This article is featured in the Summer 2022 issue of Texas LAND magazine. Click here to find out more.
The recent sale of the Four Sixes (6666®) Ranch™ to a group led by “Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan marks a new chapter in the legendary property’s ongoing story—a story that could have been penned by Hollywood screenwriters.
“In the fairy tale version, Samuel ‘Burk’ Burnett won the ranch in a poker game with a hand of four sixes,” said Owner/Broker Sam Middleton, who represented the estate of Mrs. Anne Burnett Windfohr Marion during the sale through Chas. Middleton and Son Farm-Ranch Sales and Appraisals. “Even though it’s not true, I’ve heard that story my whole life because it just doesn’t get better than that. . .”
In reality, Burnett purchased 100 head of cattle sporting the Four Sixes brand when he was just 19. Ownership of the brand came with title to the stock. Knowing it would be hard for rustlers to modify, Burnett hung onto the brand as he built his cattle empire. With that fateful purchase, the Four Sixes Ranch got its start in 1870.
In the beginning, Burnett ran his cattle on leased land in the Indian Territory; he negotiated the agreement with Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, who became a colleague and friend. Unlike many ranchers of the time, Burnett respected his Native American neighbors. As a sign of their regard, the Comanches gave Burnett a name in their own language: “MAS-SA-SUTA,” meaning “Big Boss.”
Over time, Burnett amassed land holdings through the Rolling Plains and the Panhandle of Texas. When the deal closed in January 2022, the Four Sixes Ranch, headquartered in Guthrie, Texas encompassed more than 260,000 acres made up of three divisions: the Four Sixes Headquarters (142,372 acres in King County), the Dixon Creek Ranch (114,455 acres in Carson and Hutchison counties), and the Frisco Creek Ranch (9,428 acres in Sherman County).
“There are only eight ranches in Texas larger than the Four Sixes, but its uniqueness is not sheer size,” said Broker/Owner Don Bell, who, along with the late Milt Bradford, was the buyers’ agent through United Country Real Estate® | Don Bell Properties. “It’s a rare jewel because of the Burnett family’s historical commitment to excellence in every aspect of the ranch from the horses and cattle to the stewardship of the ranch. Each succeeding generation was dedicated to being the best.”
Prior to the death of Burk Burnett in 1922, he willed the bulk of his estate to his granddaughter, Anne Valiant Burnett Tandy, in a trusteeship for his yet unborn great-granddaughter, Anne Burnett Windfohr Marion. Upon “Miss Anne’s” death in 1980, “Little Anne” took the reins of the family legacy that included Burnett Ranches Ltd., the Burnett Oil Co., and The Burnett Foundation. It was a responsibility she valued highly, took seriously, and was prepared for, by her own estimation, because of her lifelong tie to the land.
Marion, whose hometown was Fort Worth, was quoted as saying, “The most important thing that ever happened to me was growing up on that ranch. It kept my feet on the ground more than anything else.”
For the next 40 years, she capably managed the ranch and all its holdings from the front. Under her leadership, the horse program continued to set industry standards for racing and performance Quarter Horses, while the cattle division adapted to the changing marketplace, transitioning to an Angus herd and moving into branded, natural beef. She also invested time, money and energy into reclaiming the land from encroaching brush and restoring its natural productivity.
As an astute businesswoman, a fine judge of livestock, a committed land steward and a paragon of personal integrity and generosity, Marion earned the respect and loyalty of the Four Sixes Ranch’s employees.
“In managing the ranch, I try to hire the best and most qualified people I can,” Marion said in a 2019 interview with Western Horseman magazine. “I give them a general idea of what I want to accomplish and then give them the freedom to do what they do best.”
The relationship that existed between Marion and the men and women who, guided by her vision, worked the land, transcended employer-employee becoming akin to family. Under her direction, the Four Sixes became one of the first ranches to provide insurance and retirement plans for its cowboys and other personnel. It was not uncommon for employees to work on the ranch for 50 years or more.
“Next to the land they [our employees] are our most important assets and I have always believed if you treat people right, they will in turn treat you right,” Marion said in the same Western Horseman interview.
“Next to the land they [our employees] are our most important assets and I have always believed if you treat people right, they will in turn treat you right”—Anne Burnett Windfohr Marion
On February 11, 2020, Marion, who was 81, lost a valiant battle with lung cancer. Under her will’s directives, all divisions of the Four Sixes Ranch were to be offered for sale for the first time in 150 years. It was her stated wish that the ranch be sold intact.
A Challenging Opportunity
Like all rare jewels, the Four Sixes Ranch is multi-faceted—and atypical. Pride of ownership, evident in every aspect of the ranch, set the ranch apart from many other sprawling, historic ranches that come to market wearing worn-out work clothes.
“Every now and then in the ranch real estate business, you get to sell a premier historic ranch in pristine condition,” said Middleton, who is based in Lubbock and has been in the ranch real estate industry for more than 50 years. “The new owners could come in and not have to spend a single dollar on upgrading anything because it all was in tiptop condition.”
The offering included: three separate ranches; producing mineral interests with tremendous income-generating potential; wind and solar power rights; a high-quality cattle operation with an inventory of about 8,500 head; a world-renowned horse breeding operation with an inventory of 1,200 horses; an extensive list of equipment/rolling stock; the 13,000+ square-foot main ranch house built in 1917 for the then-astronomical sum of $100,000 and numerous other residences; furnishings and art; and the Four Sixes name and 6666® brand and all associated intellectual property.
“It was a walk in and take it all over sort of deal,” Middleton said.
The land was listed for approximately $342 million. All the other assets, including cattle, horses, equipment, rolling stock, minerals, art and furnishings, were appraised and the value of these additional items were negotiated in the overall structure of the entire price package.
The pool of buyers qualified to purchase a property of this size and scale is not Olympic sized. In the case of the Four Sixes, the pool was even smaller thanks to one of its most visible and valuable assets, the world-renowned horse breeding operation. According to Middleton, the Dixon and Frisco Creek ranches, which are cattle ranches, generated a lot of interest, but the Four Sixes at Guthrie was a tougher sell.
“Not only is the magnitude of the improvements staggering, the Four Sixes is probably the largest horse operation in the world,” Middleton said. “The buyer was going to have to have a strong foothold in the horse industry to take it on.”
Big Ranch, Small World
Ranch brokers often say they are in the relationship business. The sale of the Four Sixes demonstrates the truth in that statement.
Middleton’s working relationship with Marion stretched over 40 years, beginning in the 1980s when he appraised all her ranches for estate planning purposes. In 1989, he handled the sale of her historic Triangle Ranch. Nine years later, he sold the Silverado Ranch in Parker County on her behalf. In 2001, she asked Middleton to sell 67,000 acres of the Four Sixes Ranch in Guthrie. (He sold the acreage to T. Boone Pickens, who he would go on to conduct 28 ranch transactions with.) Most recently, Marion purchased the Frisco Creek Ranch that Middleton listed in 2015.
Their business was not confined to big deals. Middleton did a lot of legwork, handling one-off projects for no charge in the time-honored Texas tradition of neighbor helping neighbor and friend helping friend.
“I always tried to treat her fairly and she was never anything but fair with me,” Middleton said. “Ours was a wonderful relationship from beginning to end.”
Soon after Middleton returned from attending Marion’s memorial service in Fort Worth, his phone rang. It was Neils Agather, one of the four trustees of Marion’s estate, calling to inform him that the ranches would be sold, and he had been selected as the broker to handle the sale.
Middleton immediately immersed himself in compiling detailed inventories with the assistance of appraisers with expertise in everything from farm equipment to livestock, learning how to show the ranches, and amassing the photos, videos and other materials necessary to market the ranch.
After several months of intense preparation, the Four Sixes was ready to hit the market.
At about this same time, Sheridan was becoming intimately familiar with the Four Sixes. In October 2020, he and his production crew of nearly 100 arrived at the Dixon Creek Division to film scenes for season four of the hit show “Yellowstone.”
A stickler for authenticity, Sheridan wanted to bring true-to-life scenes from a working ranch to the fictional world of the Dutton family. Their trials and travails, set against the backdrop of the Mountain West, have captured the attention of 65 million viewers and catapulted the western lifestyle back into the national consciousness.
By late 2020 just as the filming wrapped up on the Dixon Creek Division, Sheridan had a pivotal phone call with Bradford, a former owner of Western Bloodstock, a horse sale company, and real estate agent at UC | Don Bell Properties.
Sheridan, who was reared on a family ranch in Cranfills Gap, was a fellow Quarter Horse enthusiast, competing in reining and cutting. He also owns ranches near Weatherford, where he lives, Jacksboro and by coincidence had recently purchased what was left of Marion’s Silverado Ranch in Parker County. Bradford, who sadly lost his own battle with cancer just a few days before the deal closed, made his home in Weatherford, while Bell operates out of Millsap, also in Parker County.
“People joke that an honest horse trader is an oxymoron, but that’s exactly who Milt was,” said Bell, an accomplished horseman and National Director for the American Quarter Horse Association. “Even after 40 years of producing horse auctions, no one ever had a bad word to say about Milt because he always made things right.”
During the call, Bradford told Sheridan that the Four Sixes was going to be coming on the
market and while he did not have any details his business partner Bell did. Later that day, Bell called Sheridan and laid out what he knew about the ranch offering.
“Then Taylor went to work strategically putting together a group that could see the height, depth and breadth of the entire opportunity,” Bell said.
Riding for the Brand
The Four Sixes brand is iconic, well-respected and well-known.
“When it comes to being recognizable, the Four Sixes and its brand is probably second only to King Ranch and its Running W,” Middleton said.
For 150 years, the Burnett family burnished the brand in big ways such as standing top sires, including Joe Hancock, Hollywood Gold, Grey Badger II and Dash for Cash, and in small ways like having the cowboys who compete for the ranch wear matching red shirts with white embroidery and white hats because “good guys wear white hats.” Thanks to their thoughtful stewardship, the brand was not only an asset that clearly represented the cultural values of the ranch, but a rarity.
“Very few brands make it beyond 20 years, but the 6666® has been prominent for 150 years—and people know what it stands for,” said Mike Duffy, who before joining United Country Real Estate as its president dedicated his career to brand management for behemoths including Coca Cola, NASCAR and the RJ Reynolds Co. “It is a rare organization that can maintain the integrity of its brand and continue offering a unique value in the marketplace while evolving with the times.”
The brand held tremendous, untapped potential. In the world of branding, there are 12 archetypes or character definitions; one of the most powerful is “The Cowboy.” The Cowboy represents rugged individualism, freedom and being your own boss. Internationally, the Cowboy is viewed as the consummate American.
The Marlboro Man, the brooding, rugged cowboy who was the face of Marlboro cigarettes, remains one of the most memorable and effective marketing icons of all time. Interestingly, in the 1960s, the Four Sixes Ranch provided the backdrop for several Marlboro commercials and several of its cowboys served as the Marlboro Man. According to Duffy, the Cowboy archetype the Four Sixes brand captures is as appealing as it has ever been, imbuing the brand with huge potential value.
Sheridan, in a feature with The American Quarter Horse Journal based on the only interview he has given about the purchase, said, “I wanted the core operation to continue and, obviously, I’m in a unique position because I had just filmed a $110 million commercial for the ranch. There’s opportunity for licensing and branding, and if you’re careful you can find companies whose vision and commitment to excellence and integrity that matches that of the Four Sixes.”
The vision for the future built on the track record of the past moved the deal forward.
“Taylor and his group had a broad vision of how to leverage and market the Four Sixes brand in a way that would make the deal work for them,” Middleton said. “They brought expertise in a lot of areas outside of agriculture, so they saw things that other people couldn’t.”
“Very few brands make it beyond 20 years, but the 6666® has been prominent for 150 years—and people know what it stands for”—Mike Duffy
Sheridan, the public face of the investor group, has a demonstrated knack of making seemingly disparate interests work in concert to increase cash flow and strengthen the overall bottom line, Bell said.
For instance, Sheridan invests in top-quality horses. While he uses them personally, he also puts them to work in his entertainment projects, which has income-generating potential. Most of the horses that appear in “Yellowstone” and other projects belong to Sheridan. This full-circle approach ensures that his actors are well-mounted and the Quarter Horse industry is well-represented, which also helps create demand and sustain value.
“Through ‘Yellowstone’ and ‘The Last Cowboy,’ Taylor has not only elevated the western lifestyle, but the horse business in a way that is almost incomprehensible to anyone who has been it,” Bell said.
Premier horse sales across the country, including the Four Sixes’ annual “Return to the Remuda” sale are setting new price records. Recently, an unregistered, using gelding sold for $500,000 in Arizona.
“Taylor has a way of changing the game,” Bell said. “He gets full credit, in my opinion, for the new energy around the western stock horse.”
Sheridan’s entertainment juggernaut is still growing. A “Yellowstone” prequel called, “1883” is in production and a new series with the working title, “6666,” is on the drawing board.
Doing the Deal
After signing the buyer’s agreement, Sheridan had Bell call Middleton. The purpose of the call? To inform Middleton that Sheridan’s goal was to buy the ranch in its entirety. While Bell, who attended West Texas A&M with Middleton’s son Charlie, had shown some ranches listed by the Middletons, he had never closed a deal with Sam.
Middleton had been showing the Four Sixes to groups with the understanding that “they could come look at it, but it was not going to be split up at this point.” Those who were only interested in a portion of the ranch were told they would have to “wait and see how it all played out.” Under these conditions, he had shown the ranch to seven to 10 groups of “Forbes 400-type, highly qualified buyers,” but none had taken the next step.
According to the Journal article, Sheridan gave himself a week to put together a suitable buyers group. Despite internet rumors to the contrary, there were no foreign interests involved in the sale, Bell said.
Soon after, the investor group, with Sheridan as the majority owner, came to the table, and negotiations began in earnest. While nothing was left to chance, the intellectual property was scrutinized time and again to ensure the new owners could achieve their ultimate goals.
“The amount of material to review was massive and the number of attorneys involved was staggering,” Bell said. “It was a roller coaster ride from beginning to end—and there were any number of times that issues arose that made us all question whether we’d be able to push it over the finish line.”
The turn-key deal was negotiated as a lump sum.
“To give you an idea of the deal’s magnitude, the price swings during negotiations were discussed in terms of $25 million,” Middleton said.
All parties signed a confidentiality agreement preventing disclosure of the final sale price.
“The deal was all-inclusive—three ranches and all inventory,” Middleton said. “Even if we hadn’t signed a confidentiality agreement, it would be impossible to break out the individual values.”
After about 10 months of inspections, negotiations and due diligence, an agreement was reached. The roller coaster ride ended January 21, 2022, about three weeks before the second anniversary of Marion’s death.
“In my estimation, Taylor couldn’t have put together a better group of people and the ranch couldn’t have come into better hands,” Bell said. “While they respect its storied history and value its impeccable integrity, they have a clear, strong vision for the future.”
Turning the Page
Change is inevitable and the future is unpredictable.
“Taylor is the master of the unexpected on screen and in life,” Bell said. “I don’t know exactly what he is going to do on the Four Sixes, but I’m confident that he will defy conventional wisdom and make something work by seizing the opportunities that appear.”
The ability to adapt to an ever-changing world is a vital skill for a rancher. Texas is a vastly different place now than it was in 1870 when Captain Burnett founded the Four Sixes. His vision transformed the untamed plains into a productive, respected livestock empire. Succeeding generations of the Burnett family looked at the world with the same clear-eyed pragmatism, rethinking and retooling their management to stay in step with the times and keep the ranch thriving.
“In one way, I hate to see old historic ranches sell because it signals a change, but I am always glad when the new owners purchase a piece of history intact and commit to carrying on its tradition and legacy,” Middleton said. “With this group and its vision, I am hopeful that the Four Sixes will carry on for another 150 years.”
Bell concurred, “I think this purchase that keeps the Four Sixes Ranch intact and moving into the next century is a big win for the American West, agriculture—and anyone who appreciates the rugged individualism that has defined our country since the beginning.”
Sheridan, who has elected to keep the current management and staff intact while serving as the ranch’s president and CEO, gave a clear indication of his intent in the Journal article, “You have to understand that nobody can ‘buy’ a ranch like the Four Sixes. You buy the privilege of becoming its steward and hope that your children will want to become that steward for future generations. Then if they can’t, they’ll sell it to someone who will.”