Sprawled across 1,300 square miles of Texas hills, desert and coastal prairies, King Ranch is among the top hunting destinations in North America, and one of the Lone Star State's most historic treasures.
Established in 1853 by a steamboat captain named Richard King, it was the state's first cattle ranch, the prototype for all the other magnificent spreads that helped define the American West. It's where some of the original cattle drives started and where the first American cattle breed was created. It inspired Edna Ferber's novel Giant and the screen version starring James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor — not to mention a line of Ford pickup trucks.
And ever since U.S. Sugar acquired a hunting lease there in 2011, it's where some of Florida's top elected officials have gone on hunting trips they won't talk about publicly.
"It's a great place," former Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon said, refusing to elaborate. "I should not have to answer questions about my private life."
Once a family business focused only on cattle and oil, King Ranch has become a corporate giant run by employees picked by its board of directors. Its holdings include Florida's largest citrus grove and 12,500 acres of sugar cane near Belle Glade. With another sugar company, it runs the refinery that markets Domino Sugar.
Although well-known within Texas, King Ranch is overshadowed outside the state by its neighbor, the Armstrong Ranch. That's where then-Vice President Dick Cheney went quail-hunting in 2006 and accidentally shot another hunter in the face.
Politicians from around the country travel to the Armstrong Ranch to pay their respects to the family that owns it because they are major Republican Party donors, said Harvey Kronberg, the editor of The Quorum Report, a Texas political news publication. The King Ranch has no such reputation, he said.
"I can't think of any stories about politicians going to King Ranch," Kronberg said.
Hunting accounts for a growing portion of revenue at the King Ranch that rivals, if not surpasses, money made from ranching. Since 1979, the ranch has leased half a million acres to corporations to use for hunting retreats. On its website, King Ranch states that the average lease size is 15,000 acres, but without mentioning prices. A board member in 2003 disclosed that annual wildlife leases fetched between $8 and $14 an acre, plus up to $3 per acre for maintenance.
"Many people consider it the best white-tailed deer and bobwhite quail hunting, period," Texas Monthly reported in 2007. Those wealthy enough to afford a lease often build magnificent hunting lodges that the magazine likened to fine hotels.
The ranch maintains a staff of some 40 biologists to oversee not just deer and quail but also wild hog, turkey and exotic game such as nilgai, an Asian antelope. Each lease is required to have on staff or on retainer a ranch-approved wildlife biologist to manage the property.
Considered a hunter's paradise, it attracts visitors from around the world, said Joe Marlin Hilliard Sr., a Clewiston sugar industry executive who developed a way to mechanically harvest cane.
Hilliard knows the ranch well. Three years ago, he sold his lease of 30,000 acres to U.S. Sugar for a sum he wouldn't disclose. U.S. Sugar then built a lodge there, Hilliard said, though he didn't know who visits.
"It's a wonderful thing if you're fortunate to have a lease out there," he said. "Or you get invited out there by someone who does."