The two men began as neighbors. And they ended as neighbors.
In between were tens of thousands of head of cattle, millions of gallons of oil, hundreds of thousands of acres of land, hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth.
And a half-century of friendship.
Samuel Burk Burnett (left) was born in Missouri in 1849, William Thomas Waggoner (right) in Hopkins County in 1852.
By 1860 Burnett’s family was raising cattle in southern Denton County; Waggoner’s family was raising cattle on the prairie near Decatur in Wise County. Burnett’s family moved to Wise County, and the two boys became friends about 1865 when they met as classmates at a country school at Prairie Point (present-day Rhome). Those two boys would skew considerably the future per-capita income of that school’s graduates.
Each man began his career in cattle. In 1870 Burnett married Ruth Loyd, daughter of another cattleman, Martin Bottom Loyd. (Loyd’s great-granddaughter was Anne Burnett Tandy, wife of Charles.) In 1871 Burnett, then just twenty-two, took 1,200 head of cattle to Abilene, Kansas with a handful of cowhands. He was, the Star-Telegram said, the youngest trail boss on the Chisholm Trail at the time. Burnett established his 6666 brand that year.
By 1878 “stock dealer” Burnett was boarding with his father-in-law in Fort Worth.
Meanwhile Waggoner began his empire on his father’s 160-acre ranch. Waggoner once said, “Ever since I was fourteen years old I have tried to . . . raise the best beef in the country.”
Burnett would eventually own 360,000 acres, including the land on which the town of Burkburnett (named for Burnett by Theodore Roosevelt) was founded; Waggoner would own 510,000 acres, including the land on which the town of Electra—named for Waggoner’s daughter—was founded. The Waggoner ranch was said to be the largest ranch in the United States under one fence (for perspective, Tarrant County is 570,000 acres). Both men also leased grazing land in Indian Territory (Oklahoma).
(The Waggoner Ranch, listed for sale at $725 million, was bought in 2016 by sports teams owner and billionaire Stan Kroenke, who is married to Wal-Mart heiress Ann Walton Kroenke.)
In 1888 the two men even went to court together.
Both men added to their cattle and land wealth with oil. In 1911 Waggoner was drilling for water—a valuable resource in parched Texas—on his ranch. Instead he struck oil. Darn the luck! He considered the well to be polluted with the smelly, slimy stuff. He drilled another well. More oil. He drilled a third well. More oil.
Waggoner seemed to have the golden touch.
But at first he didn’t see it that way.
“Oil, oil, what do I want with damn oil?” he is said to have complained. “I’m looking for water for my cattle. That’s what my cattle need!”
Determined to find a use for the foul pollutant that his wells could not seem to avoid striking, at first Waggoner used the oil as tick dip for his cattle. But that tick dip would earn him “the greatest fortune ever amassed by one man west of the Mississippi River,” the Star-Telegram said.
But although eventually his land would bristle with oil derricks, W. T. Waggoner remained, at heart, a cowman, not an oilman.
Both men moved to Fort Worth early in the twentieth century: Burnett in 1900, Waggoner in 1904. Each built a grand home on Summit Avenue on Quality Hill, Burnett at 1424, Waggoner at 1200. Burnett’s home is in the top photo (photos from UTA Library).
Each man owned an early skyscraper: When Burnett bought the State National Bank Building (left) in 1915, it was the tallest building in town at twelve stories. In 1920 Waggoner built his twenty-story building, then one of the tallest in the state.
Waggoner’s other passion besides cattle was race horses. In 1929 he built Arlington Downs race track on his DDD stock farm in Arlington even though betting on horse racing was illegal in Texas at the time. But Waggoner lobbied the state legislature. In 1933 parimutuel betting became legal—one year before Waggoner died. But in 1937 the state legislature outlawed parimutuel betting, and the track soon closed. In 1942 Arlington Downs became the site of the motor pool of the Army’s Eighth Corps Area. All that is left of the track now is the horse trough at the corner of Commerce Drive and Six Flags Drive.
From left, Frank Hawks, W. T. Waggoner, Will Rogers, and Amon Carter Sr., early 1930s, at Arlington Downs. Frank Hawks was a record-setting aviator known as the “fastest airman in the world.” (Photo from UTA Libraries.)
Burk Burnett built a different kind of park: In 1917 he donated land for downtown’s Burnett Park.
After President Teddy Roosevelt visited Fort Worth in 1905, Burnett and Waggoner hosted Roosevelt at a wolf hunt in Oklahoma.
Burnett and Comanche chief Quanah Parker were friends. The Comanches called Burnett “Mas-Sa-Suta” (Big Boss).
Burnett in 1909 gave Parker his first ride in an automobile. Clip is from the March 11 Star-Telegram.
When Parker died in 1911, he left Burnett his finest totem pole.
Will Rogers was a friend and frequent guest of Waggoner in the 1920s. Rogers joked that each cow on Waggoner’s ranch had forty acres of grass and its own oil well.
The two men were directors of First National Bank.
Cattle, land, oil, and banking made Burnett and Waggoner rich—rich even by Texas standards. (In the 1919 clip, Standard Oil offered Waggoner $50 million—$600 million in today’s money—for his spread. He declined.)
Each man gave some of his wealth back to the community. For example, each gave $100,000 to the war effort in 1918, each supported a local college: TCU for Burnett, Texas Woman’s University in Denton for Waggoner.
On, and the two men had one other tie: Waggoner’s son Guy married Burnett’s granddaughter Anne.
But eventually, of course, the last roundup came for each old cowboy—on June 27, 1922 for Burnett (Waggoner was an honorary pallbearer), on December 11, 1934 for Waggoner.
When Burnett died he was worth $6 million ($82 million today). When Waggoner died he was worth $100 million ($1.7 billion today). Each man was buried in a mausoleum in Oakwood Cemetery. Only a few yards separate the two mausoleums. The two friends who began as neighbors on the Wise County prairie were neighbors once again.