W. T. Waggoner Estate

 The Nation's Largest Ranch Under One Fence.

December 1999 - Charles Goodnight Award

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Photos and articles courtesy of Star-Telegram
Accepting the Charles Goodnight Award on behalf of the W. T. Waggoner Estate of Vernon last night are W. T. Waggoner's decendants Buck Wharton, Electra Winston, center, and Helen Willingham.  The annual Goodnight Award recognizes an individual or business for sharing the legendary cattleman's love of the land and for protecting the state's Western heritage.

          December 5, 1999

    Article in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram written by Art Chapman


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By Art Chapman    Star-Telegram Staff Writer

VERNON -- In the mid-1860s, on the perilous Texas plains, 14-year-old W.T. "Tom" Waggoner proclaimed his ambition: "to run the best cattle outfit, own the best horses, and do the most work of any man in the country."

The energetic young cowboy had to overcome Indian wars, treacherous weather, uncertain markets and a crippling depression, but he endured. Today, his descendants continue to run the W.T. Waggoner Estate, the largest single ranch within one fence in the state.

With headquarters in North Texas, the estate manages more than 520,000 acres of ranch, farm and oil properties. It employs 140 people, ranging from accountants to cowboys, purchasing agents to camp cooks.

The W.T. Waggoner Estate will be honored Tuesday as the 1999 recipient of the Charles Goodnight Award, named for the legendary cattleman. The award is given each year during the National Cutting Horse Association World Championship Futurity. It goes to a person or organization sharing Goodnight's love of the land and livestock and whose work protects the state's Western heritage.

"The Waggoner Estate Ranch is one of the greatest ranches in Texas, with a long history of cattle and quarter horses and land management," said Kit Moncrief, a member of the Goodnight Scholarship Committee, which made the selection. "They continued the spirit of the great ranching families."

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The Goodnight Award has always been given to an individual. But this year was a departure because "there are so many family members, you couldn't just pick out one," Moncrief said. "They have all added to the greatness of the ranch. They have all been important."

The award will be presented in the Grand Ballroom of the Renaissance Worthington Hotel. Proceeds from the event go to the Texas Christian University Ranch Management Program.

Steve Munday, executive vice president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, said: "The Waggoner Estate, the biggest ranch in Texas under one fence, goes back to the pre-Civil War days with Dan Waggoner. It remains a Texas legend that rightly can claim a huge chunk of Texas history, especially in ranching and in oil. The Waggoner families and their employees richly deserve the recognition given by the Charles Goodnight Award."

The Waggoner saga began in North Texas in the 1850s, when Dan Waggoner gathered his six horses and 242 head of longhorn cattle and moved from Hopkins County to an area near Decatur in Wise County. He brought with him his mother, brothers, sisters, and son, William Thomas. His wife had died a year earlier.

Dan Waggoner remarried, and he and his son began acquiring land. By 1870, the two were partners working as D. Waggoner and Son. Their triple reversed D brand spread throughout North Texas into Wise, Wilbarger, Foard, Wichita, Baylor, Archer and Knox counties. By 1873 they trailed a herd to Kansas that netted them an unimaginable $55,000. It became seed money for an enormous empire.

Ten years later, Dan Waggoner built El Castile, a Victorian mansion in Decatur. His investments included not only land and cattle, but also five banks, three cottonseed oil mills and a coal company.

He died in 1902.

A year later, oil was discovered on the ranch.

At 17, Tom had already assumed control of the ranch. He fulfilled his quest to become one of the hardest working men in the country. His father once remarked: "Tom has over 50 mules at work on one farm, and he knows each one by name, knows if they are hitched up wrong, and even knows if one has on the wrong collar."

Tom Waggoner was tireless, but deeply frustrated by the drought at the turn of the century. He tried to drill a water well near what is now Electra, but at 147 feet the well spewed oil.

He ordered a deeper well, this time 2,000 feet, but again he hit oil.

"Oil, oil, what do I want with damn oil? I'm looking for water. That's what my cattle need," he exclaimed.

When humorist Will Rogers visited the ranch years later, he remarked, "I see there's an oil well for each cow."

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Humorist Will Rogers, right, visits with rancher W. T. "Tom" Waggoner in the 1930s.  Rogers said of Waggoner's North Texas ranch, "I see there's an oil well for each cow."

W.T. Waggoner went on to solidify the ranch's fortunes, establishing lease agreements with Texaco. He moved the ranch headquarters to Vernon, but remained a fixture in both Decatur and Fort Worth.

He was known to be both a generous man and a frugal one. One of his favorite stories was of the time he sat whittling away at the Decatur train station with several friends.

As a salesman stepped off a train, he announced he would pay $1 to anyone who would carry his suitcase to the local hotel. Waggoner slowly folded his pocket knife and picked up the man's case. As they passed the mansion on the hill, the salesman asked who lived there. "I do," Waggoner informed him.

"How can you afford to live in a house like that?" the salesman asked.

"I carry my own suitcases," Waggoner replied.

Waggoner could be lavish when the situation called for it. In 1903, fearing that his daughter, Electra, might be swayed to move to the East with her new husband, Waggoner commissioned the Fort Worth architectural firm of Sanguinet and Staats to design and build a 3-story Georgian Revival home for the newlyweds. The home was later named Thistle Hill.

To accommodate his love of horse racing, and to persuade the state to allow pari-mutuel betting, he built Arlington Downs Racetrack in Arlington. Wagering was legalized soon after the $2 million track was completed.

He built a 20-story office building in downtown Fort Worth and was a constant contributor to the city's civic causes. Some say he was simply a soft touch for his close friend Amon G. Carter Sr., publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and one of the city's biggest boosters.

In 1934, when Waggoner was recognized as Fort Worth's "Outstanding Citizen," Will Rogers sent him the following telegram:

"Mr. Waggoner, don't take this dinner serious. It's only the opening wedge of a gigantic touch. Amon wants some money to take a band with him somewhere, or something of that sort. Why don't you do this, Mr. Waggoner, turn over what little of your fortune Fort Worth and Amon have left you, and just let them have it, and put you on an allowance?

"Then they wouldn't have to go through all this rigmarole."

Rogers signed it, "May you live until Fort Worth can get along without you, and that means eternity. Will Rogers."

Waggoner died a few months later.

He had already established the estate, serving as a trustee. His escendants continue to operate the ranch today. The W.T. Waggoner Estate is owned by A.B. Wharton and Mrs. Electra Biggs & Family trusts. Co-directors are A.B. Wharton and Gene Willingham.

"I think of the history of this ranch and I am astounded that they were able to do what they did," Wharton said. "It is mind-boggling in a lot of ways."

The estate office is in Vernon, the ranch headquarters 13 milessouth. The ranch's fence line cuts through the southern half ofWilbarger County, the northern third of Baylor County, and small portions of Wichita and Archer counties to the east and Knox and Foard counties to the west.

"It's tough to run this ranch today, but it's probably a lot easier than it was in the old days," Wharton said. "We actually have had multiple generations who have given their lives to the ranch. We still have today. I had the opportunity to know a lot of people who were bigger than life."

Among the names are men such as Tony Hazlewood, who worked at the ranch for 50 years. G.L. Proctor succeeded him as ranch manager. Proctor began his career on the ranch as a 13-year-old cowboy. Three O'Neil brothers worked on the ranch together, and at one time there were seven Daniels - four brothers and three of their sons.

Kenneth Handley and A.B. Wilkinson each put in 50 years on the ranch. Paul Whitley logged 40, living alone in a remote line camp that was centered on 35,000 acres.

Perhaps the most prominent name associated with the Waggoner Ranch was not a person, but a horse, Poco Bueno. The stallion was an uncontested champion. He was a working horse, often taken from the pasture straight to a show, then turned back into the pasture.  He was the first horse ever insured for $1 million, and he brought  the ranch profits far beyond that.

His name and that of the ranch became synonymous. His grave site is near the ranch entrance.

"We've got 31 cowboys," said ranch manager Weldon Hawley, who, like his father before him, has put in more than 20 years on the ranch. "They ride, work cattle, take care of the cattle, they do it all. We run somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 to 13,000 head of cattle, and there is a lot of pride involved.

"We've got several fellas who've been here for lots of years, and a lot of pride is developed from that. Most of us were kind of raised up here."

There is a special bond among the Waggoner crew, he said. "There has to be. There is a lot of hard work in cold weather, and a lot of work in hot weather. Pride has got to play a large part in it," he said.

That devotion to the ranch has been the biggest reason for its continued prosperity, said Helen Willingham, one of the ranch owners. That kind of allegiance has forged a remarkable history.

"I think about it all the time," she said of the ranch's past. "I think about it every time I look at that picture of W.T. Waggoner in the office boardroom. And I wonder what he would think if he could be here today and watch and see how things are run.

"This generation today, we need to remember how it started. I am, and I hope my children are aware of that. We just happen to be fortunate enough to be offsprings of the ones who built it."

Historical sources: The Handbook of Texas; Thistle Hill: The Cattle Baron's Legacy, by Roze McCoy Porter; The Red River Valley Museum, Vernon, Texas; Amon: The Texan Who Played Cowboy For America, by Jerry Flemmons; Cattle Kings of Texas, by C.L. Douglas; The W.T. Waggoner Estate, Vernon.

December 10, 1999

        Article in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram written by Mary Rogers


All's well that ends with oil wells

Cutters in town for the National Cutting Horse Association World Championship Futurity and honchos with the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame attended on Saturday night what was surely one of the most spectacular parties of the season. Better yet, they gave all that Cowgirl stuff a boot up at the same time. Western heritage enthusiasts Stacie and David McDavid filled their Westover Hills home with thousands of red roses and set up a gift boutique in the elegant pool "pavilion," where purchases benefited the Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. Cutters snapped up "stress balls" made and sold by Sterling McDavid, 10.

Trust me. Parties like this don't just happen. Organizers fretted over every detail, from the 8-foot-tall snowmen that greeted guests, to signing Nashville-based singer/songwriter Karen Staley for entertainment. The invitation, a creative "scrapbook" of Annie Oakley paper dolls with cut-out clothes, took six months to design.

The custom-made tent took five days to install, but it was worth the fuss. Cutting champ brothers Bill and Terry Riddle of Oklahoma and Texas cutting star Bill Freeman could stroll out of the house, across the bridge that spans the pool and into the pavilion without ever going "outside."

No wonder McDavid friend and Hollywood director Michael McClary flew in for the fun. Other notables spotted in the crowd were actress Janine Turner; western artists Jim Reno and Kelly Graham; and a host of Cowgirl Museum patrons.

Hats off: Cutters jammed the Renaissance Worthington's ballroom on Tuesday night for the ninth annual Charles Goodnight Gala. Country music headliner Trisha Yearwood provided after-dinner entertainment, and Fort Worth's favorite son, Red Steagall, delivered the dancing music when she was finished -- but all of that was just gravy on the biscuit.

This western-style soiree draws a mostly out-of-town crowd that comes to applaud the winner of the Charles Goodnight Award `and' a long list of the National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame inductees.

The prestigious Goodnight Award is presented to those who champion western heritage and the ranching way of life in Fort Worth and Texas. Past winners have all been individuals.

This time the fabled Waggoner Ranch of Vernon took the prize. Every Texas rancher knows the famous triple-reverse-D brand -- and that the Waggoner land held not just fine horses and cattle, but oil as well.

Searching for water, W.T. "Tom" Waggoner struck oil, it is said. He punched another hole in the ground and was aggravated when the drillers hit oil again. "Water is what my cattle need," he is supposed to have said.

It's no wonder that gala chairman Kit Moncrief installed several "working" oil wells along the walls of the room with pump jacks that jerked up and down.

Philanthropy is also part of the family legacy. Waggoner descendants Bucky Wharton, Electra Winston and Helen Willingham accepted the award, but Bucky got the laughs. "I feel like Liz Taylor's husband when he said, `I know why I'm here, but I don't know if I can make it entertaining.' "

He did.

Mary Rogers' column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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