coyote, which is south of Falfurrias, while Ed owns the Winscott southwest of Fort Worth. And the Bass family owns the San Jose Cattle Company on the Gulf Coast, along with thousands of additional acres scattered across Texas. Of these, the Winscott is the most historic, since it was founded in the late 1800’s by Winfield Scott, one of Fort Worth’s first millionaires. And the San Jose ranch is the most unusual. It’s situated on San Jose Island, 34,000 acres the Basses own north of South Padre; so cattle must either swim or be transported by barge to and from the mainland. (The private island has a requisite airstrip, although it’s usually used for people, not animals.)
LOCATION Martin, Midland, Moore, and Oldham counties
PRIMARY USE cow-calf, quarter horses
UNLIKE OTHER EASTERNERS WHO WENT WEST IN THE LATE 1800’s intending to get into the cattle business, John Scharbauer (pronounced “Scar-ber”) actually had some ranching experience. The son of German immigrants, he had been working on his father-in-law’s farm near Schenectady, New York, for several years when he lit out for Texas.
Arriving by railroad in Fort Worth in 1883, Scharbauer teamed up with another fellow and bought a few acres and a herd of sheep. Four years later, he moved to Midland, switched to cattle, and founded the family ranch. That same year, he was joined in the business by his nephew Clarence, who inherited the business when he died (he had no sons). Over the years, Clarence added more acres and entered into a long-term leasing agreement with the University of Texas, which counts the Scharbauers among its oldest lessors. When he died, Clarence left the property to his son, Clarence Junior, who acquired even more acres, including some from the Matador Land and Cattle Company (see “Shrinking Giant,” page 128). Clarence Junior and his children continue to own and operate the ranch today.
LOCATION Brewster and Jeff Davis counties
PRIMARY USE cow-calf
IF YOU THRIVE ON EWING-STYLE DRAMA, YOU won’t much like the 06. “We’re very lucky that we all get along—at least so far,” says Ann Lacy Brown. “Of course, now that I’ve said that…well, I’m not a fool to say it’s forever.”
It may well be. The 06 was founded by Herbert Kokernot, Sr., after he bought land from the Pruitt family in 1912. (He actually inherited the 06 brand from his grandfather David Lee Kokernot, who made his fortune in the mercantile business and in ranching after serving as a scout for Sam Houston during the Battle of San Jacinto.) Eighty-six years later, the ranch is still in the family’s hands—it is co-owned by Ann, her brother, Chris, her sisters, Elizabeth and Golda, and their mother, Mary Ann Kokernot Lacy—and by all accounts, everyone gets along professionally and socially. Chris manages the ranch for his mother and sisters, who seem to be pleased with the job he’s doing—which is not common in these situations.