During the holiday season, Fort Worth Report journalists are remembering their favorite stories of 2022. Click here to read more essays.
A hot Hollywood producer, a storied Texas ranch, 30 years of experience, one hour on a Saturday morning and Alexander Hamilton: The formula for my favorite story of the year.
What’s the formula again? Follow my logic here. See if it makes sense or if chaos theory rules.
I had not been at the Fort Worth Report long (I started in early January 2022) before someone mentioned the potential sale of the Four Sixes Ranch. The Four Sixes, in case you don’t know, is a legendary Texas story.
Some of it is even true.
The ranch was founded by Samuel Burk Burnett. If that name is not familiar, Burnett Park in downtown Fort Worth is named after him. He also built the Burk Burnett Building, designed by Sanguinet & Staats, that opened in 1914. The building, located at 500 Main St. contains the Worthington National Bank and the lobby was restored in 2005. It’s worth checking out. The lobby was used for a scene in the 2018 Robert Redford film, “The Old Man and the Gun.”
Legend has it (you can’t really do justice to a Texas tale without those three words) that Burnett won the Four Sixes Ranch in a poker game with a hand that included four sixes. But the reality is that the cattle apparently already had that brand when he purchased it.
Burnett raised cattle, primarily purebred Herefords and Durham bulls, along with quarter horses. In 1921, another part of the ranch legend took shape when oil was discovered.
The 142,372-acre ranch was for sale following the death of Burnett’s great-granddaughter, Anne Windfohr Marion, herself a legend in Fort Worth and Texas history. She stipulated the sale in her will.
The ranch was listed on the market for $347.7 million.
When the ranch initially went on the market following Marion’s death in February 2020, I had called Charles S. Middleton and Sons, the brokers for the ranch. At the time, I was at another publication, but I asked him if I could contact him when the sale occurred and he agreed.
I don’t know if it was my born in Fort Worth accent or the fact that I responded to the fact that the man I spoke with on the other end of the line sounded like the 1,000s of cattlemen and ranchers that sauntered through the dusty, oil-stained offices of my grandparent’s trailer business seeking a deal on a trailer, but I liked the guy. I had talked to him about some other big ranches they had sold a few years earlier, so I wasn’t unknown to him.
I also began collecting some photos of the ranch I could use in case a sale occurred. It’s terrible to have a great story, but no art for it. In the world of web-based journalism, a photo means a lot and sometimes, as in the case of a racoon hitching a ride on the back of a trash truck, everything.
When a rumor spread that the ranch had sold, I gave Middleton another call.
My contact said he’d heard the same rumor but it wasn’t true. He should know.
While I believed him, I also remembered the famous saying that allegedly originated in a Chicago newsroom: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
So I called up a fellow Texas ranch broker and asked him what he knew. He was more verbose about the sale and, I suspected, a little jealous that he was missing out on a hell of a commission and more than a little publicity.
He had heard the sales rumor, too, but he knew it wasn’t true.
These sales are complicated, he explained. Sometimes the ranch land crosses county borders, there are grazing agreements with other ranchers, he said.
How do you know the sale hasn’t gone through? I asked. He said he had sources, too, just like reporters.
I asked if rumors were true that one of the producers of “Yellowstone,” Taylor Sheridan, who had graduated from R.L. Paschal High School in Fort Worth, was one of the potential buyers.
Sheridan and his wife, Nicole, already owned the 600-plus acre Bosque Ranch south of Weatherford. “Yellowstone” itself has filmed on the Four Sixes Ranch and Sheridan has plans for a Four Sixes spinoff of the “Yellowstone” franchise. He was among the buyers, the source said.
I responded to this source with a little variation on a saying that I had picked up from a reporter who used to cover Fort Worth for The Dallas Morning News.
“Well, when you know something our readers need to know, give me a call,” I said.
He was not the only person I reached out to. Most of my conversations ended with that same sign off.
The Morning News reporter, whose name escapes me, used to say to people he would meet, “What do you know that our readers should know?” It’s either a good conversation starter or it gets the door slammed in your face.
All that, and probably more, is a prelude to Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. That day I did not plan to have a scoop. I planned to go see the musical “Hamilton” at Bass Hall. I had seen the show in New York but I was more than happy to see it again, even if it meant my wife would be singing “My Shot” and “Helpless” for weeks to come.
That morning, little did I know, I was going to get “My Shot” at a story that would have a life of its own.
I received the call about 10 a.m. on Saturday morning. I was about two weeks into working at the Fort Worth Report.
Word is the ranch has sold, I was told. I started making calls, but being Saturday, I didn’t expect many answers.
Then I called the brokers.
The phone went to voicemail. Damn.
Then the phone rang. They confirmed it. And confirmed who was buying it.
They were working on the press release as I was talking to them. Damn.
He gave me as many facts as were in the release. The ranch was sold to a group of buyers led by Sheridan. That was about it. But it was gold.
Very little story for a storied ranch. I started to call my editor when my phone buzzed again. It was one of my sources. True to his word, he called me when he heard the sale was final.
That guy does have sources, I thought.
I then called someone with Marion’s estate and confirmed the sale there as well. I had three sources and one of them, straight from the horse’s mouth, no pun intended.
I quickly typed up the story and realized one thing. I had started this journey at another publication and I didn’t have access to the photos I had so wisely set aside for the news.
And, like a time bomb ticking away in a spy thriller, my wife came in to tell me it was time to leave for “Hamilton.”
“Ten minutes,” she said, tapping her watch.
“Read this,” I said, pointing at my computer screen. She read over my shoulder as my dog asked to be let out for the 10th time at least.
She did a little editing and then I sent it in. The clock was ticking, but I had no art. The art I had set aside for this story was nestled safely and frustratingly in a folder on some computer I used to have.
Another reporter, Jacob Sanchez, found some art and posted the story. By that time I was in my seat at “Hamilton,” waiting for the show to begin. He called me and we went over a few changes he made. A few minutes later I could look at the story on my phone, just before the cast began singing “Alexander Hamilton,” the song that opens the show.
That’s my part of the story. For some reason, nearly everyone that picked up the story linked back to my original report. Because of that, as of Dec. 20, 2022, the story is the No. 3 most popular story on our site today. All time, the story is No. 1. It has fallen off the top 10 list occasionally, but rarely.
Part of that is due to the fact that the “Yellowstone” franchise has only grown in the year since I reported the sale.
The story, in its own way, has become, pun intended, legendary, just like the ranch.
“Hamilton,” by the way, is awesome, but it’s particularly satisfying when you know the ol’ wordsmith Hamilton himself would be proud of you.
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.