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Burnishing an Image at the USA Corral

Bush's ranch may not have many cattle, but the president follows in the bootsteps of giants.

August 29, 2005|Warren Vieth | Times Staff Writer

CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush calls his Prairie Chapel Ranch "a slice of heaven," a special place where he can ride his mountain bike, fish his man-made pond and clear brush to his heart's content.

But is it really a ranch?

Here's a clue: The Secret Service agents now outnumber the cows.

Bush's summer vacation at the 1,583-acre spread, which ends Friday after close to five weeks, allows him not only to relax, but to remind the nation that he's a Cowboy President. It's a tradition started by Teddy Roosevelt, and followed by Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, that casts the chief executive as a plain-talking, outdoors-loving leader.

The president's supporters say that's the real Bush, and they say he would be spending time at the property he bought in 1999 even if he had not run for president a year later. Still, they acknowledge that Bush's image benefits from his time in Crawford.

But with a handful of cattle now on the property, some Texans suggest that calling the place a ranch could be considered a stretch.

"There are some guys that are all hat and no cattle. The president's not that way; he's hat and five cattle," joked Austin lawyer and former U.S. Rep. Kent R. Hance, who as a Democrat beat Bush in a 1978 congressional race by portraying him as an Ivy League interloper.

The White House declined to let a reporter look at the grounds or interview ranch hands while the president and First Lady Laura Bush finished their vacation.

Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino confirmed that the bovine population had fallen sharply since former ranch foreman Kenneth Engelbrecht got rid of his cattle and vacated the property a few months ago. Engelbrecht, a member of the family that sold the ranch to Bush in 1999, had been leasing back pasture and tending a herd that numbered about 200.

Perino initially said the president still kept "a few" cattle on the ranch. Pressed for a more precise head count, she said "four or five." (They are believed to include Ophelia and Eltonia, two longhorns given to Bush by his gubernatorial staff in 1999, and perhaps some of their progeny.)

One neighbor said he had heard that the Bushes shut down Engelbrecht's grazing operation because they wanted "to give the land a rest." Mrs. Bush has been planting prairie grasses and wildflowers in the sun-baked ranch soil. Bill Ferguson, the broker who handled the original sale, said he thought the Bushes wanted to devote the land to wildlife and native vegetation.

Engelbrecht isn't saying.

"My deal with them was to stay clear of everything," he said. "We left on good terms, still friends with the president. So far, I haven't found that anything's helped me by putting it in the paper. They're pretty ticklish about that."

The departure of Engelbrecht and his herd raises several questions, among them: Do four or five cows, plus two visiting Scottish terriers, constitute a true ranch?

"Well, I guess it's just up to the people," said 74-year-old Ray Neuman, who runs 55 Hereford cattle on the property next to Bush's. "We have trouble with just calling anything a ranch around here. But it's getting more common all the time."

Will the president's credibility suffer if he is no longer perceived as a cowboy?

"He's earned his spurs," said Hance, who accused Bush of being an outsider in the 1978 race but is now a Republican and a Bush supporter who believes that the president's professed affinity for country living is genuine. "He is a real Texan."

And just what is a ranch, anyway?

"Not what it used to be," said Sam Middleton, proprietor of Chas. S. Middleton and Son of Lubbock, one of the biggest ranch brokerages in Texas. Middleton, 57, has arranged hundreds of ranch sales over the years, including the 135,000-acre Frying Pan Ranch straddling the Texas-New Mexico border.

Twenty years ago, Middleton said, anything with fewer than 300 cattle would not be considered a working ranch. But times have changed.

"Now folks are buying the ranches for other purposes, for recreation and enjoyment of land ownership, and just as places to park money," he said.

With five head of cattle, does the Bush property make the cut?

"Yeah, it's fair to call that a ranch," Middleton allowed.

Dictionaries generally define a ranch as a large farm on which cattle, sheep or horses are raised. Some include secondary definitions that encompass other fauna and flora, as well as the houses of the people who raise them.

In central Texas, people stretch the term pretty far.

"If they've got 10 acres and a horse, they think they've got a ranch," said real estate agent Debby Holmes, whose listings include the Abba Yakni Ranch, half a mile from the Bush property. ("Be neighbors to the president of the United States of America!" suggests her flier, which offers the four-bedroom ranch house, adjoining guest house and 30 acres of wooded land for $259,000.)

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