Land Lords

For all its choices and opportunities, life in the city also brings a certain loss of autonomy. You answer to a clock-watching boss. You are bound by traffic patterns. You worry about what the neighbors think. But drive out beyond the city limits, to where the paved highways give way to caliche roads, and this changes. Out here, amid pastures and spreads divided by barbed wire, you can own acres of land. Out here, you make every decision and there is no gridlock.

Ranch Blessing

Texans may loudly profess love for their wide-open spaces, but about only 2 percent of the state is actually public property. The rest, famously, is privately owned. From an ecological perspective, this is not an entirely bad thing: the fact that there are so many exclusive spreads, such as the King Ranch, has guaranteed certain protections for the wildlife that thrives on them. But that is changing.

New Money? No Problem

About the fastest Jeff Boswell ever sold a ranch was in a matter of hours. The buyer was a man named Frank (he doesn’t want to divulge his last name) who was interested in Hill Country property. For years, Frank had lived on a South Texas ranch, in the modest two-bedroom house his mother was born in, and was so broke that he sometimes had to sell a cow to feed his family. Then, in 2011, drillers found oil on his land and made him rich. Like many before him, he called Boswell. “I’ve got some money now. I don’t believe in the stock market. I’m not giving them damn bankers nothing,” Boswell remembers Frank saying. “I’d really like to invest in the land.” 

Boswell, a founding partner of the land brokerage firm Republic Ranches, is used to calls like these. He’s been fielding a barrage of them since 2010 or so, when Texas’s latest oil and gas boom unleashed a spate of suddenly rich (or richer) clients seeking to buy land. From his office in Houston’s famously wealthy River Oaks neighborhood, Boswell sells properties all over Texas, from the most isolated sections of desert to bass-lake country just outside big cities. 

Boswell looked over his inventory. Frank wanted flowing water on his property, so the next day Boswell took him to a little place listed for about $5 million. Boswell had obtained permission to spend the night next to the ranch’s stretch of river, and they cooked steaks over a campfire. Frank seemed interested but not awestruck, so the next day, Boswell mentioned another property on the same river. He was hesitant to show it; this ranch was significantly bigger in size and price, about $26 million. Boswell wasn’t sure how that would go over. “Well, let’s just go look at it,” Frank said. After they walked around the property for two hours, about how long someone might kick the tires on a used Honda, Frank turned to Boswell and said, “I’ll take this one.” He paid cash. 

His purchase was a sign of the times. To hear people talk these days at certain tony parties, particularly in River Oaks or Dallas’s Highland Park, you might think everyone is buying a ranch. The number of transactions is staggering, as is the price per acre. In 2009, after the recession pounded the market, just 905,000 acres of ranch land were sold in Texas. Last year, that number had jumped to 1,465,033 acres. Prices during that period increased 28 percent statewide, from $1,800 to $2,300 per acre. Some areas are seeing an even bigger spike. In the Hill Country, small properties that were only $895 an acre in 1992—the lowest point in recent years—now sell for $7,655 an acre. Naturally, this kind of booming market has every land broker scurrying for a piece of the action. Boswell primarily competes against six outfits—including James King, of King Land & Water; Robert Dullnig, of Kuper Sotheby’s International Realty; and David Culver, of LANDTX—though really, he’s competing against everybody with a plot to sell. 

Just because ranches are going fast, however, doesn’t mean they’re easy to sell. Closing a deal still requires significant effort and skill. “You’ve got to consider the mineral situation,” Boswell told me. Mineral rights, which are separate from surface property rights in Texas, don’t always come with the sale. “Then there’s the water situation, which is not always cut-and-dry.” An agent must be a good navigator lest he drive a frustrated client into dead ends and endless loops. He has to consider whether there is potential for farming or running cattle on the property. He must understand easement issues: pipelines and roads and fences. He must carry a sleeping bag to rural areas in case there is no nearby hotel. He must handle long stretches of time in which nothing happens, since demand vastly outpaces supply, and he must gamely answer the phone in August when a client wants to see a property and say, “Yes, it’s just fine that it’s a million damn degrees outside. Let’s go. I can’t wait.” 

Boswell is well suited to the challenges. Like the best brokers, he relates easily to his clients, who recognize in his demeanor and dress—often a ball cap, button-up shirt, and jeans—an affinity for the outdoors. He’s always felt a connection to the land; growing up in the Dallas area, he spent a lot of vacation time and weekends with his grandfather, a North Texas farmer and rancher. And he’s long been an avid fisherman and hunter, two interests he shares with his buyers. In the mid-eighties, he spent a brief time as a petroleum geologist, but the tanking oil economy sent him back to ranch life, helping landowners develop bobwhite quail habitats and wetlands and lakes. By 2004 he was selling ranches. 

His background and varied interests give Boswell an essential trait for the job: he can take someone out in his white Ford F-150 and, in a melodious country drawl, talk on a wide variety of subjects. “In this job, you have to be ready to discuss the dollar-yen carry trade one minute and the price of goat meat the next,” he said. He once had to gently reassure a European client, who’d perhaps seen one too many westerns, that the foreboding entrance to a property was not, in fact, intended to keep Native Americans at bay. But he has his limits. Years ago, he killed a deal when an eccentric buyer arrived at a showing with his “financial consultants”—a group of women in leotards, mink stoles, and high heels—who immediately headed for the ranch house’s well-stocked bar. 

When I called Boswell last fall, his company was handling about sixty properties and thirty buyers, which may not sound like a lot until you consider that these are deluxe tracts, with amenities that sometimes include a river, a pecan grove, or an airstrip. “We sold a property with a boathouse that was bigger than my house in Houston,” he said. Many of his buyers don’t just want luxury but a specific type of land. One client wanted two thousand acres in a heavily wooded area where he could hunt white-tailed deer. Another wanted a thousand acres with great water resources. These were fairly typical requests, though more often Boswell handles larger ranches, between three and five thousand acres. (His properties generally aren’t as mammoth or remote as those sold by other major figures in the Texas ranch real estate business—agents like Sam Middleton, who commonly sells big ranches in West Texas and is one of the agents handling the sale of the half-million-acre Waggoner Ranch.) Boswell is known for selling a client land in a prime area by holding his hand and treating him right, then upgrading him when he’s ready. He founded Republic Ranches in 2011, and these days the company sells between $100 million and $200 million in ranches a year, making it one of Texas’s top agencies in dollar sales.

What Boswell and other agents are witnessing up close is nothing short of a revolution in Texas land ownership. Up until about fifteen years ago, a ranch transaction would happen much as it had for decades. First, a rancher who wanted to sell would call his local agent in the nearest town. Together they’d take a look at the horizon and consider the neighbors who might want it. After that the rancher would sell his place with a firm handshake, and the new owner would move onto the property, where he would continue running cattle or raising cotton or whatever had been the specialty of the property. It likely wouldn’t be sold again for at least a generation.

Since the early 2000’s, however, those traditions have been upended. More and more often, the rancher calls an agent who lives in an urban area and who handles only ranches, and straight out of the gate, the property is marketed beyond the town in magazines like Lands of Texas, Texas Farm and Ranch, the Land Report, the Oil and Gas Journal, and Cowboys and Indians. (Brokers, including Republic Ranches, also advertise properties in Texas Monthly.) Glossy, colorful ads will tempt potential buyers with phrases like “an extraordinary investment opportunity with great income potential” or “a backdrop so stunning, so authentic, and so historic that yesterday becomes today and the Wild West still calls.” The buyer likely won’t be a cattle rancher but rather an urban businessman (and yes, it’s usually a man) who has visited ranches but has likely never owned one and, thanks to the Texas oil and gas industry, has recently made a small fortune. This new owner will often put a lot of money into the land, turning it into a recreational property with a few cattle for old times’ sake. More than likely, people will ask him to justify his extravagant purchase. He will tell his friends that it’s a weekend getaway; he will tell his financial adviser that it’s a tangible investment. He will tell himself that it’s a piece of Texas, and that is reason enough.

For Love of Country

The mare pasture at the Seven L Ranch is horse heaven. Just half an hour from the Gulf of Mexico and close to the little burg of Devers, this field looks level from a short distance, though really the ground undulates with tiny hummocks of thick-growing bahia grass, salt grass, and Bermuda. Lines of bramble and short scrub trees grow along culverts and a live creek, delineating the pasture’s wide boundaries. The sky is very blue. At the approach of a truck, the horses turn and raise their heads in unison, and when the truck stops and its occupants climb out, the horses amble toward them with the deliberate, unhurried speed of old friends greeting one another. The mare band consists of mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and cousins. They are slick-sided, big-barreled, and gleaming, the spires of their ears perked and their expressions soft and curious as they semicircle around their visitors. 

Texans have always yearned for land and fine creatures, and here, at the Seven L, it is easy to fall in love with this grassy abundance and these robust, personable mares arching their pretty necks. It is easy to want this beauty and bounty. Virtually nothing in ranching is genuinely easy, though, and whatever success and quality the Seven L can boast come from long decades of careful planning and management. “The ranch is one-hundred-ten years old this year,” says Paxton Ramsey, who owns the ranch along with his mother, Susan Ramsey, and his sister, Romney Velazquez. “It means everything to me. It’s what gets me up before my alarm clock, a responsibility that is one-hundred-ten years old.”

A Texan’s reverence for land ownership comes somewhat naturally. Ranching, while it has changed over time, remains one of the state’s great identifiers, and while folks in other places undoubtedly forge profound connections to their properties, Texas is different in that the core of the state’s history is inextricably bound to the keeping and parceling out of land. 

A brief, whirlwind history lesson: In the 1700’s, Spain began handing out land grants to those willing to endure the hardship of staking out lives on a sparsely populated and dangerous frontier. While the Spanish didn’t settle Texas in large numbers, they were responsible for the invaluable addition of horses, cattle, and sheep to these parts. (Interestingly, some of the original Spanish land laws, especially about community property, coastal ownership, and preventing forced sales of land, are still in use.) By 1821 Mexico had taken over, and to populate this vast territory, the new government courted foreign settlers with land allotments of 4,428 acres for grazing, plus another 177 acres for farming, along with tax incentives and Mexican naturalization. Mexican law also prevented seizure of a homestead should a settler fall into debt. The land wasn’t free—certain fees were charged—but the grants were darned cheap even for then, about 3 cents an acre, which was less expensive than land in the United States. 

As any Texas seventh-grade-history student knows, settlers did come, and lots of them. Empresarios like Stephen F. Austin contracted with the government to procure and establish single men and families in Texas, and by doing so, these empresarios themselves earned premium tracts of land. When the Texas Revolution rolled around, in 1836, soldiers were rewarded for the fight with the promise of acreage, and afterward, during the decade of the Texas Republic, the General Land Office oversaw the distribution of more than 40 million acres to veterans and settlers in “headright” certificates. African Americans and Native Americans, it should be noted, and those who fled military service, were deemed ineligible for those land grants. In 1844, when Congress was considering the annexation of Texas, land was again a primary concern: in the proposed treaty for statehood, the United States would take on the Republic’s $10 million of debt, along with 175 million acres of its public territory.

Except this didn’t happen. The Republic’s public domain wasn’t worth $10 million, according to Congress, and the treaty was rejected. Texas therefore came into the Union with both its debt and its unappropriated lands. This turned out to be important. While federal lands now checker the expanse of other Western states—like Nevada, which is 81 percent federally owned, or Utah, whose land is 66 percent federal—less than 2 percent of Texas is made up of federal land. The rest is privately owned or controlled by the state. Texas, in other words, is held by Texans. Texas is ours.

Our fierce desire for property, then, finds its roots in an old, dusty collective memory of a time when there was land available, tens of millions of acres of it—so long as you weren’t African American or Native American, that is. The state was born from land grabs. The Spanish claimed it, despite the presence of Native Americans who had been here for millennia, then the French, then the Spanish again, until Mexico took it from Spain and the Texicans wrenched it from Mexico. Land was everything, worth fighting and dying for. Worth keeping. Worth wanting.

There’s an obvious timelessness with land—the ever-present rocks and sky—that is at odds with the very human wish to put a stamp on a property, to forge a history and attach it to a place. Paxton Ramsey acknowledges that his tenancy is temporary, though the effort to shape, cull, and improve the Seven L, or any other ranch, is worth it. “My grandmother told me, ‘This land will never be yours; you’re just borrowing it from your children,’ ” he says. “Name one other business or lifestyle that has that mission statement or operates under those terms. Ranchers are focused on successors, and a key part of that is realizing that you’re part of something bigger than yourself—and that you’re leaving something better than you found it.”

Paxton talks while making dinner in his kitchen. Outside, his two youngest daughters play hide-and-seek in the dark. Erica, his wife, will be home soon; his dad, Cullen, peruses the paper. His mother, who inherited the ranch from her mother, listens quietly from her wheelchair. “When I’m out there fixing fence,” Paxton continues, “I know that for more than one hundred years before me, someone in my family was doing the same thing. Ranching is a pretty humbling experience. It lets you know how small you are. You’ve got the heartache of fires and storms. The people who came before me have gone through that too, and you’ll give your kids the opportunity to do the same.”

He glances at his mom. “It’s best to work with family,” he says. Susan’s face blazes with emotion. “Yes!” she agrees.


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