Texas-Oklahoma Boundary Changes : Landowner Suits Stirring Red River 'Border War'

Times Staff Writer

Buck James says he is the most-hated man in Texas and that the people from Hollywood should hurry up and make a movie about him.

Actually he is not the most-hated man in Texas. There are too many candidates for that title. But he may well be the most-hated man in Byers, Tex. Certainly the Langfords and the Hendersons and the Zachrys have no use for him and have no qualms about saying so. And as time goes on, other Texans along the Red River may feel the same way.

The reason is that James, who prefers biblical proselytizing to almost anything else, spent nine years in court, arguing with great success that 900 acres on the Texas side of the river were really part of Oklahoma. He said that acreage was rightfully his because it was directly across the river from his Oklahoma property.

James won his case each time it moved to the next rung of the court system, until the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the Texans last year. That refusal marked the end of a long legal trail for the Langford family of Texas, and James took possession of the land for his sand and gravel operation.

Now, with precedent set, other Oklahomans are beginning to file similar suits. One estimate is that as much as 100,000 acres of land could change hands from Texas to Oklahoma if the legal battles eventually range all along the 440 miles of common river border. So great is the concern about a string of lawsuits that the Langfords' attorney, Bob Helton, wrote a letter to Texas landowners urging them to begin collecting anything that might help prove the land is theirs.

Those on the Texas side say losing in court could spell ruin for farmers and ranchers who have used the land and paid taxes on it for generations. Those on the Oklahoma side say they want only what is rightfully theirs. James Kee, a lawyer for one of the Oklahomans, said sarcastically that the complaints of his southern neighbors were like a "prevailing hot wind blowing out of Texas."

"They ought to be paying their taxes in Oklahoma," he said.

To hear Buck James tell his story, the events that led to his lawsuit were fairly straightforward. In 1969, he bought a section of land on the Red River, just east of a state highway, Oklahoma 79. As time went on, he said, he liked the look of the Texas land across the way.

"I walked up on the hill over here and looked across the valley," he said. "What ran through my mind was, who does it belong to? Can you buy it?"

Did Boundary Research

His explanation sounds somewhat simplistic, since the Langford family had owned the land for more than 50 years. In any case, James said he did boundary research in nearby Waurika, Okla., Oklahoma City and Santa Fe, N.M., and determined that Texas ends at what is known as the south cut bank of the river, a crease in the land where the river once flowed years ago. In some places along the border that bank is two miles from where the river now runs. (Despite the court rulings, the Texans challenge James' south bank definition).

But James, with the research on his side, started his dredging operation on the opposite bank of the river. The Langfords filed suit to stop him, beginning a series of legal battles that would drag on for years until the U.S. Supreme Court finally refused to hear the case.

Pierce Langford III, a family spokesman, said the legal fees alone cost the family close to $100,000. For his part, the suit cost James nothing, "not a penny" he said, because the case was handled by former Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Charles Nesbitt, who took it on for a third interest in the sand and gravel operation.

"I don't care if it's in Oklahoma or Texas," Langford said. "I don't see how they can take land that was deeded to you."

Title Insurance No Help

That kind of sentiment is common up and down the river in rural Clay County, Tex., where several thousand acres of land are being claimed by Oklahomans. One of the most vocal is Tom Henderson, whose ranch is less than a mile from the James place. Henderson's family bought the land in 1905 and it has been sold from one family member to another through the years. Henderson bought it in 1979 for $300,000. He says that Oklahomans have laid claim to about 700 acres, one-third of his property. To make matters worse, he said his title insurance company has told him that his policy does not cover losing the land in a boundary squabble.

"Everything's been kept paid," he said, in a voice of both bewilderment and anger. "I've got a letter that says this place has been paid up since time began. My uncle who sold it to me, Roscoe Jones, has had two heart attacks since we were sued."

Down at the Byers cotton gin, Doodle Zachry was saying much the same thing. His land has been in the family for 60 years and now Johnny T. Wilcoxson has sued for about 1,500 acres, even though the Oklahoma and the Texas neighbors have known each other for years.

"My granddad and his granddad was good friends," said Zachry, who runs the gin. "I don't know. It's just one of them deals. I don't know, but so far, Texas people haven't had a penny of a chance in Oklahoma courts.

"The state of Texas is losing a lot of tax money and stands to lose a lot more. The only ones it's serious to is the ones it's hitting in the pocket."

School District Affected

Among other things, it is hitting the tiny Byers school district, where the lost land accounted for about 8% of the annual tax revenues. At one point, the school district tried to tax James anyway.

"He told us we were crazy," said chief appraiser Ross Fry.

The Texans want the state attorney general's office to become involved in the case, suing Oklahoma and forcing the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction in such boundary disputes. Henderson contends that the Supreme Court, after looking at all the facts, will decide that the cut bank is actually much closer to the river.

But the Texans are not hopeful about involvement by the state, which so far has maintained that the legal squabbles are personal matters outside its jurisdiction. Zachry also saw other roadblocks, including a state cash crunch and the fact that Atty. Gen. Jim Mattox is on trial in Austin, charged with commercial bribery.

"He's got enough problems of his own without taking care of the problems of Texas," Zachry said.

1819 Treaty With Spain

The source of this dispute goes back to the early 19th Century, when the Spanish called the river the Rio Rojo and French explorers referred to the winding stream as Riviere Rouge. In 1819, in a treaty with Spain, the United States took possession of all lands to the south bank of the river. For the next 100 years, the terms of that treaty went largely unnoticed, as cattle drives crossed it on the way to better prices in northern markets and wagon trains forded it heading west.

But in 1919, with the discovery of the massive Burkburnett oil field on the border, the two states went to the Supreme Court to decide who owned the oil in the riverbed. Oklahoma won.

Oklahoma also won another case in 1931, in which Texas wanted to charge tolls for crossing bridges on the Red River, while Oklahoma Gov. William H. (Alfalfa Bill) Murray said passage should be free. Oklahoma National Guardsmen stood on one side of a bridge and Texas Rangers stood on the other as the dispute went to court. To keep the peace, women from both sides were placed in the middle, where they knitted and exchanged recipes until the court ruled in Oklahoma's favor.

For the next 50 years, land south of the river was sold as part of Texas, despite floods that eventually shifted the course of the river northward. No one thought much about it because, as Henderson said, "The river gives and the river takes. Anyone who buys river land knows that."

46,000 Acres Involved

Then came Buck James and his sand and gravel pit. Ed Daniels, the director of a 12-county Nortex Council of Governments, said a study shows that 46,000 acres and 423 Texas landowners could be affected along only half the river's length. Statistics for the rest of the river have not yet been compiled, Daniels said..

Nesbitt, who not only represents James but also two other Oklahomans in the dispute with Henderson, said he does not believe there will be a great many suits. But that is little comfort to the Texans.

Zachry and Henderson, talking at the cotton gin, said that James ought to be worried about his own safety, given the level of ill-feeling that has developed.

James, meanwhile, said the only bad thing about his suit is that a lot of Texans have stopped coming to his store to buy beer. The store, a few miles into Oklahoma, is the nearest place to dry Clay County that sells alcohol. Otherwise, he says, he's fine.

Expects World's Collapse

He goes about his business, clearing brush from the river bank and indulging in his favorite pastime, reading the Bible. He believes those movie moguls who ought to make a movie about him had better move quickly, because, as he interprets Scripture, the world's collapse will take place sometime this spring--first with a nuclear war, then an earthquake, then a tidal wave that will lop California right off the map.

That explains the bomb shelter he has built on the north bank of the river, just up the bluff from his trailer home and across the way from his sand and gravel operation. James plans to survive the holocaust and then sell the sand and gravel for the rebuilding of America's cities.

"We're going to need every grain of sand we can get," he said. "Hey, there ain't much time left."

And then James turned once again to the Bible, pointing out passages foretelling the imminent end of the world, telling of how he started reading Scripture only after the lengthy lawsuit became a burden. Still, he said, it was all worth it.

"I didn't do what anyone else wouldn't have done," he said.

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