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

As a kid, Koch was tall, skinny, and awkward, and his brothers and other children teased him relentlessly. “We had an extremely competitive family, and we didn’t take care of one another,” Koch told me over dinner in the Cook House, the Old West town’s main dining area. “For a long time, I felt insecure and inadequate and wouldn’t stand up for myself.” Born in 1940 in Wichita, Kansas, Koch was the last of Mary and Frederick Chase Koch’s four sons. Koch describes a childhood shaped by fierce sibling rivalries. His twin, David, 19 minutes older, was handsome, sociable, and athletic and gravitated toward their brother Charles, who is five years older than the twins. “I was more interested in the most popular people on campus: the pretty girls, the athletes,” David Koch told me last fall. “Billy was more intellectual and liked the different, more fascinating people.” Charles and David now run Koch Industries, the second-largest private company in the United States, behind Cargill. (The eldest Koch brother, Frederick R. Koch, is seven years older than Bill and David and wasn’t as involved in the interfamily politics.)

Koch’s parents were largely absent. Koch describes his father, the son of a Dutch immigrant newspaper owner, as “a very strong, ethical man” and as “a soft-spoken, John Wayne–type.” But his father was away from home often, building his oil refinery business. His mother, while “beautiful and charming,” was focused on her social life, Koch says, and the boys were entrusted to nannies. “Kids have great sibling rivalries,” Koch says. “And if there are no parents there to help put everything into perspective, it can get very bad.” His mother would side with his brothers. When his father was around, he would stick up for young Bill, something that affected him deeply.

The rivalry between the twin brothers got so severe in middle school, Koch says, that he became withdrawn and nearly flunked out. He was recalcitrant and undisciplined. A psychologist recommended the brothers be separated. To remedy the situation, and to offer their children the best possible education, his parents sent David and Bill away to different boarding schools; Bill went to Indiana’s Culver Military Academy. When he arrived, Koch was six feet one inch tall and weighed 120 pounds, and his peers teased him unmercifully for his gawky appearance. But, removed from his brothers, Koch began to flourish. In 1958, he graduated with honors.

Fred Koch believed in hard work and was a self-made man, having pioneered a more efficient method of refining heavy oil into gasoline. Initially, some of the nation’s big oil-technology companies came after Koch, filing a patent lawsuit against him and all of his customers—who were small, independent refineries—temporarily ruining his business in the United States. Unable to work in America, Koch decided to go overseas in 1929 to build refineries in Romania, and later in Stalin’s USSR. When the lawsuit failed, he returned to the United States in the 1930s as a multimillionaire and a firm believer in free-market capitalism. He would later go on to become an early member of the ultraconservative John Birch Society, known for its distrust of, and distaste for, government and for spreading fears in the 1950s that communism had seeped into the highest offices of American politics.

Fred Koch also had a deep love of the West and at one time was one of the largest ranchers in the United States, owning more than two million acres of ranchlands in Texas, Kansas, Wyoming, and Montana. Beginning at the age of 13, for five summers, Bill Koch worked on his father’s ranches. He bailed hay, dug ditches, fixed fences, and mucked stalls—12 hours a day, seven days a week—and got paid five bucks per diem, plus room and board. It was during these summers that Koch says he, too, fell in love with the West.

Both Bill and David headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1958. They played basketball together—though Bill sat on the bench while David was a prolific scorer. They were in the same fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, where Bill was the resident “humorist,” and both studied chemical engineering. In college, the brothers’ rivalry dissipated, David says, and after they graduated, the twins rented apartments across the hall from each other. “I got better grades at MIT than he did,” Bill Koch told me. “David now says he’s the handsome one and I’m the smart one. But it took me a while to adapt and accept that.” Koch went on to earn three degrees at MIT, including a doctorate in chemical engineering in 1971.

In school, Koch realized that he could carve a place for himself in the world by virtue of his own achievements. “When I was living in Wichita, a lot of people looked upon me as a rich kid,” Koch says. “When I got away, it was about what I did. My father couldn’t buy me honors at Culver. He couldn’t buy me a doctorate degree from MIT. I had to earn that on my own. For my own self-worth, I had to learn that.”