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