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

February 25, 1985|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

BYERS, Tex. — 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.

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