|By SUSAN BLOWER
CHAPPELL HILL, Texas — Home to one of the largest herds of Texas Longhorns is Texas Ranch Life, an agri-tourism business and working ranch. But like any good Texan, the owners of the ranch have a bigger vision.
Keeping a herd of 500 Texas Longhorns, 40 Quarter Horses, and 22 American bison might be a business in itself for most ranchers. But John and Taunia Elick are somewhat unconventional business partners.
Taunia has restored nine historic homes on the 1,600-acre ranch, where guests stay after roaming the Texas hills with the buffalo, riding a horse or learning to rope a steer. She has rescued many of the homes from being torn down by moving them to the ranch. “We’ve been married 35 years and have lived on a ranch for all that time. John always loved horses and cows and knows them by name and personality. I needed to find something I was passionate about on the ranch. We merged both passions with the goal of being profitable,” Taunia said.
John, 70, works five days a week as a lawyer, but his full-time job is being a cowboy. Taunia said he wears his boots and spurs to the courtroom and the office. In addition to caring for the animals and marketing the longhorns, John leads guests on open-range horseback rides and gives lessons on roping and working the cattle.
Taunia, 61, also a lawyer, spends most of her days overseeing the ranch. She employs help with cooking the food and growing six organic gardens, from which guests are fed. Her daughter, Lacey, works full-time to coordinate corporate events, weddings and other guest bookings, as well as to keep the homes supplied and in good order.
The homes date back to the 1850s, and many of them are German with authentic stenciling still etched on their walls. Taunia employs a professional to help her restore the homes to their original condition, often with a tasteful Texan flair, and the added benefits of air conditioning and other modern-day comforts. Quite a few Texas Longhorn skulls grace the walls of houses and the horse barn-turned-gathering place, where antlers also serve as ornamental lights. Cacti of different sizes and shapes line the entrance to the ranch, the barn and grounds.
"Austin County is the oldest German county in Texas with an abundance of homes that are being demolished. They also planted trees in some of the finest country, and 100 years later people want to build their dream home there. I’m the recipient of those unwanted houses," Taunia said.
"The easiest way to reclaim wood is not to tear it down in the first place. I can’t stand to see old houses torn down. Housing is expensive. It’s silly to tear an old house down if you can find another way to use it."
However, equipped with a master’s degree in business, Taunia also had to justify to herself the expense of moving and fixing the houses, which led her into tourism. This proved to be a good fit with the family’s interests and skills.
Taunia often sits down with her guests to tell stories about the ranch and her family’s adventures. The Elick’s three grown daughters -- Laramy, Lacey and Ashlyn -- also contribute their talents and interests.
"I love hospitality and people. We have a great time with our guests," she said.
The Elicks don’t actively advertise. They have a website -- TexasRanchLife.com -- and most of their clients find the ranch on the Internet. An online travel agent also has listed Texas Ranch Life as one of the top 50 ranches in the world as a tourist destination. A member of the Texas Bed and Breakfast Assoc. for 15 years, the Elicks also subject themselves to annual inspections.
‘Don’t fence me in’
With 75 percent of their visitors coming from other countries, Taunia said that there are several reasons that their dude ranch is popular as a destination.
"People generally have a need for open spaces. Here in Texas we don’t have a lot of public land, so you either own it or rent if you want a place in the country," Taunia said
Also, when people fly into Houston -- an hour away from Texas Ranch Life -- they are intrigued by the idea of visiting a real working ranch.
"Especially for our international visitors, there is the romance of the cowboy. It’s a huge draw. Wherever they come from, we hear the same things. They love cowboys," Taunia said.
John provides visitors with the chance to participate in whatever cowpoke activity he’s engaged in at the time. The Elicks eat as much of their Longhorn beef as they want and sell cattle at the auction barn. Taunia said the cattle are generally profitable as a business. Guests eat chuckwagon dinners and BBQs, featuring their beef, as well as fresh vegetables from the garden.
A multitude of animals live at the ranch. A variety of fowl are raised, including turkeys, which are loosed in the wild. Guests can fish at any of the 15 lakes on the property.
The ranch, with a capacity for 60 people, is booked solid for Christmas and New Year’s. January has become a busy month, as well, for international business retreats as leaders plan for the year, Taunia said.
But the most popular time of year for Texas tourism is in the spring, when the state is blooming with wildflowers, especially the blue bonnets. The rolling, green pastures at Texas Ranch Life are the result of years of conservation methods and soil management.
"Our fields are a mix of grasses we’ve no-till drilled into the soil. We’ve also seeded turnips, winter peas, oats and clover to improve our soil and to feed our grass-fed cattle. When we bought this land, it was owned by absentee owners, who rented it to cattle ranchers. On the pasture we bought in 1997 there was not a blade of grass or sign of wildlife," she said.
Taunia welcomes the abundant wildlife that has returned to the pastures, with the single exception of the wild hogs, which tear the carefully planted grasses up by the roots.
The Elicks are self-taught ranchers as both were born and mostly raised in nearby Texas towns, Taunia said. She has become a certified master gardener, with plans to grow a fruit orchard in the future. She isn’t finished restoring old houses, either.
Having just finished moving two more homes to the property, Taunia plans one of them to serve as a home for her youngest daughter, Ashlyn, who helps on the ranch cooking and working with guests on weekends. Ashlyn also will marry next spring in the historic chapel on the grounds.
"We feel so blessed to have raised our family on the ranch, and we enjoy sharing that lifestyle with other people," Taunia said.