April 7, 2017

Only an hour drive from downtown Houston but a world apart, Bill Thomas’ ranch in Richards, Texas, is a rural paradise—if paradise is a place where you work hard seven days a week. Thomas is a man of the land. He can tell you more than just the fine details of his own extensive ranching operation—he'll happily fill you in on the agricultural history of the county for the last century. His family has been ranching on this land for more than 70 years, and he takes great pride in being the third generation to call these lush grasslands and piney woods home.

Thomas earned a master’s degree in public school administration from Texas A&M University in 1968, but ranching has been his life’s work. His 3,000-acre ranch is populated with more than 700 cows and their calves, as well as 4,500 grape plants in a six-acre vineyard.

Not content with agriculture and viticulture, the ranch offers another kind of culture to the area: music. Thomas has a small concert hall in his residence that seats 150 people and features a five-manual pipe organ (that’s the kind with five sets of keys)—an instrument you don’t often see outside of a cathedral. “As far as I know, it’s the only one in a private residence in Texas,” said Thomas.

The ranch also has a two-manual organ, as well as two pianos. Three times per year, Thomas brings in professional musicians and invites the community. Local guests fill the room to capacity to hear performers such as soprano Barbara Padilla of America’s Got Talent fame, renowned French organist Pierre Pincemaille, and Dr. Richard Elliot, the head organist at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

“Just because you live in a rural area doesn’t mean you need to be devoid of cultural blessings,” said Thomas. “It gives the people of our community the chance to hear and see great performances. It’s a unique combination of agriculture and the arts. We call it bringing culture to the country.” Jim Conners, former organist of the Houston Astros, serves as the unofficial musical director at the ranch, helping Thomas organize the concerts. More than 200 people turned out for their recent Christmas program.

  • Talented Musician

    The ranch includes a five-manual pipe organ, a two-manual organ and two pianos. Thomas is capable of playing hymns like "Amazing Grace."

  • Concert Room

    Three times per year, Thomas brings in professional musicians to play in his in-home concert hall, which seats 150 people. Performances are often filled to capacity with residents from the local community.

  • Home on the Ranch

    Thomas lives on a 3,000-acre ranch in Richards, Texas. It's a rural paradise populated with more than 700 cows and their calves, as well as 4,500 grape plants in a six-acre vineyard.

  • All Aboard

    Thomas purchased three used train cars and had them lifted onto his property by crane. He plans to fix up the two sleeper cars and one dining car to provide a space for visiting groups to stay on-site.

“There are other alternatives to country and western to listen to,” Thomas says with a laugh. Thomas himself plays the organ and piano, but says he lacks much talent. “I’ve always appreciated people who are gifted with the ability to play these instruments—and sort of envious of them I suppose. I am fortunate to be in a position in which I can sponsor the talent of some of these people.”

While he brings big city performances to the country, he’s also working to bring more of the country to city folk. He regularly hosts church, school and civic groups at the ranch for a glimpse of life outside of the concrete sprawl.

“There’s a disconnect between the rural community and urbanites,” Thomas said. “People can live on the 32nd floor of a condo in Houston or Dallas, and yet count on three great meals a day, seven days a week. The city structure can only survive with great American agriculture.

“What we’re trying to build to is a symbiosis. We’ll bring groups out from metropolitan areas and have a field day in a rural area, so they can gain insight into where their food and fiber comes from and what it takes to keep them happy in the city.”

Cultured in Conservation

Conservation has been a touchstone of the Thomas Ranch for the past half century. Thomas has served in a variety of capacities with the local soil and water conservation district in the last 35 years, including president of the local chapter and chairman of the south-central region of the national chapter. Recently, he was elected to serve on the executive committee at the national level. He advocates for conservation not only for the sake of the environment, but because it’s good business.

“I’m a grass farmer first,” said Thomas, discussing his hybrid Bermuda grass crop. Soil and water conservation efforts equal better grass, and better grass equals better livestock. “Pasture improvement, cross fencing, water impoundment projects, erosion control—conservation efforts have been of great benefit to improving our bottom line.”

The vineyard is part of the conservation plan, as Thomas utilizes drip irrigation to great success. Last year he sold more than 82,000 pounds of grapes to Messina Hof Winery in Bryan.

  • Viticulturalist

    Thomas' vineyard is part of his conservation plan. Last year, he sold more than 82,000 pounds of grapes to Messina Hof Winery in Bryan, utilizing drip irrigation to eliminate water waste.

  • Vintage Carriages

    Thomas used his ranch’s own lumber to construct a barn housing antique carriages. He uses the space to host weddings, antique auto shows and other local events.

  • Car Curator

    Thomas is a passionate collector of vintage cars, which he restores as a hobby.

In a further effort to manage his land well, Thomas purchased a band mill to turn excess timber on his property into construction material. He used the ranch’s own lumber to construct the carriage house where he hosts special events, such as weddings, antique auto shows (he also restores vintage cars), fundraiser dinners for the local school district, and meetings of the soil and water conservation district.

Thomas’s dream is that this rural oasis he has worked so hard to maintain and improve will last long into the future. He’s in the planning stages of a partnership with the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to preserve the ranch for future generations by one day turning it into an open-air classroom—a research and learning facility where city kids can learn how to lovingly cultivate the land, just as Thomas does. “I am pleased that the ranch will be put to an educational use,” he said.