For Lubbock, Texas real estate broker Sam Middleton, the dust still hasn’t settled from his co-brokerage earlier this year of west Texas’ famous W.T. Waggoner Ranch, the largest contiguous ranch property sale in the country.
“We’re still getting calls and a lot of attention from the sale because of the size of the ranch and its notoriety,” says Middleton, who, along with co-broker Bernie Uechtritz of Dallas’ Briggs Freeman Sotheby’s, was entrusted with the sale.
At more than 510,000 acres, the Waggoner Ranch sprawls over six counties in an area southwest of Wichita Falls and is equal in size to about three-fourths of the state of Rhode Island. The property had been owned by the same family since 1849, and features 30,000 acres of farmland, winding creeks, recreational lakes and hundreds of horses and cattle. As a favorite destination of some of America’s icons, such as Teddy Roosevelt and Will Rogers, it’s no wonder some called the property the last of the True West.
“We didn’t want to just make the sale to anyone to parcel out,” Middleton says. “It was always about legacy and finding the right buyer to steward the land – someone who understood ranching and the heritage of the property.”
Sam and Bernie were the real estate advisors to the sellers to market and secure a buyer for the ranch. There were hundreds potential buyers and interested parties that came forward, and the team spent 18 months painstakingly vetting the inquiries, managing the screening process and conducting property tours. It came down to five finalists, and the decision was made to sell the land to billionaire Stan Kroenke, owner of the Los Angeles Rams and Denver Nuggets.
“Stan was the perfect buyer,” Middleton says. “He understands the ranch’s legacy and is going to carry it on and not subdivide it where it would lose its identity, and will also stay loyal to the ranch employees. At the end of the day, the buyer and seller parties were very satisfied. It was a win for everyone.”
Legacy is something that Middleton knows well. His grandfather, Charles, started Charles S. Middleton & Son in 1920 as a cattle and ranch sales company. Today, the company has added services such as rural appraisals and covers a wide geography in Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado and Oklahoma. Sam Middleton has enjoyed a 48-year career and is now grooming his son Charlie to take over as the fourth generation.
In many ways, the W.T. Waggoner sale is indicative of much of the company’s appraisal and real estate work. In the case of the Waggoners, Middleton says it was a years-long family dispute among the heirs of Tom Waggoner that compelled the current owners to sell the ranch. One side wanted to sell the ranch and divide its assets. The other insisted on leaving the ranch intact but dividing it up equally.
“It was a difference of opinion within the family, and it’s very common in a lot of the large ranches even today,” Middleton says. “We do an extensive amount of estate appraisals and sales. A lot of it is undivided interest work, where an heir owns a portion of a property and we determine what a reasonable discount is for an undivided interest sale.”
Another area includes ranch partitions, where a family member decides to divide a family ranch into various units. Middleton is hired to propose equal partitions, taking into consideration water, land use and capital improvements on the property. Since his firm offers both appraisal and brokerage services to provide historical data and current market values, Middleton and his staff can provide a broader perspective on trends for a rural property.
“The American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers (ASFMRA) is another great source for us to get information and data by networking with other member colleagues. We work with a lot of other member ARAs (Accredited Rural Appraisers); otherwise, it would take a lot longer to dig up the information that we need for an accurate appraisal,” Middleton says.
After getting involved in the rural appraisal business in 1971, Middleton earned his ARA accreditation in 1977. New appraisers who have joined the company have also earned their accreditation and are recognized by customers for the training and education.
Middleton, a self-professed workaholic—“My first love is still my occupation,” he says—but he and his wife, Patricia, also enjoy their four grandchildren, particularly on get-away trips to the family ranch near Dickens, Texas, east of Lubbock. His other son Jed, operates the ranch and also leases other ranch property. The Middletons are avid travelers and enjoy a few family fishing trips together every year.
“Looking back, I learned more from my dad than anybody,” he says. “I used to follow my dad around the business for many years and pick up his skills and ways of doing things. I feel fortunate that I fell into a long-established company with great contacts, and I have tried to pass that along to my sons.”
Reflecting on the W.T. Waggoner sale earlier this year, Middleton believes that the interest in the property speaks volumes for the investment stability of land ownership. Despite the ups and downs in the market, it’s still a solid investment and you can’t beat the “romance and the legacy” of having a ranch.
“With the Waggoner sale, I personally showed that ranch to at least 50 people,” Middleton says. “About 15 were foreign prospects, and only one of that group – an Argentinian family – really understood the dynamics of the ranch and ranching. When I asked the others why they were interested in the property, a ranch that they knew nothing about, every one of them would say the same thing. They told me that investing in real estate in the United States is still the best place to invest their money.”