OPINION COLUMNS

Wise County plays a role in Waggoner Ranch’s story

By Roy J. Eaton | Published Saturday, November 8, 2014
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When friends visit, we often take them on a mini-tour of Decatur – pointing out the magnificent campus of the Wise Regional Health System, the Decatur Civic Center, beautiful homes in Hidden Oaks and Briar Crossing and then the courthouse square where new restaurants have made downtown boom again.

Roy J. Eaton

Roy J. Eaton

But despite all that’s new and wonderful, they always ask about three historic structures. First always is the beautiful Wise County Courthouse, built in 1896. Then they ask about the former home of Decatur Baptist College at the end of South Trinity.

I explain that DBC was the oldest junior college in Texas and how in 1965 it was “stolen” from Decatur and moved to Dallas and is now Dallas Baptist University. Then they ask about the big house hidden in the trees at the east end of Main Street, and we explain that the house was once the headquarters of the famous Waggoner ranching empire.

Perhaps you’ve heard that the 510,000-acre Waggoner Ranch, headquartered in Vernon, is now for sale for $725 million. The ranch is spread over six West Texas counties near the Red River. It’s the home to more than 11,000 cattle, more than 1,100 producing oil wells, two large privately-owned lakes, and a large quarter-horse breeding operation.

I’ve always been fascinated by the history of great Texas ranching operations and have read extensively about the King Ranch in South Texas and about the Waggoner and other big West Texas ranches.

Recently, the Dallas Business Journal did an extensive story on the potential sale of the Waggoner Ranch. The story, written by Candace Carlisle, featured what it called “The Players” in the history of the ranch. That part of the story included lots of Wise County history.

The first “player” was Dan Waggoner, who bought his first property in the 1850s. Dan Waggoner was a widower, and he settled near Decatur with his son, William Thomas (Tom) Waggoner, and began buying property for as little as $1 an acre.

“The historic Waggoner Victorian mansion in Decatur, know as El Castile, is still one of the most prominent buildings in the city today,” said the Business Journal story.

Tom Waggoner began working on the ranches as a teenager, and in 1869, his dad made him a full partner in the fast-growing ranching empire. The story tells a tale of how father and son went to Kansas City with $12 cash, 50 saddle horses, a group of cowboys and 5,000 steers. Tom Waggoner, according to legend, netted $55,000 on the cattle drive, which became the seed money for the ranching empire.

Tom Waggoner and his wife, Elsa, had three children. Electra Waggoner Wharton was born in Decatur in 1882 and married A.B. Wharton in 1902. Legend has it that Electra and her new husband wanted to live in Philadelphia, but Tom intervened and built the couple a beautiful mansion in Fort Worth named Thistle Hill – located in what is now the hospital district, near Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital.

E. Paul Waggoner was Tom Waggoner’s youngest son, also born in Decatur in 1889. He became a world-renowned breeder of quarter horses, establishing the Santa Rosa Roundup near Vernon.

Guy Waggoner, Dan Waggoner’s oldest son, was an avid horse breeder and established the Arlington Downs racetrack. Horse racing was not popular in the Bible Belt, and Arlington Downs was closed. Guy Waggoner moved to New Mexico where horse racing was legal.

The Business Journal then introduces us to the next generation. Electra Waggoner Biggs was Paul Waggoner’s daughter. She was a noted sculptor, and her bronze of Will Rogers on his horse “Soapsuds” is well-known all over Texas.

She is also known as the person who persuaded top General Motors executives to name the latest new Buick the Electra. The town of Electra, north of Wichita Falls, was also named after the Waggoner heir.

It was near Electra where Dan Waggoner leased mineral rights on 250,000 acres to Texaco and soon the oil wells made the family even richer. Ranch oil production is estimated at 42,000 barrels per month.

The family unity began to unravel when Electra filed a lawsuit seeking liquidation of the Waggoner estate. The Business Journal story says A.B. (Bucky) Wharton III and Helen Biggs Willingham, both grandchildren of Electra, are now controlling heirs of the estate.

I heard many tales of the Waggoner family in Decatur from the late Julia Jones, who spent many hours in the mansion and at the ranching headquarters downtown.

There is the legendary tale of how “Eighter from Decatur” got started when cowboys shooting dice believed a Waggoner family maid named Ada was a good luck charm and shouted the saying as they pitched the dice looking for a pair of eights.

The Business Journal story says folks in Vernon are apprehensive about the sale of the ranch.

“The ranch is Vernon’s largest employer with more than 120 employees ranging from cowboys to accountants and purchasing agents,” the story says. When I was last in Vernon there was a bank named for the family.

The Business Journal story is fascinating and if you have an interest in ranching history and the role that Wise County played in that magnificent story, be sure and pick up a copy.

As we say in the news business – it’s a “good read.”

Roy Eaton is publisher of the Wise County Messenger.

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