Russell Gordy may best be described as an American-style success. From a humble beginning in a poor section of Houston, Texas, Gordy found success first in the oil business and then as a landowner.
“My dad was a Houston policeman,” Gordy said. “My mother cleaned buildings at night. And I guess I’m one of the American dream stories. We lived out in the ghetto basically.”
But the ghetto was near an oilfield and Gordy started working those fields when he was 15 years old. “I did it all through college, working as a roughneck,” he said.
Those were the days when roughnecks “threw the chain,” a very dangerous technique used to work the joints of drill pipe together or apart. “Yeah, we still threw the chain,” he said. “I’ve got all my fingers but can’t turn my hand over.” Working as a derrick hand, Gordy fell off the top of the rig and crushed his wrist. “I don’t notice it,” he said as he looked at his wrist, “except when I go to get change or shoot a gun.” Gordy said he has to work the trigger with his thumb and his hand turned. “But I’ve got all my fingers! Not very many people [who did this work] have all their fingers yet,” he said. Gordy worked onshore through high school and then offshore through college. “It [offshore] paid a lot more money. I didn’t have any. So I was trying to make enough to finish school,” he said.
Gordy said he attended a variety of different schools because he was a borderline athlete. “Good enough to get scholarships; not good enough to keep them,” he laughed. Gordy graduated from Sam Houston State College.
After graduation, Gordy went to work for a big gas company. But he quickly realized that he didn’t want to work for a big company and soon went to work for a smaller one. “The guy who ran it was a nice guy. Gave him some ideas that he didn’t think about and he said he’d train me, teach me the business,” Gordy said, “and he did.” Gordy worked for that company until it was sold. “That was my last job,” Gordy said, “was to sell the company. Then I started my own and have been on my own ever since.” The year was 1981.
Gordy’s new company explored for oil and gas. And his initial success came early. “Timing’s everything in any business,” Gordy said. “And we were successful in ‘81.” Gordy had a few partners who wanted to retire in 1984. “They were little older than me,” he said, “so we sold our business right before everything collapsed. So I was one of few people to have money in the collapse of the oil business.” Gordy started buying up oil fields and other property from banks at cheap prices. “It worked out,” he said. And Gordy never borrowed any money to build his businesses. “I always did it on cash flow … if I couldn’t do that … I’ve never borrowed any money ever. And that’s not usual in oil and gas. But that’s kind of the way I’ve done it,” he said.
In 1986 Gordy learned about coal bed methane. “One of my old friends brought me a deal on coal bed methane. I’d never even heard of it. But it was a kind of development in oil and gas … the first unconventional oil and gas.” Gordy invested and was doing well in Colorado, Alabama and New Mexico until the price of gas fell to 80 cents. “We about went bankrupt,” he said. “Gas prices went to 80 cents and I was hauling water for two bucks. So I was losing my shirt basically,” he said. “If I hadn’t had those old oilfields, I would’ve went broke. Anyway, we finally figured it out and turned it into a really good business,” he said. Gordy sold some of that business in 2001; some more in 2005. “We’re still doing it. We’re still doing conventional exploration,” he said. “We’re in a couple shale plays. Basically we’ve just been very lucky; and timing’s everything.”
A love of land
“I told you my father was a policeman and my mother cleaned buildings. Well, my grandfather and grandmother were farmers.” Gordy spent every summer of his youth on his grandparents’ 400-acre vegetable farm. “That was a big farm for a family,” he said. Gordy worked every day on the farm and lived there while he finished school. “I just kind of got a love of land,” he said. “As I’ve sold oil and gas properties over the years, I exchanged it [the money] for land. That’s why I have a big land. I just like it. I just like land. I mean, you know, it may not be the best investment, but it’s real and you have it. You see it,” he said with a wave of his hand.
Though Gordy is listed in The Land Report magazine as number 56 on their list of America’s top 100 landowners, he doesn’t have a staff to manage his holdings. “I manage it all myself. I don’t have any central guy,” he told the Casper Journal. Gordy owns large properties in Texas, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico. “They’re all big ranches [by today’s standards],” he said. “I mean, 20,000 acres and above. The old days, you know, a couple hundred thousand acres was a big ranch.”
When friends ask Gordy how he’s doing in ranching he tells them he’s made a small fortune. “I say I made a small fortune,” he said. “They say ‘Really!’ I say yeah, but I started with a big one.”
Gordy said if it wasn’t for oil and gas he probably couldn’t make money on his Wyoming ranch. “Ranching is a tough business. It’s hard to make money in this unless you have a family-owned operation. And then you can get by,” he said.
But he said it’s a great outdoor feeling and he wanted his children to experience it like he did. “They kind of grew up here.” Gordy’s two sons, now 31 and 34, were only 11 and 14 when he bought the mountain portions of the BB Brooks Ranch from Dr. Stuckenhoff. “We came here every summer,” he said. “And they worked. They worked farming first and then I got them to be cowboys. They’ve done about everything you can do out here,” he said. “So they grew up out here. My youngest one got married out here on the ranch.”
Buying the historic BB Brooks Ranch
Gordy said he looked for three years, all over the west, for a ranch to purchase. He was in Buffalo, Wyo., when he got a call to come look at the BB Brooks Ranch. He wasn’t really interested. In his mind’s eye he saw the flat land north of Casper. But he took a look and loved it.
“After looking for three years, you know what you’re looking for,” he said.
But Doc Stuckenhoff hadn’t really decided he wanted to sell his ranch. “He was probably 90,” Gordy said. Over the phone, Stuckenhoff asked Gordy why he wanted the ranch. “I told him I got two boys. I grew up on a farm and want my kids to experience this same life,” he said.
Stuckenhoff told Gordy to bring his family to the ranch. “I want to meet them,” the doctor said.
Gordy’s family was in Houston. But they came immediately to Wyoming. “We drove up to the place. I went to get out of the car and he [Stuckenhoff] said, ‘No, you can sit in the car, I want to talk to your family.’” So Gordy sat in his car for an hour while Stuckenhoff questioned his wife and kids.
Eventually Stuckenhoff came out and said Gordy could come in. Stuckenhoff told Gordy he would sell him the ranch. “I said OK, you got a deal. He wanted to make sure somebody was buying it that wasn’t going to tear it in pieces and sell it off.
“When I bought this place, there was an article ‘Rich Texan buys ranch.’ I don’t know how rich I was. I just like land. And I traded it for something I sold. But all the fears were that I was going to subdivide it. The only reason this isn’t subdivided, because all the old owners, you know they’re land rich and cash poor, are selling off all their land, and making it into little pieces. I’m the only person that hasn’t. I bought all the way to the highway to keep that from happening. I bought a lot of land I didn’t really want, just to keep it from being turned into a subdivision. I know a lot of people like subdivisions, but some of this needs to stay the way it was. This was BB Brooks Ranch. It’s a historic place and needs to stay that way,” he said.
Gordy said many people ask why he didn’t keep the BB Brooks name. “The Stuckenhoffs wouldn’t let me,” he said. “They kept it for their north country. Otherwise I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
Gordy said he was hurt by some of the things said about him when he initially proposed swapping land to separate and consolidate his and the state’s land in 2010. “They kept saying what a bad guy I was. But this has really been our home.” Gordy said it’s true the family lives and works in Texas. “I work in Texas. I have to,” he said, “because that’s where the oil and gas business for me is. But we spent a lot of time here. I’ve had it [this ranch] for 20 years.”
Last year, Gordy purchased the neighboring Davis-Boston Ranch after a failed attempt by local sportsmen and other outdoor enthusiasts to get the state of Wyoming to purchase it. This year, some of the sportsmen asked Gordy to consider a new land swap. He’s considering making another proposal and has invested quite a few dollars into exploring the idea, but is undecided as to whether he’ll proceed.
“Let me start off by saying I’m not sure I want to do a land swap,” he said. Gordy said he knows an exchange would be beneficial for him and for the state and the public. But he said he hasn’t really gone over everything that’s been proposed in this swap himself and wants to take a really a hard look at it. “This is going to be my grandchildren’s place,” he said. “And I want to make sure that it’s something I think they’d be happy with. A land swap is forever.”
He said he’d like to consolidate his holdings. “It makes sense,” he said. But Gordy said some of the information that’s circulating in the community that the exchange would be mountain acre for mountain acre is not quite true. As it stands, he said, “I’m trading 9,000 acres of mountain for about 1,500 acres of mountain.” Gordy said he’d be giving up “a lot of pretty mountain land. And I just have to think about that.”
Gordy said he just wants to make certain this swap is something he wants to do. “If not, maybe there’s a smaller trade or something that we can do that still makes sense. But, you know, I’ve been trying to do something since I bought the place. It just doesn’t make sense the way it is … because it’s so chopped up,” he said.
Gordy’s ranch is a checkerboard of deeded, state school trust lands and BLM. “Just from a valuation standpoint, it’s better to own it all contiguous if you can but, I don’t … I just have to see about all this mountain versus what I’m getting, if that’s really something that’s worth it to me, to get contiguous land, even though it’s not as valuable as what I’m giving up.” Gordy is concerned at the way the state appraises their property. Acreage without access is appraised as if it had access. And there are a number of acres Gordy feels have oversized valuations. “And so I actually owe them money,” Gordy said, “when in fact I’m giving them a lot more valuable land than they’re giving me.” Again he said he’ll have to decide if that’s really what he wants to do.
“I’ve been sitting in my house looking back at Muddy Mountain. I own most of it. That would all be gone,” he said. Gordy would have the opportunity to lease the land back from the state, but he said that wouldn’t be the same. “And the other thing I worry about is that county road. People would be running up and down it all the time. There are a lot of good people, but there are a few bad ones, and they mess it up for a lot of people. We run into the bad ones, and they do a lot of things that you don’t want done, and that worries me,” he said.
Gordy’s Falls Ranch is home to a large elk herd that was at the center of the controversy surrounding Gordy’s first proposed land swap. Asked about the size and health of the elk herd, Gordy said it’s true the herd has really grown.
“When I came here,” he said, “there was only 50 elk. People shot everything that moved. It was a very small herd. Now it’s grown. Maybe it’s too big, maybe not. I don’t know.” But Gordy said during the drought he lowered his cattle numbers so the elk and the land could survive. “We went from 1,800 head to 900 head [of cattle] so there was enough grass.” Gordy said he can only do that because his ranch is supported by his oil and gas business.
“Now we’re increasing our cattle numbers,” he said. But he points out that he bought more land and some feedlots in Lingle where he can raise hay.
“There are a lot of elk [on his property]. But I think everybody’s shot a lot of elk up there. If it hadn’t been for me, there wouldn’t be so many big elk.”
Gordy doesn’t fence wildlife onto or off his ranch. “A lot of them stay on there, but they do leave. A lot of hunters kill a lot of nice elk on the state land behind me. And that would never happen if I hadn’t been around here because the herd was so small,” he said.
There’s been concern over some hunters’ behaviors. “I mean people drove up and shot them out of cars up there in that park,” he said. “It wasn’t much fun. I bow hunt. I don’t even shoot them with the gun. To me, that isn’t even particularly hunting.”
Initially Gordy allowed public hunting on the ranch. “We had draws and I gave away 10 to 20 elk permits a year to hunt up there. And 30 antelope permits,” he said. He never offered any deer because the ranch didn’t have many deer. “Still don’t … and I don’t know why,” he said. “But they [hunters] abused it. I’d go up there and there’d be 50 people up there, not 20,” he said. “They tore up all my roads. They’d leave their trash. They set the mountain on fire twice.” So Gordy locked the gates and quit allowing public hunting on the ranch. “I said that’s it. And I know it’s not most of the people. But it was more than a few. And so that’s why I shut it down,” he said.
Gordy said he thinks the elk herd needs to be thinned. “I’m not trying to protect the elk. We’ve always allowed some hunting up there,” he said. “I don’t let them [hunters] just roam free. I got burnt when I first came here and so I don’t let them do that.” He said he’d be happy to figure a way to allow some public hunting if his ranch didn’t have to oversee it.
“I don’t know exactly how we’d do it right. It’s not easy. It cost us a lot of money to go up there and patrol that. Unfortunately we have to because you can’t trust somebody. Like I said, the majority of people are fine, but it doesn’t take many to really mess it up.”
Gordy said that in 2011 there were 12 elk poachers on opening day. “And they all have some kind of story. I mean one guy told me a guy at the post office told him he could come here. There’s no excuse today with GPS, there’s no excuse at all. I’ve got a map [on his GPS]. You can see exactly where you are. You know you’re five miles into my ranch, what do you think? … So it’s a hard decision.”
Gordy said he doesn’t want the elk herd to get too big and that the elk need to be hunted. “I don’t have a problem with that, I really don’t. We’ve just got to figure out a way to do it where it works.”
Gordy said trespassers bother him. “What would you think if I went and … walked through your house and into your backyard? It’s no different. They don’t get that. They don’t see it from that perspective.” Gordy said it’s frustrating for him because he’s actually a conservationist at heart. “I reduced my herd where the elk could survive with the drought,” he said. “I love the land. I love the wide open spaces. But I don’t have much use for people who run around on a four-wheeler to shoot something. To me they’re not hunting. They don’t respect the land. And that tears up the land. You know … all the sagebrush and everything else.”
Gordy said he loves his ranch. “I love the place. I’ve always loved to be here. I just love it.” His grandchildren are coming in the middle of June for the rodeo. “I want them to enjoy this like I have. That’s why I have them coming up to look at what we’re talking about [with a land exchange] to see if this is something they want to do. Because I mean, this is going to be their place.”