The Waggoner (Three D) Ranch had its beginnings in the early 1850s when Daniel Waggoner and a fifteen-year-old black slave trailed 242 longhorn cattle and six horses into Wise County. Waggoner first settled his wife and son, William Thomas (Tom) Waggoner, in a home on Catlett Creek near the site of present Decatur. Two years later, after buying an additional 200 head, Waggoner located his herd on a 15,000-acre tract on the West Fork of the Trinity River near Cactus Hill, in the vicinity of present Lake Bridgeport. However, because of the increasing danger of Indian raids, he was compelled to move his family back to Denton Creek temporarily. His first brand was a D61, but about 1866 he began branding with three D's in reverse, a brand easy to recognize and difficult for rustlers to alter. He used a D71 brand on his horses until around 1881. By 1869 Dan and Tom Waggoner had formed a partnership known as D. Waggoner and Son. Late that year they wintered a herd in Clay County and in the spring of 1870 drove it to the Kansas market, netting a profit of $55,000, which was the basis of their ranch fortune. In 1871, with the westward push of the frontier, the Waggoners moved their headquarters to Clay County, settling temporarily on the Wichita River in southeastern Wichita County. From that site they moved the headquarters to the junction of China Creek and the Red River in northwestern Wichita County, just north of what is now Electra, which was named for Tom's daughter. By the early 1880s their range extended thirty miles from China Creek to Pease River. In 1885 the need for more grassland prompted them to lease 650,000 acres of range land in the "Big Pasture," part of the Comanche and Kiowa reservation lands across the Red River in Indian Territory. With the passing of the open range they began purchasing Texas land. Paying about $1 an acre, the Waggoners slowly built their cattle and horse empire. Between 1889 and 1903 the ranch came to cover a block running thirty miles east and west and twenty-five miles north and south, including more than a million acres. It extended into Foard, Knox, Baylor, and Archer counties but centered chiefly in Wilbarger and Wichita counties.
Among the notable employees on the Waggoner Ranch during its early years were Jimmie Roberts, E. B. Gillis, Walter Lowrance, Tony Hazelwood, and W. D. (Shinnery) McElroy. Roberts, who was a dead shot, proved an effective deterrent to rustlers. During the 1880s the Waggoners sold around 40,000 cattle a year. By 1900 the ranch, well-watered and compact, contained 60,000 cattle. Three railroads afforded transportation to the markets, thus eliminating the annual long drives over the Western Trail to Kansas. In 1900 Robert L. More, noted for his collection of bird eggs, came into the Waggoners' administrative employ. By that time they had abandoned the Big Pasture in the wake of the federal government's allotment of reservation lands to individual settlers. In 1903 the China Creek headquarters was sold as farming land in a development known as the Waggoner Colony. Headquarters returned temporarily to Cactus Hill in Wise County, but the Wichita and Wilbarger land eventually was broken into at least four divisions with headquarters known as White Face, Four Corners, Santa Rosa, and Sachueista. Subsequently Sachueista, south of Vernon, emerged as the main headquarters.
About 1885 the Waggoners began breeding Durham shorthorns, and Hereford cattle were introduced early in the 1890s. Since 1917 the stock has been predominantly Hereford, although experimental crossbreeding programs with Angus, Brahman, Simbrah, and Brangus bulls have occurred in recent years. The ranch has also specialized in fine horses. For many years Tom Waggoner and his son-in-law, A. B. Wharton, raised polo ponies, which they kept in a two-story, oval-shaped stone stable at the Sachueista headquarters. Nearby they maintained grounds large enough for seven different polo matches to be played simultaneously. For a time a racetrack was also operated on the ranch south of Electra. Beginning in 1931 horses were bred for the Waggoner Arlington Downs Stables between Fort Worth and Dallas. This $2 million racing plant remained in operation until the repeal of the state's parimutuel betting law. Dan Waggoner died in September 1904. In 1909 Tom Waggoner divided half of the ranch among his three children, Paul, Guy, and Electra, as a Christmas gift mainly to give them training in ranching. The discovery of oil at Electra in 1911 (see WICHITA COUNTY REGULAR FIELD) caused the Waggoners to combine oil production and refining with ranching activities; the refinery cars and tanks bore the image of the Waggoner cattle brand. For years the area around the Sachueista headquarters contained one of the major shallow oilfields of the world, which was developed by the Texas Company (later Texaco). In 1923 the property was merged into the Waggoners' estate which, after the death of Tom Waggoner in 1934, was left to the management of a trustee and a board of directors. More served as first manager of the estate until his death in 1941. He was succeeded by R. B. (Bob) Anderson, who served in that position until 1953, when he became United States deputy secretary of defense under the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration. John Biggs and Charles Prather have since served successively as trustee and general manager. In 1936 the state of Texas converted 240,000 acres of the ranch land along the Wichita River and Beaver Creek into a game preserve.
In 1991 about 550,000 acres covering the southern half of Wilbarger County, the northern third of Baylor County, and small portions of Wichita and Archer counties to the east and Knox and Foard counties to the west, made up the vast ranching empire, which was the largest in the nation. It was still owned by Waggoner heirs, namely the families of A. B. (Bucky) Wharton III and sculptor Electra Waggoner Biggs. Under the general manager of the estate was the farm and ranch manager, a position held since 1975 by Richard G. (Dick) Yeager, and three assistants under him. About 26,000 acres were devoted to farming grain crops. The ranching operation consisted of fifteen camps or divisions, each with from 20,000 to 30,000 acres. A family resided at each camp to look after the livestock, fences, and water. Twice a year the wagon crew worked the cattle at each camp. During roundups the ranch helicopter was used in addition to cowboys on horses. Several reservoirs on the ranch properties, including Lake Kemp, provided public recreational facilities. The Santa Rosa Rodeo was an annual event in Wilbarger County. Area authors like C. L. Douglas and Jesse W. Williams and artists like Mondel Rogers have honored the Waggoner Ranch in their work. An old commissary building, which supplied provisions for Waggoner cowboys and drovers during the early days of the Western Trail, has been donated by the Waggoner estate to the Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock. In April 1991 Electra Biggs, granddaughter of W. T. Waggoner, asked a district court to sell the ranch and distribute the proceeds to its shareholders. Her son-in-law, Gene Willingham, and Bucky Wharton were the controlling shareholders in the estate. The two men were said to have differed over how to protect the family fortune against low energy prices and land values. The ranch at the time had cattle, oil wells, mansions, aircraft hangers, and stalls and stables. The land alone was valued at $110 million, and with the assets added, the estate was estimated at a value of about $330 million. The potential breakup of the ranch caused worries among the 12,000 residents of Vernon, where the ranch was one of the biggest employers. In 1994 the ranch remained in the hands of Willingham and Wharton.