Texans still at home on range

Recreational ranchers get away from city life with villas, exotic animals

April 08, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FREDERICKSBURG, Texas -- By all outward appearances, they are city folk -- lawyers, executives, stockbrokers and other office-bound unfortunates. But buried deep beneath the suit and the cell phone still beats the heart of a true Texan.

Meaning: rancher.

As Texas, like the rest of the country, becomes more urban and suburban, the ranch looms ever larger in the state's considerable mythology. But as traditional ranching -- a cattle operation spread over a vast acreage -- becomes less viable for most Texans, a sort of recreational ranching has taken hold, particularly here in the ruggedly beautiful region in the center of the state called the Hill Country.

Within driving distance of large cities such as Austin, San Antonio and Houston, the Hill Country is swarming with "windshield ranchers," so called because they traverse their spreads in sport utility and all-terrain vehicles rather than on horseback, enjoying the romance, if not the gritty reality, of rustic life. They are in fine company: President Bush admits rather proudly that he "ranches through the windshield" of a Chevy Suburban on his 1,600-acre spread in Crawford to the north.

For many, these are ranches in name only. Some have built mansions in the hillsides -- villas in what's become known as "Texas Tuscan" style are particularly popular -- complete with infinity swimming pools and private helipads. Others use their acreage not to raise cattle but to stock with exotic game as a private zoo or for hunting. Others seek an escape from the soul-draining noise, traffic and concrete of the city -- and have found a weekend clearing brush to be the perfect antidote.

"It's hard to tell anybody how much fun this is," says John Pipkin, a Houston investments-management executive who owns a 270-acre ranch outside Fredericksburg. "It's a getaway, a place to recharge the batteries."

The ranch is everything that Houston is not: quiet, tree-dense, and in the summer, it's cooler and less humid.

When Pipkin and his wife, Kathy, bought the land 3 1/2 years ago, there was nothing but a deer feeder and a blind for hunting -- no roads or electricity. Hundreds of thousands of dollars later, it is Enchanted Springs Ranch, a name that Pipkin came up with as a nod to the nearby Enchanted Rock State Natural Area -- as well as to the spring-fed creek that runs through the property.

He even designed a logo, which decorates the front gate, the chuck wagon that he and his wife use for cookouts and the ranch's signature branding iron (though they don't have any cattle to brand). Their home is a 185-year-old log cabin from Kentucky, which they bought, had disassembled, trucked over and put back together -- but in an expanded and reconfigured way that gives them an airy living room in the front and a sleeping loft in the back.

But Pipkin would deny that he's a typical arriviste to country living. Like many who have recently bought land in the Hill Country, he sees it as a return to his roots: He grew up in a West Texas ranching family, and both of his brothers have bought Hill Country ranches.

"It's just something that gets in your blood," he says.

Resilient economy

Much of the boom in Hill Country sales has been fueled by a regional economy that soared in the 1990s and, though buffeted by the recession, remains fairly strong.

The state capital of Austin and its environs, which lie east of the Hill Country, had the nation's fastest growth in personal income in 1998, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, jumping about 16 percent, compared to the national average of less than 7 percent. In 1999, the most recent year that the bureau has analyzed, the Austin area dropped to second in income growth -- after San Jose, Calif. -- but remained impressive: Personal income rose nearly 12 percent, outpacing the nation's 5.4 percent average.

Much of the growth in Austin's wealth can be attributed to the high-tech companies that have clustered in the area, including such industry giants as Dell Computer Corp., whose stock options have turned many employees into "Dellionaires."

For many tech execs, a place in the nearby Hill Country has become as de rigueur as a house in the Hamptons is for the monied set in Manhattan.

"We all have ranches," says Elaine Wetmore, a longtime financial executive with IBM and other technology firms, ticking off the former Microsoft exec with the exotic game ranch and the high-tech recruiter with the place outside Dripping Springs.

Wetmore bought her 306-acre ranch near Johnson City after her start-up company was sold, and raises cattle there. Wetmore, now the chief executive officer of a nonprofit group that encourages tech companies to donate to local charities, particularly appreciates the ranch's proximity to Austin: She can, as she did on a recent Monday, bring a calf to market and still make it to her desk by midmorning.

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