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Oak Hill Ranch: A Palette of Creative Restoration

Bob and Marilyn McDowell of Houston were looking for a 100-acre weekend getaway when they found Oak Hill Ranch near Round Top. The 1,000-acre working ranch has been their palette for creative restoration since 2008.

“Our youngest child, Katie, had just left to attend the University of Texas, so we were looking for a project to fill the extra time that comes when your nest empties,” said Bob, who is president and owner of W. M. Dewey & Son, Texas’ oldest oilfield trucking company.

Their search had taken them to smaller acreage properties in Washington and Fayette counties. Just like Goldilocks, they had found one that was “just right” and had put an offer together. And just like Goldilocks, the deal didn’t quite work out, so the McDowells were still in the market when they got a fateful phone call.

“My best friend Johnny Walker, who has a place over in Fayetteville, called to tell us Oak Hill Ranch was on the market,” Bob said. “He encouraged us to come take a look even though it was bigger than what we were looking for.”

Walker, who also owns a trucking company in Houston, grew up in the cattle business, so he knew there was potential for something special at Oak Hill Ranch. Dr. Michael DeBakey and his family were selling the property they had operated as Thousand Oaks Ranch, raising registered Brangus cattle and Paso Fino horses for 25 years.

Marilyn said, “Initially, I didn’t go look at it. If I fell in love with it and we didn’t get it, I knew I’d be disappointed.”

When Bob and his son, Austin, arrived at Oak Hill Ranch, they found a piece of land with its well-worn work clothes on. Yaupon, cedar and mesquite had encroached. Improved grasses had been grazed to the ground. Weeds were proliferating. Fences were in disrepair as were the barns and houses. Time and the elements had taken their toll.

photo by Shutterbunny Photography

But in the middle of the property, they encountered the hill, one of the highest points in Fayette County, topped with majestic heritage oaks that gave the ranch its name. The view makes an impression that is hard to ignore. The initial visit prompted more visits with Marilyn in tow.

The property was being sold through a closed auction, and the family decided to put in a bid using a strategy Marilyn, who is a recently retired ASID Interior Designer, perfected at antiques auctions.

“When you go to an antiques auction and see something special that everyone knows its worth, you have to bump up your bid just a bit to take it home,” Marilyn said.

They submitted their bid package assuming they would not win. When the phone rang with the news that the McDowells were ranch owners, it was a celebratory moment. They closed Oct. 3, 2008, which just happened to be Marilyn’s birthday. After the closing, the McDowells went to Scotty & Friends in Round Top. The restaurant, now closed, was the only nearby place to have a drink.

“We raised a toast that sounded an awful lot like, ‘What in the crap have we done?’” Bob said, noting the stock market had crashed just days before and the shock waves were rolling across the country.

In that moment the novice landowners came face to face with the enormity of the project they had undertaken. Bob is a lifelong Houstonian. Born in Texas, Marilyn is a “military brat” who lived around the world. She returned to Texas as quickly as she could and hopscotched through its major cities before landing in Houston in the late ‘70s. The couple met while working at an insurance company and married in 1978. In 1979, Bob joined his family’s oilfield trucking business. While they had a lot of business expertise, neither of them had any hands-on experience with land, agriculture or long-term country living.

“We didn’t know much about the technical aspects of what we’d gotten into,” Marilyn said. “But we shared a passion for improving things and conserving history. The ranch, as it turned out, was a place where we could put our twin passions into action.”

Early in their marriage, which marked 40 years last April, the McDowells divided their domestic chores into outdoors and indoors.

“When we got married I told Bob, ‘If you’ll mow the grass, I’ll clean the toilets,’” Marilyn said.

Although their life has changed, the division of labor hasn’t.

“Neither one of us mows the grass or cleans the toilets now, but Marilyn is still in charge of the home projects and I’m in charge of the land projects,” Bob said. “On the ranch the scale is just bigger.”

The Great Cedar War
Initially, the couple planned to continue leasing the ranch to a local cattleman for grazing while they began addressing the effects of the deferred maintenance by replacing fences, stabilizing outbuildings, repairing roads, digging additional stock tanks and other similar projects.

“In the design business I learned that,if you give a project time, houses will ‘speak’ to you and let you know what needs to be done,” Marilyn said. “I suspected land would be the same way, so we were in no hurry to make drastic changes other than clean it up. We didn’t know much about land, but we were eager to learn.”

Bob concurred, “We planned to take a backseat when it came to the land management and enjoy the property as a traditional weekend getaway.”

Two things changed that plan.

The first was the drought that descended on Texas beginning in 2009 and reached a scorching peak in 2011. Constant grazing was taking an obvious toll on the landscape, so the annual grazing lease wasn’t renewed when it expired. The second was a complimentary membership to the Texas Wildlife Association that came as a thank you gift from Capital Farm Credit as part of the land loan package.

“I began reading and learning about land management and land stewardship,” Bob said. “I became aware of the benefits of native vegetation, especially grasses, in the ecosystem—and was inspired to restore Oak Hill back to native prairie.”

Marilyn said, “It was the beginning of ‘The Great Cedar War.’ If you want to make Bob happy give him a pair of clippers and let him go.”

(Side note: Bob has completed 47 marathons around the world. He is not good at sitting still.)

And while Bob, who has retired his chainsaw, did—and does—tackle some brush stands with clippers and loppers he, working with his loan officer, Tim Knesek, identified and established a network of land professionals. They included representatives from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Lower Colorado River Authority as well as locals such as Larry Pineda and his sons, Junior and Christian. Together they put together a plan designed to prompt change across the landscape.

“My top goals are to re-establish native grasses, such as Texas blue stem, across the ranch and to get more moisture into the soil,” Bob said. “Additional moisture not only helps the plant community but helps replenish groundwater and can help with surface water supplies.”

One of the restoration plan’s cornerstones was brush management with an emphasis on cedar, which is known for its propensity to absorb water and shade out the plants beneath its dense canopy, as well as mesquite and yaupon. The team used primarily mechanical control with an eye on ecological balance.

“We selectively removed brush to increase open areas and allow the grasses to re-establish themselves,” Bob said. “With that said, wildlife needs the cover and food that brush species provide, so we didn’t remove it all. We struck a balance.”

After the drought broke and the land had rested for about two years, the McDowells bought their neighbors John and Frances Pittman’s cattle when the couple dispersed their herd. The 11 head formed the foundation of the commercial cow-calf operation that now numbers more than 100 cows that they manage with the help of their nephew David Sorsby, who owns Sorsby Cattle Services in Independence.

The family uses a rotational grazing system, which allows parts of the ranch to rest and recover after they’ve been grazed. It mimics the patterns of use and rest that existed when the bison and other vast herds roamed the prairies.

“I never imagined we’d have a commercial cattle operation,” Bob said. “My goal is to build it to a point where it can help defer the operational costs of ownership.”

The pragmatic businessman doesn’t see himself trading in his desk in Houston for a full-time life in the saddle any time in the near future.

“With the prices of land in this area and the cost of production, it’s almost impossible to run cattle without another job,” Bob said.

Making a House (or Several) a Homestead
Oak Hill Ranch’s history stretches back to the 1840s when it was settled by Louis and Caroline Heller from Alsace-Lorraine. On topographic maps the ranch’s prominent hill is labeled Heller Hill. Heller descendants owned the property until the 1960s, when it sold outside the family for the first time. In 1972, the new owner sold to the DeBakeys, who retained ownership until 2008. The McDowells were fortunate to connect with Elva Meiners Keilers, a descendant of the original owners, who provided them Heller family photos and history.

“Early Texas history runs deep in this area,” Marilyn said. “The ranch has been part of that history that deserves to be preserved not just for our family but for Texas.”

photo by Shutterbunny Photography

When it came to the buildings clustered atop the hill that formed the ranch’s nucleus and provided an informal architectural history, the news was good and bad.

The good? Despite generations of owners, the buildings hadn’t been razed.

The bad? Between deferred maintenance and benign neglect, they were on the brink of collapse. The collection included the original Heller farmhouse built in 1851, two sharecroppers’ shacks, and a  hay barn and an equipment shed.

“Although Bob loves history as much as I do, his first impression of the buildings was that they needed to be torn down,” Marilyn said. “I told him, ‘You know we can’t do that.’”

None of the buildings were livable, so the first order of business was constructing a place to stay.  Their contractor, Ryan Reichardt of Cat Spring, suggested a barndominium because it could be built in about four months.

photo by Shutterbunny Photography

“We planned to live in the barndominium until we built a luxuriously elegant dream house, but it turns out that the barndo suited us and our life out here,” Marilyn said.

They recently expanded the “upscale western” barndo. Marilyn used “an impactful monochromatic palette” to include a new dining room and a covered outdoor kitchen and living space to allow family and friends to enjoy the new pool. The new addition also includes a greenhouse for Bob alongside the raised gardens.

“Because Marilyn grew up constantly moving, it’s hard to keep her in the same house for very long,” Bob said, laughing and noting that they’ve now lived in their Houston house for 21 years. “This project, with all its buildings, let her showcase her talents without us moving.”

The couple stabilized the old buildings, so they could be restored and/or repurposed as needs dictated and time and budget allowed. Marilyn, who eschews cookie cutter design, listened to each space and created a unique atmosphere within. The constant is a respect for history that includes tucking the modern conveniences away so they couldn’t be seen.

First, Marilyn turned her attention to the sharecropper house near the barndominium and converted it to a guest cottage now known as the Wood Cabin. With its preponderance of natural elements, such as deer antler cabinet pulls and bark-edged cabinet tops, it was their contractor’s favorite. A native garden welcomes guests and serves as the natural setting for an antique plow found on the property.

Then when their son, Austin, announced that he and his fiancée, Brittany, wanted to get married on the property, Marilyn converted the equipment shed into another cottage, now known as the Tin Shack, to serve as the gathering space for the bride and her wedding party. At Bob’s suggestion they transformed the old hay barn into an event hall.

“I saw Westminster Abbey during the most recent Royal Wedding—it was long, narrow and tall,” Bob said. “They had lined the aisle with trees. I thought, ‘We can do the same thing in the hay barn.’”

The Heller House, the first house constructed on the property, was the last up for restoration.

“It was in such bad shape,” Marilyn recalled. “On my first visit to the property, I rounded the corner, and as I approached the house, I heard its silent voice call out to be saved. I couldn’t ignore it.”

The three-year labor of love was undergirded by a desire for historic accuracy. For instance, the interior stack stone walls were rechinked using the techniques of expert restorers. The end result captures all of the warmth and charm of the early farmhouses that dot the region. An architectural technicality that the family hopes to address is the only thing standing between it and the Texas Register of Historic Places.

“When I stand in the Heller House and consider what we did, I think Mary—the last Heller to live and pass on the property—would be proud of what we’ve done,” Marilyn said.

And rightfully so. Channeling their passion for conservation, preservation and restoration,the McDowells have opened another chapter in the ranch’s history featuring their family.

“I hope this will be a place our children will want to maintain as part of their lives, but who knows what the future holds?” Bob said. “Our legacy will be making memories.”

Marilyn concluded, “We’re blessed to be stewards of this property and have the responsibility of taking care of it for a while, so it can be passed along to the generations who come next.”

Oak Hill Ranch: A Palette of Creative Restoration
by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Rachel Alphonso-Smith, Shutterbunny Photography