Sometimes you read or hear a story and your heart soars.
On September 4, a friend alerted me, “Interesting feature in the Wall Street Journal today about the guy who won a $250 million lottery in South Dakota and is now selling his 55,000-acre ranch.”
Headlined “Powerball-Winning Cowboy Lists Dream Ranch,” story began: “In 2009, Neal Wanless, 23, was a young cowboy living on a ranch near Mission, S. D., in a county where around 48 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
“When his family’s mobile home was repossessed by the bank, he and his parents and brother moved to a camper; his father sold scrap metal to make ends meet.”
Wanless lived with his mom Nancy and dad Arlen on a 320-acre ranch, outside of Mission, where they raised cattle, sheep and horses. The family did not have a phone and owed property taxes ($3,552) from 2007, 2008 and 2009.
Neal attended Told County High School, a Title I school. One of the cross-county coaches remembers that by his senior year, Neal had worked hard to become one of the top runners on the team.
“Neal never gave up trying,” the coach said. “That’s what I liked about him, his dedication.”
Neal was also one of the school’s few white students and classmate Mike Prue remembers,
“We are all Natives around here and there he was with his Wrangler shirt and jeans. He really stuck out.”
Prue and his buddy Steve Plank said Wanless would help them with their homework, despite the differences.
Wanless graduated second out of a class of 64 and may have gone to college for a year, but more likely, there was no money to continue. Just to survive on those farms is a never-ending fight with the weather and keeping equipment working and animals healthy.
His older brother joined the Navy, so most likely Neal went back to help his mom and dad on the farm. (Editor’s note: My relatives have farms in the area and poverty there is extreme.)
Mission is in Todd County, home to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. In a 2009 USA Today story (“These Are the 25 Worse Counties to Live in. Did Yours Make the List?”), Todd County was ranked second behind Oglala Lakota, which is also in the southern part of South Dakota. Native American Reservations often have deeply entrenched economic problems, and Todd County’s 52 percent poverty rate is the highest of any county in the United States.
Then in May 2009, good fortune came to Neal Wanless and the family. Playing his birthday date, along with his brother’s and grandfather’s birthday dates, he won a Powerball lottery and took home $88.5 million in a lump sum payment. (South Dakota has no income tax.) His was among the highest undivided lottery jackpot wins in U.S. history.
Even after Neal knew he was the jackpot winner, he kept working. The hay-baling machine needed repairing because baling was about to begin. He needed to collect a tractor that had been in for repair and do general chores around the farm.
When he finally received his money, he said: “I want to thank the Lord for giving me this opportunity and blessing me with this great fortune. I will not squander it.” He told lottery officials that he intended to continue ranching.
According to one story, Neal told his horse Eleanor that “It’d be nice if we go for a longer ride than usual on a bigger ranch of our own.” So, he bought the 55,000-acre ranch in Western South Dakota.
A reporter interviewed Neal’s friends and neighbors after he won the lottery. All agreed that the family was hard working and had little money as they tried to eke out an existence at their property, which could only be accessed by a dirt road.
“There was a sign out there that said ‘The ranch that God built,'” Joe Prue, father of Mike Prue, told a reporter at the time. “And for a while there you thought, where was God when everything was coming apart? And now, maybe God helped them.”
Neal’s uncle Terry, who worked as an Athletic Director at Sacramento State University, said that his brother and nephew, like many ranchers and other residents of that community, were struggling to make a living.
“That’s one of the things about Arlen, he is an extremely hard worker, and he always has done whatever it took to take care of his family,” Terry said. “So, this is certainly a blessing to him and his family.”
The winning ticket was purchased at the Ampride convenience store in Winner, South Dakota, and Sharon Ulmer, manager of the store said she was glad the Wanless family won.
“From what I understand they don’t have a lot, so the money definitely went to a good place,” Ulmer said. “I know it went to a good home. They can use it.”
Living in Kadoka, S.D., Neal’s grandmother, “Billie,” (who had one son) married Kenneth Wanless (who had three sons), and they had two sons together, Arlen and Donald. They moved to Mission, where Ken became the County agent. Later they tried their hand at ranching, with “Billie” helping with the family finances by babysitting kids (prior to daycare). She also was a 4-H leader for her kids.
This editor graduated from Todd County High School, where Neal’s father, Arlen, was two years younger than me, and Donald was in my class. Arlen, a skinny little kid, was bullied.
When I read the story in the WSJ, I was so happy. A family that had struggled for decades to make a living no longer had to worry about money. The father who had been bullied and his family who had tried so hard to make ends meet on his ranch, was okay. Somehow it seemed like justice had been done.
And it sounds like Neal Wanless has handled the money well, which also can’t be easy.
He purchased his 55,000 acres of land in western South Dakota, closer to the Black Hills (and Spearfish). He named it Bismark Ranch because it contains part of the trail by which people came from Bismarck to Deadwood during the gold rush days in the Black Hills.
The ranch, which is now listed for sale at $41,000,000, includes about 42,000 deeded acres, about 4,000 acres leased for grazing from the federal Bureau of Land Management and about 1,600 acres leased from the state.
The ranch has four homes and a river that goes through the property, with about 3,000 cattle yearlings, 1,600 cow/calf pairs and about 1,000 wild horses.
The WSJ story said that Wanless has decided to sell because and his wife, Jody, are spending more time at her family’s cattle ranch in Canada. They also recently purchased a home in Arizona.
The land in Todd County was sold to a neighbbor. The parents have divorced, but Neal has provided for both of them.