Paleface Ranch History

Mike Levi, owner of Paleface Ranch, Spicewood, Texas

Mike Levi, owner of Paleface Ranch, Spicewood, Texas

Paleface Ranch property owner Gary Scharrer visited with former Paleface Ranch owner Mike Levi in the spring of 2007 to develop a mini-history of the ranch in hopes that the story behind the subdivision will stay in the Association archives for many decades to come.  

This history of Paleface Ranch was written when Joe Straus, grandson of Paleface Ranch founder Malcolm Levi Sr, served as a San Antonio-based state representative. Joe was elected Speaker of the Texas House in 2009 and continues as House Speaker today.

A History of Paleface Ranch

Few Paleface Ranch homeowners/property owners likely would own a piece of this land had plans materialized as Malcolm “Mike” Levi Jr. envisioned nearly 20 years ago. Mike began thinking about retirement as he negotiated a two-year sales option with Dell Webb Corp. for a major chunk of Paleface Ranch that would have been developed into a 2,500 acre Sun City retirement community.

But Dell Webb backed away at the last minute, much to Mike’s dismay. “I thought it was the end of the world when they didn’t exercise their option. I just assumed that that was the last chance I was going to have selling any land for a decent kind of money,” Mike says. “And, of course, it was the best thing that ever happened because land values just started going up.”

After Sun City ended up north of Austin, Mike decided to sell off a large swath of Paleface Ranch by auctioning individual parcels – 5 acres for interior lots and 2 acres with river frontage.

Those auctions resulted in the sale of 160 lots forming what today is known as the Paleface Ranch subdivision. The first auction came in 1994 followed by two additional auctions in 1995 and the fourth and final auction in 1996.

“We came to the conclusion that offering 35 to 40 lots at a sale was all we ought to try and sell at one time,” he says. “It took time to build roads and get the engineering done and the surveying done.”

After the last auction, most of Paleface Ranch had been sold off. Mike’s father, Malcolm Levi Sr. bought the ranch nearly 70 years ago, which, at one time, contained 8,000 acres.

The senior Levi was not your typical rancher – and nor would he have made a likely candidate to develop a new breed of cattle, considering that he spent the first part of his life as a businessman in Pennsylvania (near Wilkes Barre). In the mid-1930s, Mike’s father sold his share of a family-owned company that manufactured silk yarn out of raw silk. The Levi family then hit the road, traveling across the country for two or three years in a spirit of wanderlust that ended in 1936 when Malcolm Sr. decided to settle in Texas.

The family leased a home in San Antonio while Malcolm Sr. searched for property, choosing a 1,280 acre track at the outskirts of San Antonio that included some Hereford cattle.

The senior Levi did not plan to become a rancher. But the 1,280-acre ranch sold for essentially the same price of a 5-acre piece close to town that he also considered.

The “Paleface” name came from the white-face Hereford already on the ranch.

After settling in on the 1,280 ranch near San Antonio, the senior Levi decided that he needed more land to survive in the cattle business, so in 1938 he bought another 8,000 acres at the Pedernales River near Spicewood adjacent to what today is Highway 71.

According to Mike, the property formerly was known as the “Turner Ranch,” owned by George Turner, who handed it down to Nelly Turner Evans, who eventually sold it to a Dr. Fussell* in the mid-1930s. Dr. Fussell lived in Ozona, Texas, where he practiced dentistry.

He only owned it for a couple of years before placing a classified ad in the San Antonio newspapers.

“My dad decided to go take a look at it and ended up buying it,” Mike says.

Despite the lack of a ranching background, the senior Levi was “a quick learner … He studied the genetics and really put himself into it,” Mike says.

The senior Levi developed a strong herd of registered Brahman cattle and then set out to determine the best cross-breed – crossing his registered Brahmin with Hereford, with Angus and with shorthorns.

"White Sidewall" Grand Champion cross-bred steer of the 1954 San Antonio Livestock Exposition; Burbank Chapter FFA entry, bred by Paleface Ranches, shown by Joe Kunze, and purchased by Pearl Brewery.

“White Sidewall” Grand Champion cross-bred steer of the 1954 San Antonio Livestock Exposition; Burbank Chapter FFA entry, bred by Paleface Ranches, shown by Joe Kunze, and purchased by Pearl Brewery.

He preferred the Angus cross breeds – and that’s how the Red Brangus breed developed.

Mike graduated from Texas Military Institute in San Antonio and then headed off to the University of Wyoming – where he majored not in agriculture, but in philosophy. Mike landed in Phoenix after graduation but family matters summoned him back to Paleface Ranch in the mid-1950s.

That “Paleface Ranch, Home of Red Brangus” sign on the east side of Highway 71 near the Pedernales River has both literal and historical value.

Mike and his father – and seven others – formed the American Red Brangus Association in 1956 during a meeting at Paleface Ranch. Mike served as the organization’s first president and remains on the board of directors 50 years later.

“We raised a lot of good cattle and sent them all over the world. They have done well wherever they’ve gone, and we’re proud of that,” Mike says. “It’s interesting from a personal standpoint to be intimately involved in the development of a breed of cattle and being with it for the whole time. It’s been fun.”

At one time, Mike had built up his Red Brangus herd to about 600 head. By 1996, he had sold most of his cattle.

Eventually, Malcolm Sr. shared ownership of Paleface Ranch with Mike and with Mike’s sister, Jocelyn Levi Straus.

State Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio has fond memories of visiting “Uncle Mike.”

“I grew up in the city in a semi-sophisticated upbringing, and my Uncle Mike was a really cool rancher who, I don’t think, owned anything but Levi’s,” the state legislator says.

One of his favorite memories is riding around in Uncle Mike’s amphibious convertible. They would ride on the road and then plunge into the river and take it for a boat ride.

“And you don’t think that a 6-year-old kid thought that was cool? He was a cool rancher with a sporty, coolest car that ever existed.”

Joe’s memories of his grandfather (Malcolm Senior) are less vivid – except for riding around in a Volkswagen Beetle and a bottle of whisky and a revolver that his grandfather kept in the glove compartment.

Of his Uncle Mike, Joe says: “He’s a really difficult guy to describe. He’s very introverted but funny and clever and, obviously, very, very bright – quiet and funny and, I think, a little bit shy.”

The “Paleface” name became a brand for the cattle company and for every development that the Levi’s pursued – Paleface Lake Country Estates, Paleface Pedernales, and Paleface Canyon Ranch. Even the properties that Mike owns in New Mexico carry the “Pedernales” name.

The senior Levi retired in 1965. The first parcels of Paleface Ranch were sold during that time to help finance Malcolm Senior’s retirement.

Highway 71 as we know it today did not exist 60 years ago when the state highway department began scouting the area for a road and bridge across the Pedernales River to help move traffic to Austin.

Several locations were under consideration. And Mike remembers that landowners of those properties were trying to figure out how much money they could make by selling land to the state highway department.

“My father was ahead of the curve. He took the position that having a good, paved road going into Austin would become an asset, so he gave them the land and gave them the little park (on the west side of the highway in front of the bridge),” Mike says. “And that’s why the highway is there instead of somewhere else. He was smart enough to see that it would be an asset back in the mid-1940s.”

The senior Levi also developed the old “Paleface store” (no longer standing), which became a convenient place for construction workers to buy lunch while they built the highway and bridge spanning the river. The store was build near the present day Security State Bank and Trust. The store eventually expanded to include a bar-b-q business and a bait shop for fishermen.

The area making up today’s boat launch and community park (not yet developed as such) once contained a bunch of cabins called “Paleface Boat Camp” which people could rent, along with 12-foot boats, to recreate and/or fish in the Pedernales arm of Lake Travis.

“Basically, we did whatever we could to create cash flow when the drought came in the 1950s,” Mike says.

The severe drought influenced Mike and his father to purchase land in Southeast Oklahoma, where they could move cattle when grassland here had withered during the parched days of the drought.

However, the river never vanished during the famed 1950s drought as it has during the drought 2006-07.

Mike still chats with area ranchers that once were his neighbors. It won’t be long before there will be “a big land sale west of you…. Several thousand acres.”

“If that happens, that will just pyramid the interest out there,” he says. “If all this stuff happens out there, there will be water distribution opportunities for Paleface Ranch to get into that.”

And that should be an imperative for Paleface Ranch subdivision because Mike says he never contemplated 160 wells drilling into the aquifer. It’s not sustainable.

Mike always figured that he would end up in New Mexico after selling Paleface Ranch and started buying property in 1986. He lives on 300 acres between Alto and Ruidoso and also owns irrigated land in the Hondo Valley in addition to a horse- training facility in Sunland Park.

Mike’s first experience with a land auction came in 1989 when the family sold off 300 acres from their father’s estate on the south side of the river, including some water front lots (across from present-day Paleface Ranch subdivision) and 5-and-10-acre tracts in the hills behind it.

“I was familiar with the auction concept because I had been to several land auctions that were managed by my cattle- sales manager, Matt Syler of Burton, Texas and auctioneer Gerald Bowie,” Mike says. “I had watched them successfully sell land in various parts of Texas, including brush country in South Texas.”

Mike concedes that he was “running short of cash” by the late 1980s when he wanted to sell land in his father’s estate. By then, the savings and loan industry had stumbled into hard times and Texas land had lost considerable value.

“The banks were not enthused about financing land at that time. They thought I was crazy,” Mike says about his plan to sell 300 acres from his fathers’ estate.

But the auction of that property grossed about $1.2 million, giving Mike optimism for future auctions.

In 1990, he auctioned off 600 acres (in about 8-10 different tracts) of the Paleface homestead, which was located across the street from the present-day Paleface Ranch subdivision.

Mike had lived on that property, so he built a new place on 188 acres about three miles farther west (toward Spicewood), where he lived until moving up to New Mexico in 2000.

After the Sun City plan to build a retirement community at the Pedernales River collapsed, Mike decided to market another big chunk of his remaining ranch by auction.

“My flip answer is that I didn’t know what the price was going to be, but I knew what the closing date was going to be, so I was going to be able to pay the banks what I had to borrow to get it done,” he says about the auction format. “And it worked out pretty well all the way around as far as I know. I don’t think anybody lost money on anything that they bought there.”

Many of the original Paleface Ranch subdivision lot owners had some dealings with Mike’s lawyer, the late Trev Seymour.

“He was one of those very unusual lawyers, who was a lawyer secondarily. He was a super human being and a great friend and a level-headed, compassionate kind of guy – who, incidentally, happened to be a lawyer,” Mike says. “He basically supported me in whatever I was trying to do. He got a big kick out of (the auctions).

“You always have to sweat when you have an auction because you really don’t know what the prices are going to be,” Mike says. “You can always second-guess yourself and say, ‘well, if I would have waited another five years, it would have brought three times as much’. But, at the time, I owed a lot of money to the banks and the federal land bank – and some family debts that I had to pay.

“Ranching is a great lifestyle, but the cash flow is never any good. The only real good thing about ranching is that owning land is the best forced retirement program that you can have,” Mike says. “If you hang on to the land over a period of time, it will appreciate.”

Mike says he’s not sure of the price tag on his development costs for the Paleface Ranch subdivision – although it was several million dollars.

“It was expensive for the time because of the hoops that you had to go through to get things done – expensive and time consuming. There were water quality issues and endangered species issues that we had to deal with,” he says. “The county was pretty tough on us as far as the type of roads that we had to build. We were pretty well in the control of county government.”

And how did those roads inherit such names as “Oscar” and “Performer” and “Improver?”

“Every street in that subdivision is named after one of my bulls,” he says.

Mike decided to build private roads behind an entrance gate.

“My thought was that the way the world was headed, that the notion of a gate and private roads made sense at the time. I hope it doesn’t cause problems for people because the intentions were good,” he says.

He is aware that the subdivision roads require considerable attention and maintenance.

“The county was pretty adamant about the way we should build them, and I thought I got them built right – but it’s tough on asphalt roads.”

Mike has lived on this land for more than 60 years. During that time, he has seen coyote and fox, turkey and ring-tail cats in addition to the standard raccoons, skunks and possum. And while he never saw one, an occasional mountain lion also passes through, he says.

Rattlesnakes were common here “in the old days,” he says. “By the time I left, we seldom saw one.”

Mike’s sister, Joci, sold her last interest in Paleface several years ago – property that has been developed into a golf course in which Ben Crenshaw owns an interest.

Because Mike loves the land where he now lives on, he says he has no regrets about selling off Paleface Ranch.

“I’m glad to see so many people enjoying it. That land provided me with a great deal of pleasure for a long time,” he says. “I don’t miss it because I have such a beautiful place up here.”

Spring 2007

*
From: Michael Fussell
Date: 10/15/2013 07:42 PM
Subject: Turner Ranch

I was doing some internet research about the Turner Ranch and stumbled across the Paleface Ranch web page. The reason I was interested in the Turner Ranch is that my grandfather, Dr. J.A. Fussell owned the ranch during the 1930’s. His oldest son, who was also my father’s oldest brother, had considerable paperwork regarding the period of Dr. Fussell’s ownership. My uncle died a some years ago and when cleaning out his house, I ended up with the Turner Ranch papers. I recently went through them and did a quick inventory of the papers. I suspect that I have the buy/sell with Mr. Levi Sr. as well as a survey made in the late 1920’s. There is an embossed stamped duplicate of the survey as filed with the Texas Land Office as well as an ink on linen map of the ranch.

By the way, I would like to offer some corrections to the Paleface Ranch webpage. Dr. Fussell lived in Ozona, Texas where he practiced dentistry. Note the two l’s in Fussell.

Thought you all might be interested in some of the history.

Michael Fussell

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