Early History

The History of the Davis Ranch

– By Greg Hoots –

The story of the Z Bar Ranch begins with George H. Davis, born in 1876, the youngest of three children. His father, James Davis, worked for the railroad and the family moved several times before coming to Kansas City, Kansas when George was eight years old. Tragedy struck when James Davis lost his leg to amputation after a work accident, and his children, including George were forced to begin working directly out of elementary school. Davis’ first job was as a messenger boy for a grain company in Kansas City’s West Bottoms district. By age 20 Davis was promoted to manager of the company’s New Orleans office. Within a year the owner of the grain business died, and Davis was called upon to return to Kansas City to conclude the company’s business.

Davis had made valuable contacts in the grain business, and at age 24, he obtained a seat on the Kansas City Board of Trade and partnered with A.L. Ernst, forming Ernst-Davis Grain Company. In 1912 Davis was elected President of the Board of Trade. Despite splitting with Ernst in 1914, Davis’ grain business grew.

On March 16, 1923 Davis-Noland-Merrill Grain Company was formed, with Davis as President; Nicholas F. Noland, Vice-President; Harold A. Merrill, Treasurer, and a long time Davis employee Minerva Gundelfinger, Secretary. The three principals were members of the Kansas City Board of Trade. The firm assumed the leases of the Terminal Elevator and the Rock Island Elevator, with a total storage capacity of 2,600,000 bushels. In 1924, the firm leased Santa Fe Elevator A, with a capacity of 10,000,000 bushels, the nation’s largest grain elevator.

Davis had made valuable contacts in the grain business, and at age 24, he obtained a seat on the Kansas City Board of Trade and partnered with A.L. Ernst, forming Ernst-Davis Grain Company. In 1912 Davis was elected President of the Board of Trade. Despite splitting with Ernst in 1914, Davis’ grain business grew.

Davis Ranch Cowboys

Davis Ranch cowboys, left to right, are Bus Howard, Fred Howard Hazel Slabaugh, Delbert Heiman, and Gerald Slabaugh. Photo courtesy Phylllis Scherich.

George Davis - 1951

George Davis, seen here in 1951, kept a busy desk at his office at the Kansas City Board of Trade. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

On March 16, 1923 Davis-Noland-Merrill Grain Company was formed, with Davis as President; Nicholas F. Noland, Vice-President; Harold A. Merrill, Treasurer, and a long time Davis employee Minerva Gundelfinger, Secretary. The three principals were members of the Kansas City Board of Trade. The firm assumed the leases of the Terminal Elevator and the Rock Island Elevator, with a total storage capacity of 2,600,000 bushels. In 1924, the firm leased Santa Fe Elevator A, with a capacity of 10,000,000 bushels, the nation’s largest grain elevator.

The grain business thrived, despite the stock market collapse in 1929 and the economic upheaval in banking. By 1930 two significant changes were underway at Davis-Noland-Merrill. Nick Noland left the partnership, selling his interest back to the corporation. Harold Merrill became Vice-President, and Minerva Gundelfinger, now a stockholder, became Secretary-Treasurer. The second change was George Davis began to think about investing in land. Thousands of acres could be had for less than five dollars an acre. In 1931 Davis purchased the famed Dewey Ranch, in Riley County, Kansas, buying 6,600 acres for $120,000. In 1932, Davis purchased six Johnson County farms for $160,000, and this was just the beginning.

Davis convinced Merrill and Gundelfinger to invest in land, and the Davis Ranch was born. In 1933 the firm purchased three adjoining ranches in Barber County, totaling 35,350 acres. It was in this purchase of the Barber County property that Davis acquired cattle which bore the previous owner’s Z Bar brand. The Z Bar would remain the brand of the Davis Ranch for the next half-century. Within a year the partnership acquired 17,000 acres in neighboring Comanche County, including the ranch headquarters of the Comanche Cattle Pool at Evansville.

Then the firm purchased a 12,500 acre ranch in Morris County and over 6,000 acres in Wabaunsee County. In 1935 they purchased 11,000 acres in Chase County, reuniting Barney Lantry’s famed Deer Park Spring Hill Farm.  Davis-Noland-Merrill also purchased 12 farms in Missouri, adding 11,200 acres to the 82,400 acres amassed in Kansas.

Branding Cattle on the Davis Ranch

Davis Ranch cowboys brand cattle on the Barber County, commonly known as the Temple Ranch. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

The second part of Davis’ ranching strategy was to employ the best ranching talent that money could buy. He hired John Peavey “J.P.” Lynn as the ranch overseer, coordinating the efforts of the ranches. Because of the mild climate, the ranches in Barber and Comanche counties were large cow-calf operations where all of the calves were born.  All of the steers were transported by rail to the ranches in Chase, Morris, and Wabaunsee counties. In Chase County, Davis hired Fred Howard, former manager of the Crocker Brothers’ ranch at Matfield Green, to manage the cattle operation in Chase and later in Wabaunsee County. Howard was considered by his peers to be the best in the business. Davis retained T.O. “Orville” Alley to manage the cow-calf operation on the vast Barber County ranch. Alley’s brother, Lester Alley, was hired to manage the Comanche County ranch. At his ranch in Riley County, Davis hired Orville Burtis, Sr. to manage the ranch, and the two became partners in the cattle raised there. It became clear that Davis, never a rancher, sought out the services of the best cattlemen to guarantee his success.

In 1937 and 1938 Davis served as Chamber of Commerce national president. He and Mrs. Davis moved to Washington where Davis represented business on Capitol Hill. During those years, Harold Merrill became more involved in the ranching business. In 1935 Merrill was elected President of the Kansas City Board of Trade, and he took an increasing role in the business when Davis was absent.

By the early 1940s there was increasing tension between Merrill and Davis. In 1944 Merrill resigned his position as Vice-President of Davis Noland Merrill and formed Harold A. Merrill Ranch and Grain Company.  Due to legislation that prohibited corporations and grain companies from owning farms, all of the Davis Noland Merrill property was deeded to Davis. . In 1945 Merrill sued Davis, asking the court to place the property in the corporation’s name. Davis won the suit; however, the court ordered the ranch split with Merrill taking over 29,000 acres in Comanche and Morris counties and a Buchannan County, Missouri farm. In 1947 Davis-Noland-Merrill Grain Company ended their lease of Santa Fe Elevator A, and ceased all grain trading.

Several other changes occurred in 1947. J.P. Lynn left the Davis Ranch and became Merrill’s overseer of ranching. Lester Alley left the Comanche County ranch and went to work with his brother on the Barber County ranch. And, Orville Burtis, Jr. was named ranch overseer for the Davis Ranch holdings, replacing Lynn. There were no significant changes in the Chase County property, but Fred Howard also began managing the Wabaunsee County ranch.

In 1955, George H. Davis died from a heart ailment, and his ranches in Riley and Johnson counties were soon sold. The remainder of the Davis Ranch continued unchanged, placed in a trust and managed by the First National Bank, of which Davis had been a director and its longest serving board member. Bank Vice-President, Everett Ellis, became President of the Davis Ranch. Orville Burtis, Jr. had increasing responsibilities as Ellis had no experience in ranching.  When Ellis died in 1964, Orville Burtis, Jr. became President of the corporation.

In the early 1970s Burtis suggested to the board of directors that the name of the corporation be changed to the Z Bar Land and Cattle Company. Burtis explained that the Z Bar brand was so recognizable and so respected in the industry, that he believed the change would improve morale among the many employees. The board agreed, and the Z Bar Land and Cattle Company was born.

The Z Bar continued to flourish until 1986 when the trust made a decision to cease cattle ranching. The reason given was that the corporation was paying corporate taxes, and then the stockholders were taxed on their profits, creating a situation paramount to double taxation. In 1986 that decision was implemented, and the Z Bar was offered for lease.

In the early 1990s Orville Burtis, Jr. became aware that the Audubon Society was seeking a site in the Kansas Flint Hills to purchase with the cooperation of the Nature Conservancy to create a Tallgrass Prairie National Park. Burtis contacted the Audubon Society, offering the Chase County property at Strong City for sale.

In 1994 the National Park Trust purchased 10,894 acres in Chase County from Boatmen’s Bank Trust, who had acquired the First National Bank, the original managers of the Davis Trust. It was on this property that the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve was created.

Then, in 1999 Ted Turner purchased the Barber County ranch from the trust for a reported nine million dollars. The final two remaining pieces of the Davis Ranch Empire, the Wabaunsee County ranch and the Missouri farm ground, are currently leased and remain in the Davis Trust for the heirs of George Davis.

Well #1, Davis Ranch

Orville Burtis, Jr., left, and George Davis inspect the Davis Ranch Well No. 1 in Wabaunsee County. Photo courtesy Phyllis Scherich.


 

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