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A Ranchland Retreat

By Katrina Huffstutler

Top Photo: There is no shortage of photo ops at the
X Bar Ranch Nature Retreat.
Photo by Kevin Stillman for Texas Highways.
Bottom Photo: Photo by Darren Poore

Stan Meador, unlike his brother, father and grandfather, is not a rancher at heart. But he does possess a great love for the land and conservation. And he's turned that — plus a lot of hard work — into a successful nature tourism enterprise on his family's Schleicher County ranch.

The X Bar Ranch Nature Retreat, located about 20 miles southwest of Eldorado, is not your run-of-the-mill lodge. The picturesque scenery, abundant wildlife and birds, and distance from the city lights make it a popular destination for nature lovers, activity-seekers and astronomers — not to mention those just looking to get away. It's also a hot spot for family reunions, weddings and other gatherings. It's attracted visitors from all over the world, and Meador often speaks to producer groups on how to diversity their ranch's income by adding tourism interests.

Meador is part of the fifth generation to find a place on the century-old X Bar Ranch, where the lodge sits.

The operation dates back to his great-great-grandparents, who came from Lampasas to Eldorado in the early 1900s. With 4 boys and a herd of cattle, they set up camp in the central part of town for several months — enough time for C.L. "Dink" Meador to purchase several tracts of land. The elder Meador and his sons established successful ranching operations all over the county, adding property as the young men grew and then started their own families.

"A reasonable portion of that land they originally established is still in the family,"
Meador says, proudly, adding that his 89-year-old granddad was born on and still resides on the ranch.

He says his granddad and dad ranched the land, but also had jobs in town — they were involved in the oil and gas business and owned the local title company, among other things.

"For them, this ranch was always kind of a hobby. It was hobby ranching before there was hobby ranching," Meador says. "They loved it, but for decades the ranch was only expected to carry its own weight, not to be their primary livelihood."

Growing up, Meador never intended on changing that. He went off to college, studying public relations and marketing at Texas Tech University, and, as he puts it, "never in a million years" thought he'd come back to Eldorado. He participated in numerous exchange and study abroad programs, and enjoyed living overseas.

"I was never was interested in ranching. I'm still not," he says. "I haven't been in a sheep or cattle pen in years — and I don't plan on getting in one any time soon.

"Most people look at ranch land and think of ranching, and that's why I never thought I'd be back here."

But something changed during his time abroad, especially during the 2 occasions he lived in the Netherlands. The country, which is one of the smallest, yet most densely populated, in the world, is a far cry from Schleicher County. The first time he brought a group of friends from the Netherlands home to visit the ranch was an eye-opening experience.

"When you get somebody who has grown up in the Netherlands out to a place like this ranch, it just blows them away," Meador says. "It got me thinking, ‘You know, we've really got something here.'"

Planning for success — on their own terms

Meador kept telling his family what a great opportunity they had, and while they were very supportive, everyone had their own duties on the ranch and didn't have time to jump into a new enterprise. It soon became evident that he would be the one to do it.

He says it never would have left the ground without the great support from his family.

"My granddad has always been pretty forward-thinking and willing to try different things," he says. "So it wasn't like I started talking about bringing strangers on the place and met opposition from the patriarch or others with interests in the ranch. There was support from the beginning, which I consider a big factor [in our success]."

In 1995, Meador decided to come home on a conditional basis to try to get things started.

"I remember saying, ‘I won't be here forever,' but 15 years later, I'm still here," he says with a laugh.

During the early stages of that planning period, they considered demographics and projected population growth figures for Texas. He says it became pretty clear that there were going to be a lot of people who would need somewhere to get away from the city. He believed that was something they could provide.

They just had to decide how.

"We sat down and considered what kind of opportunity we could create and how we could play in that ball game. We also realized that this wasn't going to be a silver bullet, and it wasn't going to just make us a ton of money," he says.

"I always tell people — particularly producers — this is not an ‘instead of' kind of deal in my perspective. It could grow to that perhaps, but I would caution people against going into this saying ‘OK, I'm going to sell all my cows and go build a lodge, and I'm going to do better.'

"I try to paint a very realistic picture for people and say you've really got to do some soul-searching, and look and decide what you want to accomplish. What are the possible benefits? There may be some benefits that are there that are not strictly financial. It's not going to fix all of your woes. But it can be meaningful. In a number of ways," Meador says.

Meador being free to create his "own existence on the ranch," as he calls it, has not only been a key to their success, but also everyone's happiness.

"We have a real division of duties here," he explains. "I don't mess with the livestock and my brother doesn't have anything to do with the guests over here. I've found a way to work with my family, while everyone does only what they enjoy. Not everyone does it this way, but I have no doubt in my mind that us doing it that way has been a big factor in allowing us to keep things going."

Meador also credits his ability to get away to keeping him happy with his job — unlike the average bed and breakfast owner who burns out after a few years, he says.

"I've got this thing out here, but I live 20 miles away. I live in town. I can drive away from it at night and I don't have people in my house. We've purposely taken a more hands-off approach, and it works for us," he says, adding that customers have to understand what they're getting into.

They've adopted the tagline "Our place, your pace" at the X Bar Ranch Nature Retreat and have used that to set the right expectations from the get-go — something Meador says is a must for success.

"You don't have to do the full-service, falling all over yourself, taking care of people all the time thing if they don't expect that," Meador says.

He says when people call and are surprised he doesn't offer guided hikes, TVs in the cabins or full meal service, he knows they are looking for something else — and he's happy to make some recommendations. While he's not saying those things aren't great, it's just not what works for them. He's created a niche and knows what type of people will be happy customers.

What they do best

Quite a few people want exactly what Meador and the X Bar Ranch do have to offer, though — a quiet, relaxing setting where they can do anything, from build a scrapbook, to observe and photograph wildlife, look at the stars, or, for the adventure seekers, take off on a bike trail and enjoy the beautiful scenery up close. And those people often come year after year, and tell their friends.

They've hosted countless functions, weddings — even bike races with more than 400 riders — but Meador says his favorite groups (and the most efficient use of their space) are the family reunions.

Families (or any large groups) looking for a scenic, out-of-the-ordinary place to gather can participate in the X Bar's unique "Rent the Ranch" program, where the group can have the place to themselves. The package includes the Live Oak Lodge area, which consists of a 2,000-square-foot lodge, accommodations in 6 private cabins and a bunkroom, tent campsites, RV hook-ups and a pool. The lodge includes a full kitchen with all major appliances and an ice machine, central air and heat, dining and living areas, 3 restrooms and a multipurpose room. Ample deck and patio space complement the lodge, and there is a large outdoor cook shed just off of the patio. Additional lodging at the Round House and Granger House, both on the ranch, can be made available if needed.

"It's great because they aren't sharing the space with strangers; it's kind of just their deal. They get this whole complex for one block price."

One of their biggest events is the annual Eldorado Star Party. Astronomers from all over the country — 164 last year — come to Eldorado every October to observe some of the darkest skies and brightest stars available. Meador says not only do the lodge and campsites fill up, but even hotels in nearby Sonora benefit greatly during the event.

"Everything is pre-sold. They register online for the event, souvenirs and any meals they'd like to purchase," Meador says.

The observation area is equipped with portable toilets, hot water showers, and even has Wi-Fi.

"They can be sitting out here, in a field in the middle of nowhere, reading The New York Times online while they wait for it to get dark," Meador says. "I often wonder what my great-grandfather would think about that."

From bikers to brides to stargazers, there's something for everyone on the X Bar Ranch — even a thriving endeavor for someone who never knew he'd find a place on the ranch.