The extraordinary history of the Texas Waggoner ranch

It's hoped that the sale of the ginormous Waggoner ranch in Texas will settle a family feud that has been rumbling for over a hundred years.


The Waggoner ranch yours for $725m

When Dan Waggoner started ranching in Texas in 1849, Abraham Lincoln was still in Congress, says The Guardian. The ranch, expanded by his son, has stayed in the family until now. After a long family feud, it is up for sale if you have $725m to spare, it could be yours. Spread over 510,000 continuous acres, and spanning six counties, the WT Waggoner Estate ranch is "the largest in the US within a single fence". It's steeped in the history of "the settling of the West", says the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and comes with the relics of an extraordinary family (see box).

The Waggoner clan has "a rich and rowdy heritage", says Texas Monthly. The paterfamilias, Daniel, was born in Tennessee in 1828, the son of a farmer, cattleman and horse and slave trader. He was in his early 20s when, accompanied by a 15-year-old black slave, he trailed 242 Longhorn cattle and six horses to Wise County in Northwest Texas then open range land and laid down roots. Over the next 30 years, Waggoner grew his herd and bought all the land he could, some of it by sending gunslingers to intimidate small farmers into selling up on the cheap.

By the 1880s, the family also owned five banks, three cottonseed mills and a coal company. Waggoner and his son WT (aka Tom, pictured) took pains to court the local Comanche chiefs. They were also skilled political lobbyists. In the early 1900s, they invited President Teddy Roosevelt, an obsessive game-bagger, wolf hunting. The hunt was "a classic Waggoner production": they bagged 17 wolves and Roosevelt clubbed a rattlesnake to death.

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Tom's daughter, Electra, had vast vaults of emeralds, diamonds and pearls; her brother Paul "had an eye for splendid horses, good whiskey and poker"; and another brother, Guy, "went through eight wives". Perhaps the most famous family member was WT's granddaughter, Electra II, a noted sculptor, who romanced Cary Grant and was the namesake of Buick's Electra sedan and a Lockheed plane.

The great feud began way back in 1909 when WT tried to split the ranch between his children by inviting them to draw cards. They all claimed he had rigged the deal. There followed decades of disputes between the separate branches over how to divide or liquidate the property. Matters finally came to a head in 2013, when a decision was finally made to sell. The question now is, who will buy?

The 'Statue of Liberty of cowboy culture'

Still, on a price per acre basis it's "a deal". There's also potential to double the herd, lease land to hunters, and exploit untapped oil. The Waggoner family will retain 25% of the mineral rights in any sale, suggesting there's a lot more petroleum to be found "in the vast swath of the ranch that has not been explored".

So who will buy? Assuming smart investors won't risk more than 10% of their net worth, they'll be worth $7bn-$8bn. Candidates include Silicon Valley billionaires or oil tycoons. The fear locally, says Emily Schmall in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is that investors, "more motivated by making a profit than preserving history", will break up this "icon of Texas horse and cattle culture", and fire the 120 ranch staff, many of whose families have worked at the Waggoner for generations.

Bernard Uechtritz, a broker handling the deal, hopes to sell to a "steward" who will preserve the ranch's heritage, says James Dunn on Mail Online: it's "akin to the Statue of Liberty of cowboy culture". You can see his point, says Bloomberg. The more esoteric attractions include "the tombstones of legendary cowboys" and a famous horse that was "buried standing up".

Countless mementos of the Wagonner clan are thrown in: from the stash of "emptied bottles of Old Taylor bourbon in an abandoned hunting lodge", through a JetRanger helicopter, to a cook shack where cowboys "still gobble pre-dawn biscuits and gravy". What would-be 21st century cattle baron could resist?