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