With the final closing last Tuesday, one of the largest land transactions in Marion County history is now official.
The 7,000-acre White Ranch three miles east of Peabody along U.S. Highway 50 is now part of Wildcat Creek Ranch, previously a 640-acre Red Angus operation southeast of Newton, for a selling price of $8.51 million.
“It’s probably the largest ever,” Roger Hannaford III, president of Hannaford Abstract & Title in Marion, said of the sale, which occurred by auction Oct. 19. “It’s the biggest one this office has ever been associated with.”
Considering the unknowns going in regarding the buyer, price and selling strategy, observers say the sale appears to be a good thing—not only for the buyer and auction company, but for the county as well.
“I think it’s a good deal for Marion County, and it’s good for the area to have someone local who will take care of it and is very proud of it,” Hannaford said.
That somebody would be Klee Watchous, Newton, who bought the property under the name of Wildcat Creek Ranch.
“What interested us in this opportunity was its proximity to our current operation,” he said. “Also, we’ve admired that place for many years. It’s a wonderful place. We really enjoy it.”
The opportunity to buy a sizeable ranch so close to home doesn’t happen often.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because ranches like this one that sell as one unit just don’t come up very often,” he said.
J.C. Barr, auctioneer and broker from Cashion, Okla., said breaking up the White Ranch by selling the property in tracts—18 in all, ranging from 160 acres to more than 700—was an option if that proved to be the best financial strategy for the White family.
“A few days before the sale, people all wanted to know if I thought it would sell as individual tracts or as one piece,” Barr said. “I really was kind of split. I thought it could go either way. But I told them all, I thought the buyer would come from a 75-mile radius.
“I was raised in Cottonwood Falls,” he added. “There’s some good farmers and some good ranchers in that area. Those people have some money and I was just convinced it wasn’t going to be somebody from six states away.
“We had a lot of participation on the individual tracts from Marion County people. Then, at the end of the day, the three (final bidders) were all within a 50-mile radius.”
Barr said he was in contact with 10 to 12 serious buyers for the entire package. With the exception of one from Montana, all were from the Sunflower State.
“It’s hard to do business out of your zip code,” Barr said about the limited interest from out of state. “If you don’t know anybody, if you don’t have a local contact, it’s hard to move into an area and feel comfortable and do business there.”
T.B. Townsend and his wife were the first people to buy the property. The Ohio couple established Townsend Cattle Ranch with the purchase of 300 acres in 1886 from the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.
Townsend eventually expanded the operation to 3,000 acres. Later owners enlarged it to its current acreage.
A savvy businessman, Townsend realized the importance of railroad access for bringing in supplies and for shipping his cattle back east. He deeded a 1.5-acre plot to the railroad for a siding and stockyards.
In the ensuing years, he added a store, post office, hotel, depot and ranch office, creating a village known as the Horners.
Townsend, a stonemason by trade, constructed a three-story limestone “Rockland” barn in 1887 at a cost of $10,000. The 80-by-40-foot structure has become a landmark for travelers along U.S. 50.
Clay and Ronella White bought the property about eight years ago as a working cattle ranch, but Clay White died shortly afterward.
“It was an unfortunate situation that those people didn’t own that place a long time,” Barr said. “It’s just really unfortunate when that happens, but it’s just life. They had every intention of ranching there for a long time and it just didn’t work out.”
Appreciation for tradition
Recognition of the ranch’s landmark status was not lost on Watchous.
“Obviously, our first and foremost goal was to acquire it for business purposes, but certainly it was a good benefit to be able to maintain it and preserve the ranch,” he said.
“I love history anyway, and I love that place. I think there are so many good things about it. It’s just a wonderful place.”
Besides a name change, look for the ranch to continue mostly as it was under the former owners, he added.
“In terms of it being a working cattle ranch, not much will change,” Watchous said.
“The color of the cattle will change because they had Black Angus and we’ll have Red Angus. But beyond that, there won’t be a lot of changes in terms of looking at it from a distance.”
For the immediate future, Watchous plans to staff the ranch with a manager and personnel from his current operation.
“We have been contacted by a variety of folks who either want to buy part of the ranch, or rent part of it, or go to work for us,” he said. “At this time we’re going to try to run it with our current personnel.”
As for the auction itself, which included the acreage, 400 head of cattle, windmills, barns and a creek, Barr said he was more than satisfied with the process and the outcome.
“It exceeded by a little bit what we kind of had thought it would bring,” he said of the sale price. “We were really pleased with the response we had from potential buyers.”
Barr said he and partner Phil Haugen had a lot of local assistance behind the scenes, which made their task more manageable.
“One thing my partner did, he opened the sale and thanked the locals—Roger Hannaford and other people that were very helpful to us,” Barr said. “We were treated with nothing but kindness from the local people there. We really appreciated that.”
Barr said he understands the disappointment of Marion County people who had hoped to acquire portions of the property.
“There’s always some people who wanted to buy a piece of that ranch and didn’t get to,” he said. “I’m sorry that they didn’t, but we have to work for the seller and to sell it in the way that brings the most money—and that’s the way it did.
“But these people aren’t going to pick it up and carry it away,” he added about the new owners. “It’s still going to be right there. They recognize that the barn is an icon, it’s part of the history and they’re going to do everything they can to make that better. I think it’s in strong hands.”
Barr said he personally was pleased that the buyer was essentially a local person.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to call it a local event and I’m really happy that it was.”
The new owner couldn’t agree more.
“We are very thankful that we were able to purchase the ranch and look forward to being part of the community in Marion County,” Watchous said. “I think it’s a great opportunity.
“The location of the ranch is outstanding,” he added. “It’s right on a major highway and the access is excellent, so it has a lot of benefits.
“It’s my hope it will be in my family for many generations to come.”