Bill Koch's Wild West Adventure

The controversial businessman is building an Old West town near Paonia that’s a full-scale reproduction of a 19th-century settlement. But is the town simply the project of an eccentric billionaire, or is there more to the story? 

February 2013

On a warm day this past September, Bill Koch rode on horseback through Bear Ranch, his 4,500-acre property located just outside of Paonia. Koch’s six-foot-four-inch frame—clad in a collared shirt, chaps, boots, and spurs—sat comfortably atop his palomino mount as we toured his estate, which lies just below the Ragged Mountains, a fluted wall of granite that rises from the high mesas of western Colorado. A flat-brimmed cowboy hat hid his blue eyes and thick, tousled white hair. ✫ At 72 years old, Koch is the founder, CEO, and president of Oxbow Carbon LLC, a global energy company, and one of the wealthiest men in the world, with a reported personal net worth of about $4 billion. He’s also the brother of Charles and David Koch, the high-profile businessmen and bankrollers of conservative causes. Although his primary residence is in Palm Beach, Florida, where Oxbow is headquartered, one of Koch’s many passions is Western history. “What I really like about the West,” he says, “is the stand-your-ground mentality and the idea that you have to take care of yourself, take care of your family, and take care of the people that surround you. You all take care of each other.”

Koch was at the ranch that weekend to work out some details related to the Old West town he’s building on his land. The town, which has yet to be named, is an authentic reproduction of a full-scale 19th-century settlement; it’s largely comprised of structures from a former MGM tourist attraction called Buckskin Joe, which Koch bought in 2010 and transported piece by piece to his ranch from its location outside of Cañon City. Koch intends for the town to be a private getaway for his family and friends. “I want to have a place for my family and extended family to keep us all together,” he says. “It all gets back to trying to create a place where I can enjoy life and enjoy my family and friends without having to worry about my enemies. And I’m doing it because I can.”

We’d spent the previous day strolling through the 70-odd buildings of the town, which is set in a pasture surrounded by Marcellina Mountain, the Anthracite Range, and the West Elk Mountains. Located 25 minutes from downtown Paonia by car, or 15 minutes by helicopter from Koch’s Aspen abode, the 10-acre town features five saloons and a jail, firehouse, church, bank, theater, and library. There’s a 20-person team dedicated to overseeing, authenticating, and building the town and Koch’s collection of Western memorabilia, which includes more than one million items—including Frederic Remington’s painting The Trooper, General George A. Custer’s Springfield rifle, the only photograph of Billy the Kid (valued at $2.3 million), and an early Colorado hearse (a white horse-drawn carriage). Koch’s collection spans the 19th and early 20th centuries, and parts of it will be displayed at the Smithsonian next year. “It will be an extravaganza about the West,” Betsy Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, says of the exhibition. “It’s one of the best Western collections in the world. It has sculptures and paintings, but also artifacts, historic photos, and material objects drawn from daily life in the West. Spurs, clothing, wagons, cavalry uniforms, arrows, quivers, flags—you name it. A robust picture emerges of what life was like in the West.”

As we wandered through the town, the lead historian on the project said, “It’s as if you are literally going back in time. Everything from the ceilings to the accoutrements are period-specific.” The streets’ widths are historically accurate—wide enough so that a four-to-six-horse cart can turn around—and are bordered by sidewalks at the perfect height for a rancher to load his cart. We headed into the Cattlemen’s Club, a bar theoretically for men only (there’s a separate Spa-loon for the ladies, one of the only deviations from historical accuracy of the project, which Koch says he had to include in order to entice his wife to the remote property). The club, which would have been a watering hole for affluent types in the late 1800s, has a mahogany bar with two female figures sculpted out of the wood that overlook the room.

“You want to see the brothel?” Koch asked.

We climbed the stairs to the second story and toured the rooms wallpapered in Technicolor shades of teal, maroon, and pink. Ornate red and blue glass lamps cast kaleidoscopic shadows on the wall. The brothel is more a work of art than a den of sin and one day will serve, innocuously, as guest quarters. Eventually, authentic ephemera—beaded garters with holsters for mini pistols, matchbook advertisements for call girls, and pictures of 19th-century prostitutes—will adorn the rooms.

“Will there be real girls here?” I asked.

“Ghosts,” Koch said with a boyish chuckle. To hear him tell it, the brothel is haunted by the phantoms of unsatisfied customers.

The next day, as we headed toward higher elevation on our horses, Koch’s ranch unfurled below us, with views of the town and thousands of acres of grazing land for his 1,100 head of cattle. Riding with him, and seeing him against this Western backdrop, it was easy to forget his colorful romantic history (he’s been married three times and had a public falling-out with a mistress in 1995); his reputation for being litigious (he’s been involved in 26 personal lawsuits); and his accomplishments as a sailor (he won the America’s Cup in 1992). His downhome, aw-shucks demeanor seemed at odds with the businessman who has been demonized as a wicked energy baron. He’s been labeled “a greedy bastard” by a blog called the Vile Plutocrat, and New York Magazine’s website has a recent posting that describes him as “evil.” This past October, Koch made national headlines when a former Oxbow executive accused Koch of kidnapping him and imprisoning him at the ranch. But here at the base of the Raggeds, among the golden aspen trees and rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains, Bill Koch looked like any other cowboy out for a ride on an autumn day.