Cast Out of Eden
Why were the residents of Lake Diversion forced to abandon their longtime homes?
Annette McNeil was searching for a sanctuary, and it was at Lake Diversion that she finally found one.
When the Tyler resident fled a bad marriage in 2006, she had nowhere to go. She spent two nights sleeping in her car in a Walmart parking lot and then, out of desperation, made a phone call to Rick Ellis. She and Ellis had been married years earlier when they were teenagers, but they quickly divorced and gradually fell out of touch. Still, after Ellis answered the phone and heard McNeil’s story, he invited her up to his cabin in Lake Diversion, a secluded community on the 510,000-acre Waggoner Ranch, in North Texas.
Hours later, as McNeil’s Jeep Grand Cherokee approached the crest of a steep slope leading down to Ellis’s small stone cabin, with nothing but the howl of coyotes to break the spacelike silence of undisturbed nature that stretched for miles around her, she knew that she had found her new home. “It was the first time I ever felt free,” McNeil, 57, says.
It’s easy to understand why McNeil was immediately spellbound. Lake Diversion takes on an almost painterly quality in the evenings, reflecting pastel sunsets that give way to clear, star-filled night skies free from the intrusive glow of city lights. Commercial hunting is forbidden at the lake, so the animal population roams freely—white-tailed deer, roadrunners, cardinals, wild hogs, sometimes even mountain lions. Ellis spent about $20 a week on seed for the birds that would flock to his handmade birdhouses each afternoon, and he and McNeil would regularly feed honey buns and cookies to a friendly litter of raccoons.
Eventually, a new love blossomed between McNeil and Ellis, and they remarried on November 11, 2011, at 11:11 in the morning. At night, the pair would sit on their backyard porch, sipping drinks and listening to music, candles burning. There was no need for television.
Although it’s tempting to call their life on Lake Diversion idyllic, it was far from easy living. The dirt roads were nearly unnavigable when it rained or snowed. The water supply had to be trucked in from town. The nearest supermarket was 32 miles away, in Wichita Falls. Their life was one they built with their own hands. When Ellis bought the nearly ninety-year old cabin in 2004, it was in rough shape. He had to use a power washer to clean out a foot of mud that was caked inside, and he cut each floor tile himself so it perfectly hugged every corner and curve. McNeil estimates she and Ellis put about $20,000 into renovating the cabin, which sat on land they leased from the Waggoner Ranch estate for a few hundred dollars a year. Even as the lease slowly rose to $1,500, it was still far cheaper than buying a house or renting an apartment in town. That worked just fine for Ellis, who in 2011 left his job at a food packaging plant because of his high blood pressure, and for McNeil, who started a modest dog-grooming business outside Wichita Falls. “We didn’t make a lot of money, but we made enough to live on Lake Diversion,” McNeil says.
Last February, when the Waggoner Ranch was sold to multibillionaire Stan Kroenke, Lake Diversion’s residents weren’t sure what to think. They knew Kroenke owned a few pro sports teams and that he had bought big ranches before; he’s the ninth-largest landowner in the country. But they didn’t know what sort of plans, if any, he might have for the property.
Known as Silent Stan, Kroenke rarely speaks to the media (his representatives never responded to Texas Monthly). But after he bought the Waggoner Ranch, he shared a few words through a press release. “This is an incredible opportunity and an even greater responsibility,” Kroenke said. “We are honored to assume ownership of the Waggoner—a true Texas and American landmark—and are deeply committed to continuing the proud legacy of W. T. ‘Tom’ Waggoner, his family, and his descendants. Our gratitude to them and to the many parties involved in this process is immense. We will continue to preserve and protect this uniquely American treasure.” McNeil and Ellis, like many of their neighbors, figured that that meant their lease at Lake Diversion would remain unchanged.
Then, in August, everyone living at Lake Diversion—about two dozen year-round residents, plus a hundred or so vacationers and weekenders—got a letter. It came from a Texas law firm representing the Waggoner estate. In impersonal legalese, the letter said the leases at Lake Diversion would not be renewed and that everyone would have to be out of their homes by January 31. It offered no specific explanation for this uprooting, other than that the landlord was changing the use of the land and “returning the lake shoreline to uninhabited grounds.” The letter also informed residents that after January 31, if they tried to set foot in Lake Diversion—the land some of them had lived on for their entire lives—they would be treated as trespassers. No one, apparently, would be compensated for the thousands of dollars or hours of labor they had expended on their homes.
The news hit Lake Diversion’s residents hard. These cabins were retirement plans, nest eggs, childhood homes. Most of the cabins belonged to working-class people—teachers, plumbers, construction workers—and had been in the same families for generations. The eviction was devastating for Ellis. “He was a very sensitive soul,” McNeil says. “When we got the notice, I saw him die a little bit that day. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that he had to walk away from the home he poured so many years of his life into restoring.” The blows kept coming for Ellis. He had bad credit and was unable to secure a loan or a mortgage for a new home. At 61 years old, he had no luck finding a job either. He also became the subject of a criminal investigation by the Archer County Sheriff’s Office. He fell into a deep depression.
One day in October, when McNeil was out of town, Ellis sat down and wrote a letter in his wide-ruled notebook. The first line read: “Stan Kronke stoled my paid for home.” He folded the note into his back pocket, grabbed his 9mm pistol, and drove his white pickup truck out of Lake Diversion for the last time. When he reached the Wichita River, about five miles away, he made a left turn off the main highway and rumbled down a dirt path along the riverbank. Ellis parked his truck at a familiar place, where he and McNeil would sometimes spend the night fishing, and walked down to the water.
About two days later, someone noticed that Ellis’s truck had been parked in the same spot for a while. When the Wichita County Sheriff’s Office arrived on the scene, they found Ellis’s body lying by the water, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
It’s impossible to say for sure why Ellis took his life. The Archer County criminal investigation, of which he was notified a few days before his death, was of a particularly serious and shameful nature—he was accused of abusing a child—and certainly could have had something to do with his suicide. (Ellis was never charged in the case, which is now closed.) But the loss of his home undoubtedly weighed heavy on him.
Ellis’s death left McNeil shattered. Their cabin was filled with memories, and McNeil said she felt his presence constantly. She simply couldn’t take living there anymore—although with the eviction deadline looming, she didn’t have much of a choice anyway. Once again, she found herself with nowhere to go. But this time she wasn’t the only one.
Driving into Lake Diversion on a late December morning, a visitor is greeted by a line of about forty mailboxes on the left. Straight ahead is the gatekeeper’s house, where Barbara and Bo Stanley staff the ticket booth. Visitors pay $15 per person for a three-day pass and $500 for an annual pass. It’s doubtful Barbara and Bo have greeted many day-trippers over the years. Even in nearby cities like Wichita Falls, the name “Lake Diversion” typically doesn’t ring any bells.
“It was Texas’s best-hidden secret,” says 51-year-old Billy Butler, who lived on Lake Diversion for eighteen years and served as president of the neighborhood cabin owner’s association. “Nobody ever heard of Lake Diversion. That’s what I loved most about it. It was so peaceful, and a beautiful lake once you got to know it. When I first saw this place, I just fell in love with it. I could leave my door unlocked and just not worry about nothin’.”
A maze of narrow paths encircle the 3,133-acre man-made lake, which was created in 1924. Most of the cabin lots are marked by fanciful street signs adorned with folksy names like Chaos Canyon and Lazy Lodge. Some of the cabins are perched on the edges of eroded hilltops overlooking the lake, a vantage point from which the cabins down by the water look like miniature models. No two cabins are alike. Most are vintage mobile homes with peeling paint, though there are also shacklike wood-frame houses and a few more-modern structures boasting rows of big windows. One house is built around an abandoned school bus, which now serves as its kitchen. In the heart of the community, down by the marina, there’s a pavilion, which was once a flash point for raucous parties, potluck dinners, and the beloved annual chili cook-off.
The cabins will likely be demolished at some point in the near future, though it’s unclear what, if anything, Kroenke will build in their place. “Everybody’s going to have to give us a chance to get our arms around this thing and figure out the best direction to head,” Sam Connolly, the general manager of the U.S. division of Kroenke Ranches, told the Dallas Morning News shortly after the Waggoner Ranch was sold last year. “But I will tell you straight out, development is not something we do on these ranches.”
In the absence of any concrete information, rumors have swirled among Lake Diversion’s tenants. Many believe that Kroenke will open up the land for hunting (Kroenke allows and advertises hunting on many of his other ranches). Paul Appel, who has owned a cabin at the lake since 2000 and had been living there full-time since 2009, believes Kroenke put on a false face as a conservationist when he bought the ranch. “He’s going to allow the killing of all the wild animals out there,” says the seventy-year-old Appel. “It’s thick with deer because they know they’re safe there. It’s protected, there’s no gunshots, nothing for them to be afraid of.” (The Waggoner Ranch land has been free from commercial hunting since the family first bought it, 167 years ago.)
Though neither Appel nor any of the other residents of Lake Diversion who subscribe to this theory has any evidence that it’s true, it’s not an outlandish notion. Over the past few years, billionaires have been snatching up ranch land across the country, and while some have kept their new property as it was, others have turned it into game-hunting reserves, aiming to impress potential business partners and other guests. Last year Forbes wrote that one such owner was building a “castle-size ‘hunting lodge’ ” atop a hill at Cook Canyon Ranch, halfway between Abilene and Fort Worth, and had stocked it with zebra, addax, and aoudad sheep. When the Waggoner Ranch went up for sale, Bloomberg reported that allowing hunters on the land could bring in millions of dollars per year.
Appel, an Air Force veteran who spent an estimated $75,000 renovating two cabins at the lake, says the move from Lake Diversion has been hard for him. His health has been bad—he has had four surgeries since 2010 and has crippling pain in his foot from diabetes—and money is a constant concern. He now lives in a small home at the end of a cul-de-sac in a Wichita Falls trailer park, where he and his wife struggle to pay the modest $675 rent. “We have so damn many bills,” he says. “I know we’re just a bunch of people Kroenke doesn’t know, but if he’d given us even $500, it would’ve been something, just to show some respect to the people whose lives he destroyed.”
That perceived disrespect, from both Kroenke and the Waggoner family, is perhaps what is most difficult for the folks at Lake Diversion to deal with. For decades, Lake Diversion functioned on the unspoken assumption that, even though the land was owned by the Waggoners, the cabins, built from scratch and passed down through generations, belonged to the people who lived in them. It was a relationship built on trust: they would pay their leases on time, and they and their descendants would be allowed to stay in perpetuity. “The Waggoners, I’m more mad at them,” Billy Butler says. “I know they did what they needed to do, but they could have at least given us more time. This changed my life. I can’t trust anybody anymore.” (The Waggoner family did not respond to requests for comment.)
When the eviction letters arrived, Butler claimed they’d have to drag him out of Lake Diversion. But the reality of his uncertain future soon deflated his defiance. By New Year’s Eve, he still hadn’t found an apartment he could afford; he and his one-and-a-half-year-old son have been living in a trailer on a friend’s property for free while he looks for a permanent place. He’s slowly dismantling his cabin and has returned to the lake often, stealing a few final views of the water before he’s banished forever.
“I hate to leave it, but I gotta,” says Butler, who makes a living building fuel cells in Wichita Falls. “It’s very depressing. My place had these nice pine walls—I’m taking whatever I can. That’s what hurts, destroying my own home. It’s heartbreaking. It takes a lot of your pride away, when someone takes your home like that. ”
That scenario may soon repeat itself. About fifteen miles west of Lake Diversion, on another stretch of Waggoner Ranch land, sits Lake Kemp. There are cabins there, too, and since Kroenke’s purchase, rents have skyrocketed and a new fee of more than $100 per month to maintain the lake’s unpaved roads has been implemented. Lake Kemp’s residents haven’t received eviction letters. But many of them believe it may be only a matter of time.
Before Annette McNeil left the cabin for good, she drew peace signs and hearts in blue and red spray paint and scrawled “Love wins” on the cabin’s stone walls and “Rick Haunted Ellis” on the door. “It means this place is haunted by Rick’s love,” she explains. In November she moved into a duplex just outside Wichita Falls, but she hopes to leave the area. She put her dog-grooming business up for sale in late December, and she plans to sell Rick’s truck, and even the gun he used to kill himself, so she has enough money to begin her new life.
“There’s way too many painful memories here,” McNeil says. “Every time I drive across that Wichita River bridge, I know that’s where Rick took his life, and it just kills my soul. It’ll be healing to cut my ties and move on. It’s just too hard to be here.” McNeil says she’s angry at the Waggoners and at Kroenke, but she still tries to pray for the people who kicked her out of her home. “Kroenke didn’t just kick a bunch of people off a lake,” she says. “He destroyed a community, he destroyed people that cared about one another, he destroyed our history, our legacy. He destroyed a lot more than just people’s houses.”
A month before the eviction deadline, Lake Diversion’s peaceful quiet had morphed into an ominous silence. One afternoon, a winter wind whipped off the lake and swept through the skeleton cabins and into the pavilion at the marina that was once the community’s heart. The pavilion’s screen doors were covered in cobwebs, and a thin layer of dust coated the picnic tables inside. Metal signs advertising a decade’s worth of chili cook-offs were gathered into a pile. On the wall of the pavilion was Lake Diversion’s logo, a hand-painted crest depicting a scene of the lake at sunset, surrounded by the community’s motto written in black text on a white background:
Lake Diversion Texas, where the range lands touch the lake and the lake touches the people and the people touch the sky and the sky touches the sun and the son shines down on Lake Diversion Texas.
And it’s written just like that, in a never-ending circle. The artist probably never imagined it would one day be broken.