The World’s Largest Ranch – It’s Family History Runs Through Dallas and Fort Worth.

By Joe Holley, article from the Houston Chronicle

September 19, 2014 | Updated: September 20, 2014 11:06pm

Those who knew Electra Waggoner Briggs remember her as strikingly attractive.

Last week’s column about the potential sale of the iconic W.T. Waggoner Ranch, all 510,527 acres of it, got me to thinking about family dynasties and how they evolve over the years – the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, the Bushes, the Ewings.

Although the current branches on the Waggoner family tree seem relatively calm and community-minded, despite the years-long family dispute that likely will mean the dissolution of the ranch, some of their forebears are worthy of a “Lonesome Dove” sequel or maybe a “Dallas” remake.
There’s W.T. “Tom” Waggoner himself, son of ranch founder Dan Waggoner. Tom Waggoner was a tough, hard-nosed cattleman who managed to amass more than a million acres on both sides of the Red River; who, through his business dealings with Quanah Parker, made the Comanche chief rich and famous; who hunted wolves with President Theodore Roosevelt; who, before pari-mutuel betting in Texas was outlawed, built Arlington Downs, a state-of-the-art racing facility between Dallas and Fort Worth. Every one of those episodes in his life is worth a story.

However tough Waggoner may have been, he apparently was a kitten around his kids, particularly daughter Electra. The word means “sparkling” or “brilliant” in Greek. The cowboys called her “the little princess of the Panhandle” – presumably with affection – and she did indeed live as ranch royalty.

Downs of high life

When she married A.B. Wharton, a Main Line Philadelphian she met while traveling in the Himalayas, the citizens of Waggoner, near the ranch, created a new town and named it Electra. Her father built the newlyweds a three-story, 18-room mansion in Fort Worth, both as a wedding present and as inducement to keep his daughter in the general vicinity. Thistle Hill, as Electra’s home was called, stands to this day near downtown.

Apparently Thistle Hill wasn’t enough. After her first divorce in 1919, according to biographer Roze McCoy Porter, she spent $90,000 remodeling a year-old home near Turtle Creek in Dallas, a home complete with a private lake. She spent another half-million furnishing the house she called Shadowlawn. Inside, she stuffed one huge closet with fur coats, another with 350 pair of custom-made shoes, yet another with the latest gowns from Paris and New York. It was said she never wore the same gown twice.

She may have shocked Dallas high society when she returned from a world tour with a butterfly tattoo on her leg, but her rich and famous pals reveled in her extravagant parties and her wealthy-Texan escapades. She died in 1925 at age 43 – of complications from a broken heart after an annulled marriage, her friends said.

Her two sons from the first of her three marriages inherited her penchant for extravagance. Tom Waggoner Wharton married eight times before his death in 1928 – at age 25. A.B. “Buster” Wharton Jr., a renowned playboy and horseman who preferred polo to punching cows, died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1963. His son, A.B. “Bucky” Wharton III, lives at the ranch today and is one of the principals in the family feud forcing the sale.

A model of Electra Waggoner Biggs’ best -known work, her sculpture of Will Rogers, is on display at the Red River Valley Museum in Vernon.
Joe Holley

A model of Electra Waggoner Biggs’ best -known work, her sculpture of Will Rogers, is on display at the Red River Valley Museum in Vernon.

Electra’s brother, E. Paul Waggoner, had a daughter, known as Electra II, who was arguably the most interesting and accomplished of all the Waggoner offspring. Like her namesake, she was an international socialite who spent as much or more time in New York and L.A. as on the ranch – Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons had her linked to actor Cary Grant – but she also happened to be an acclaimed artist.

Electra II’s acclaim

Born in Fort Worth in 1912, she began her career while studying in New York. “She went down to Greenwich Village and found out she had a knack for sculpting,” her daughter, Helen Biggs Willlingham, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time of her death in 2001.

Her best-known work is “Riding Into the Sunset,” the bronze statue of Will Rogers astride his horse Soapsuds at the entrance to the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum in Fort Worth. Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter Sr., a close Rogers friend, commissioned the work after Rogers’ fatal plane crash at Point Barrow, Alaska, in 1935. Copies reside on the Texas Tech campus and at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Okla.

The small and superb Red River Valley Museum in Vernon owns a sizeable collection of Electra Biggs’ work, including busts of Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bob Hope, Amon Carter, Sid Richardson, John Nance Garner and Knute Rockne. Most of her subjects were prominent people she knew socially.

Those who knew her say she was a strikingly attractive woman with dark, sparkling eyes and a sensitive, open face. “She cut a wide swath wherever she went,” a West Texas rancher told me.

The luxury Buick Electra was named after Electra Waggoner Biggs, or Electra II, by her husband’s brother-in-law, who was the president of General Motors.
Brett Coomer

The luxury Buick Electra was named after Electra Waggoner Biggs, or Electra II, by her husband’s brother-in-law, who was the president of General Motors.

Sam Middleton, the longtime Lubbock broker who’s handling the sale of the ranch, remembers being at a party when she showed up. “When she walked into that party, everybody stood in awe,” he recalled. “It was like a president walked in. It’s been 35 years, but I still haven’t forgotten how she had such a presence.”

Electra II married twice, the second time in 1943 to John Biggs, a Texan who worked for International Paper. John Biggs’ brother-in-law, Harlow H. “Red” Curtice, was the president of General Motors, and he christened Buick’s luxury model the Electra in honor of her beauty. She also had a plane named after her, the Lockheed Electra.

John and Electra Biggs had two daughters, Helen and another Electra. Helen is married to Gene Willingham, and the couple live on the ranch, at least for now. After Electra II filed suit in 1991 to liquidate the ranch, Willingham became Bucky Wharton’s legal nemesis in the family dispute.

Heirs

In a book of essays called “In a Narrow Grave,” Larry McMurtry writes about his own cowboy relatives, old-timers who lived and worked on ranches not far from the Waggoner spread in the early decades of the 20th century. To paraphrase McMurtry, their god was a horseman, they lived the cowboy myth and they gloried in its rituals.

“In my youth,” he writes, “when they were old men, I often heard them yearn aloud for the days when the rituals had all their power, when they themselves had enacted the pure, the original myth, and I know that they found it bitter to leave the land to the strange and godless heirs that they had bred.”

Tom Waggoner died in 1934. In the next six months or so, the sun will set on the ranching empire he built. His heirs will be walking away with millions, but, still, I’m guessing the old Texas cowboy would find it, to use McMurtry’s word, bitter.