For the last year, he’d walk around his little piece of property, sometimes carrying an AK-47, looking for trespassers. He’d go inside his modest frame house with blue siding, sit in his kitchen, sometimes eat breakfast with his wife, and silently read a few passages from his Bible. Then he’d head outside again to sit in a pop-up deer blind in his front yard, not far from his mailbox, which was topped by a slightly rusted metal sign that read “Texas.” Whenever he heard the sound of an automobile heading toward his home, at the dead end of County Road 4609, he’d step out of the blind, usually with his AK-47 in hand, and order the driver to turn around.
His name was Howard Granger, and some of his neighbors in this corner of East Texas just south of Athens referred to him as a hermit. He was 46 years old, solid as a tree trunk, with a neatly trimmed beard. Just a few years back, said one man who knew him, he was “a pretty good old boy,” pleasant to be around, devoted to Christian causes. He gave money to a missionary organization that delivered Bibles to the Chinese by motorcycle. Although he didn’t have a regular job, he built barbecue smokers and sometimes drove over to his mother’s home to do repairs and trim her trees. At night he watched movies, including inspirational Christian dramas. One of his favorites was Amazing Grace, based on the life of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century politician William Wilberforce, who fought to end the British slave trade.
But sometime in 2009, Granger changed. He was “acting sort of strange and suspicious,” one neighbor said, “even with those of us he knew.” He stayed on his five-acre property day and night, telling his brother—whom he hadn’t seen in a year because he didn’t want to leave his land unprotected—that he was afraid someone might burn his house to the ground. He put up No Trespassing signs near his driveway and built a fence around his property, with six to eight strands of wire. Granger kept telling his relatives that “a rich man from Dallas” was after him. “He wants my land and he wants me gone,” Granger insisted.
There was indeed a rich man who wanted Granger’s five acres: Ben Gill Clements, a youthful 69-year-old who was as trim as a teenager, with clear blue eyes and a touch of brown still running through his silver hair. Clements, who was known as Gill, was the son of Bill Clements, the former Dallas oilman who served two terms as governor of Texas, the first Republican to hold the position since Reconstruction. In 1968, when he was in his late twenties, Gill went to work at his father’s offshore drilling company, Sedco, and within five years was promoted to president and CEO. In 1985, after he’d overseen the sale of Sedco to Schlumberger, the oil-field-services conglomerate, for more than a billion dollars, he retired from the oil business and spent his time tending to his investments and hunting and fishing around the world.
The place Clements loved most, however, was the land around Athens, with its rolling landscape—a breeding ground for deer and wild ducks—and its creek-fed lakes flourishing with bass. In the eighties, he and his father developed Hollyglen, a hunting and fishing preserve on roughly eight hundred acres along the west side of Texas Highway 19, about nine miles south of Athens. In the late nineties, Clements decided to create another preserve himself, this one more than one thousand acres in size, on the other side of the highway. He told his friends that this time he wanted to build a three-hundred-acre lake and then plant thousands of hardwood trees around it, creating a new forest for the wildlife. He made deals with nearly forty small landowners to buy their land, paying them far better than fair market value. The only one who wouldn’t sell was Howard Granger.
“He’s going to do something to get rid of me,” Granger kept telling his family. He started wearing a bulletproof vest whenever he went outside. “I think he’s going to send someone to get me.”
For more than a century, moneyed Dallas families have been hunting and fishing around Athens, which is about an hour-and-twenty-minute drive from their homes. It is for them what the Hamptons are for wealthy New Yorkers, the perfect weekend retreat, albeit without the giant mansions, expensive restaurants, and glitzy shops. One Dallas titan, eighty-year-old former lumber dealer Lee Slaughter, told me about a morning on an Athens-area lake when he hooked a six-pound bass just as he watched an eight-point buck walk into the water to take a drink. “Then, as I pulled back on my rod, a duck swam under my line,” Slaughter said. “As far as I’m concerned, that one moment was heaven on earth.”
Slaughter is one of 145 members of the Coon Creek Club, a nine-thousand-acre refuge just off Highway 19 that was founded more than a century ago by a group of Dallas businessmen, among them such prominent names as Gaston, Cockrell, Schoellkopf, Prather, and Tenison. Although it’s hardly an ostentatious place—it includes a small lodge with a six-table dining room, a cluster of ancient boathouses that look as if they are about to rot away, and a sprinkling of homes, most of them nothing more than fishing cabins with screened porches—there’s a long waiting list of men (and a few women) more than willing to pay the steep initiation fee and monthly dues to get access to the club’s deer blinds and four lakes.
There are other private hunting and fishing clubs along Highway 19—George W. Bush was a member of the Rainbo Club before he became president—and numerous estates and ranches nearby. (Clint Murchison Sr. went so far as to build a landing strip on his ranch so his friends and business partners could fly in to visit him.) Bill Clements, who is now 93 years old, started