He was 92 years old, but you'd never have known it to look him in the eye. His eyes were clear and light blue with a deadly gleam, like a bird of prey, and they stared holes in you as he talked.
I had gone over to try and buy his heifer calves. He had Brangus cattle and a lot of them and they were good. I wanted them, and he knew it. Brangus cattle weren't his only assets. He also owned about 10,000 acres of prime bottom land, rich and lush, and he was one of the biggest cotton producers in the country. The cattle were there to graze the upland.
We were on our way out to look at the heifers, and he was driving, sort of leaning back totally at ease handling the Buick with one wrist over the steering wheel. On both sides of the road were broad cotton fields, white with bolls. These were checker-boarded with fields of corn and milo, the off-year crops. Here and there tractors were working in fields that had lain fallow and were being prepared for something. They were all manicured with no grass around the edges and no wasted areas of brush or trees.
You have a beautiful farm,” I said.
“Twelve of them,” he said. “There were 12 farms in this tract.”
“That many,” I said, impressed.
“You see that hill over there?” he asked, indicating a brushy hillside several miles over.
“That was my first farm when I came here in 1919. I farmed it with one, single span of mules. I used to look down on this bottom and wish I had just a piece of it. Now, I have all of it.”
“Must have been tough putting all those places together,” I offered.
“Not really,” he said, “I bought most of them during the depression. When it hit, I didn't owe any money. I had money in the bank, and you'd be surprised how easy it was to buy land back then -- if you had ready money.”
All I saw was eight-row equipment, unusual for use on such vast acreage. All of them were red, Internationals and a few newer Case Internationals but mostly older models gleaming brightly with new paint.
I made the observation that he didn't seem to have any 16-row equipment running.
“No,” he said. “That one tractor --” He indicated an earlier model International pulling a disk. “-- can do the same work as 29 spans of mules. Every tractor out there is paid for. We have a full-time shop that keeps all the equipment in top condition. It's all stored under cover. When we're ready to work, it's ready to work, and it does, round the clock until we're done. We don't buy much new equipment. That's another reason we don't owe anybody.”
It wasn't long until we left the bottom-land and began to climb into an area of rolling hills, green and lush, dotted with oak. The country looked like Maryland or Virginia, and in the pastures I could see fat, black cattle grazing contentedly.
“I've tried to sell this ranch,” he said. “So far, two people have agreed to buy it. One of them was from Scotland, and the other was from Brazil. The Scot put a million dollars down on it, and I financed the rest. He defaulted in about two years, and I took it back. The Brazilian put down a million and a half, and then some currency problem hit down there. He couldn't complete the contract, so I had to take it back and kept the earnest money, again.”
He chuckled. “I've been making a pretty good living just selling this place and taking it back,” he mused.
We looked over his cattle, and as I said, they were good, and I wanted them. He knew all that, and he certainly knew what they were worth. He priced them high. Not so high that he would run me off, but higher than I wanted to pay. He gave me something to think about.
When I countered, he shook his head. “No,” he said, “I don't trade. You asked the price, and I gave it to you. If you want the heifers, that's the price you'll have to pay. If I don't get that for them, I'll grow them out myself and sell them bred. Probably ought to anyway, but it would be that much extra trouble I don't need.”
As we drove back to town, me thinking and him whistling softly, I asked what I'd been wanting to ask him all day. “How does one man accumulate so much in a lifetime, to go from a hard-scrabble farm with a single span of mules to one of the largest operations in the state?”
He thought a minute. “I guess by not investing in anything I didn't know all about and that I didn't have complete control over. I invested my time and money in land and farming and cattle because that's what I knew most about. I controlled my money, saved it, and when I was ready to move, I had the cash to do it. I still do,” he said.
The old man is dead, now. He went quietly in his sleep at 94, still in total control of all he had built. His estate was divided up among sons and a grandsons who had sweated and toiled and worked under his iron hand all their lives.
They don't operate the way he did. They're more modern and progressive. They have more, better and new equipment, and they don't put in such long, grueling hours. I have to wonder if they'll be as effective in keeping it all together as he was.