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?
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.
Of course, Bill Koch is not any other cowboy, and his land is not any other estate: Bear Ranch is at the center of a bitter dispute that has divided Paonia’s eclectic community of ranchers, miners, New Agers, and farmers for two years. Koch wants to trade the federal government 911 acres of land he owns in Gunnison County, along with 80 acres in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, for 1,846 acres of less valuable public land in and around Paonia. Proposed in 2010 by then Congressman John Salazar, a Democrat who lost his bid for re-election that same year, the Central Rockies Land Exchange, as the swap is called, aims to connect the two disparate sides of Bear Ranch into one contiguous piece of property via a Bureau of Land Management parcel.
The federal government and private entities—ski resorts, developments, individuals—execute land exchanges all the time (typically more than 300 a year) to consolidate properties, and some observers have been surprised at the uproar Koch’s swap ignited. Although this swath of BLM open space is dotted with aspens and offers views of three 12,000-foot peaks, BLM land traditionally is at the bottom of the public-land food chain. As one of the least protected categories of federal land, the government often leases BLM parcels to mining, drilling, timber, and grazing operations for profit. The Central Rockies Land Exchange, which has been approved by the Delta County and Gunnison County commissioners, must now go before the 113th Congress.
Paonia resident Ed Marston, the former publisher of High Country News, is one of the swap’s most vocal opponents. Marston claims the deal reeks of political cronyism: Since 2006, Koch and various Oxbow entities donated more than $40,000 to Salazar, and Koch hosted Salazar on his ranch for several elk-hunting outings. But, more important, Marston believes the deal will rob Paonia of access to the Raggeds. “The land Koch is seeking provides the best existing access to 40 square miles of Forest Service and Wilderness land,” he told me.
In September, Marston led a group of locals up the contested BLM strip. Dawn Ullrey, an avid horseback rider who has lived in Paonia for 53 years, and whose husband works for the Forest Service, was on the tour, as was Frank Mastrullo, who videotaped the outing. (Mastrullo’s stepson works in Koch’s Elk Creek Mine.) When the group reached a point that overlooks Koch’s ranch, they stopped to take in the view, and a chorus of anti-Koch rants began: “It’s by invitation only,” one hiker said. Another chimed in, “A peasant like you isn’t going to give him your few pennies and get in there.” Marston added, “People like us are never considered to be fully human by him.”
Ullrey, who’s never met or worked for Koch, and does not have any family that’s ever been employed by him, says, “There is a lot of emotion involved in this, and the emotion is irrelevant. Is this a good thing for the American people, or is it not a good thing? My husband and I are of the opinion that the American people will win. In fact, we think the people in Paonia are actually going to be better off.”
Since the swap was proposed, Koch has added what he and his team consider to be several improvements to the original exchange bill. Koch has offered to build a new trailhead and improved access to the Ragged Mountain Wilderness through the acquisition of Buck Creek Ranch, an old homestead. (Marston argues the Buck Creek access is “far inferior” to the existing option.) Koch also bought a 21-acre lot on Jumbo Mountain, a popular recreation area outside of Paonia, which he plans to convey to the BLM to provide permanent public access to Jumbo; currently, a landowner allows people to cross his property to get to the mountain. And Koch’s offered to build a mountain bike trail connecting Crested Butte to Carbondale. Altogether, Koch has spent, or committed, roughly $7 million to the exchange.
Koch’s natural gas activities in the area may also be muddying the waters of the debate. Gunnison Energy Corporation, an Oxbow company, leases nearly 150,000 acres of mineral rights from the BLM and private mineral owners. One theory floating around Paonia posits the various BLM parcels included in the exchange, beyond the one that would unite Koch’s ranch, are strategic locations that provide resources for drilling and hydraulic fracturing infrastructure. Another contention is that Koch purchased Buck Creek Ranch so the land could be used for a compressor station, a condenser station, or a pipeline. “That’s absolutely false,” says Brad Goldstein, Oxbow’s spokesperson. “We bought Buck Creek for access. Period.”
No matter what Koch does, he seems to kick up dust in his wake. Conspiracy theories about him ripple through Paonia: One suggests that he (or his staff) flies his helicopter over his enemies’ homes, running surveillance or trying to scare his opposition. People say Koch’s team shows up at the homes of his opponents and asks what will quiet their discontent. Some fear their email has been hacked by Koch operatives, and rumors abound that former FBI agents pose as workers on his ranch in order to gather intel on what the employees are saying amongst themselves. “I don’t understand why there is so much antagonism and anger toward me from people in Paonia who have never met me, especially since we’ve been trying to make a lot of contributions to the community,” Koch says. Through his various companies—he owns the Elk Creek coal mine in Somerset, about 15 minutes from his ranch; Gunnison Energy, a major player in natural gas development in the area; and Bear Ranch—Koch pays more than $38 million a year in employee salaries. In 2012, he donated more than half a million dollars to charities in the region. But can Koch, the history buff, really be surprised at the local reaction? After all, the West has always loved its villains.
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.”
In 1968, while studying for his doctorate in chemical engineering, Bill Koch started working for his father’s company; Charles had taken over the business a year earlier after Fred Koch died of a stroke. Twelve years later, as vice president of corporate development, Bill spearheaded an attempted takeover with the goal of deposing Charles, the chairman and CEO, and David, who was an executive vice president. Bill disagreed with Charles’ totalitarian control of the company and believed the stockholders were not getting their rewards. He also disapproved of using company money to fund Charles’ and David’s libertarian causes: In 1977, the Kochs donated money to launch the Libertarian Cato Institute, and David Koch ran for vice president on the 1980 Libertarian Party ticket. When the coup failed, Bill was fired, and in 1983, Bill and his eldest brother, Frederick, sold their shares of Koch Industries. Bill received about $300 million after taxes. The battle may have been over, but the war was just beginning: Bill, David, and Charles were embroiled in litigation for the next 19 years.
In 2001, after eight lawsuits, the brothers finally settled. Bill Koch won the final suit against his brothers. “I now have a peaceful coexistence with Charles,” Koch says. “And I am now very best friends with my brother David.” Koch initiated the reconciliation with his twin by inviting him to his birthday party in 2001, and David served as the best man in Koch’s 2005 wedding to his third wife, Bridget Rooney Koch.
Koch is cautious when speaking of his brothers—he avoids commenting on his brothers’ politics, on how his views differ from theirs (he, like his brothers, was a big donor to Mitt Romney; but, unlike his brothers, he has also donated to Democrats, including Ted Kennedy), and on the almost 20-year war waged among them. This is largely because of a nondisparagement agreement in the brothers’ final settlement. But it’s difficult not to sense that, no matter how much he once wanted to win against his brothers, he is grateful to have his family back, thankful for the peace.
In 1983, Koch, determined to create an identity separate from his brothers and family name, founded Oxbow Carbon. (“An oxbow is where a river changes course,” Koch explains.) Oxbow’s great success was figuring out that “petroleum coke,” a byproduct of producing gasoline, could actually be used, instead of discarded. Oxbow buys coke from refineries and, in turn, sells it to aluminum, steel, and cement companies and fuel-grade markets, where it’s used instead of coal to generate energy.
Over the years, Oxbow has expanded its core businesses to include the mining and marketing of energy and commodities such as coal and natural gas, along with metallurgical and calcined coke, a key ingredient in the manufacturing of aluminum. It’s a big supplier of sulfur, sulfuric acid, and fertilizers. Oxbow, which has annual revenues of $4 billion and employs 1,500 people worldwide, also owns one of the most productive underground coal mines in the United States: Elk Creek Mine, located about 10 minutes from Koch’s ranch. Elk Creek yields some of the “cleanest” (lowest sulfur) coal in the world.
Though Oxbow is now firmly entrenched in the business of carbon-based products, one of its first endeavors was in alternative energy—geothermal and hydroelectric plants in Nevada, the Philippines, and Costa Rica. In November, Oxbow, along with Aspen Skiing Company, Vessels Coal Gas Inc., and Holy Cross Energy, unveiled a coal-methane conversion plant that will convert methane from Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine (methane is a byproduct of coal mining and a leading greenhouse gas) into electricity; the power generated through this project is roughly equal to Aspen Skiing Company’s energy usage. It’s the second project of its kind in the United States. Auden Schendler, the vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, says his partner, Tom Vessels of Vessels Coal Gas, had been trying to execute the project for a decade. Elk Creek was the only mine willing to try it. “Solving climate change is going to be really hard,” Schendler says. “To do it, we’re going to need to think differently; to create new alliances, maybe break old ones. This project shows how Americans can use a wasted resource for the betterment of our communities. It’s utterly bipartisan.”
In all of my interactions with Koch over the course of five months, it was not business, or the Old West town, that he spoke about most often. I visited with Koch, who rarely grants interviews, on multiple occasions, across several states, at four of his homes, and I was the first (and only, to this date) journalist to visit his Old West town. I met his family, in-laws, and friends; Oxbow executives, his personal staff, and contract workers; and teachers and students at the school he founded, Oxbridge Academy of the Palm Beaches, in Florida. Whether he was discussing his own childhood or calling me en route to a son’s basketball game, family was the prevailing theme of our conversations.
His is an eclectic tribe. Koch has five biological children and one stepson, who range in age from six to 26, by four women (three wives and a girlfriend). The youngest child was born to Koch and his current wife, Bridget Rooney Koch, granddaughter of Art Rooney, who founded the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1933. Koch has also all but legally adopted Rooney Koch’s son, whom she had with actor Kevin Costner.
At dinner one night at Koch’s Cape Cod compound, the dinner table teemed with family and friends. Four of the children were present. Rooney Koch headed the table. Fifty years old, whip thin, with dark brown hair and light green eyes, she’s not your standard trophy wife: She’s a vegan and an avid skier and recreational kickboxer. She’s also smart and very funny. Koch attributes his two failed marriages—one wife accused Koch of assaulting her; he claims her accusation was an attempt to get out of their prenuptial agreement, and they settled out of court—in part to scars from his childhood. “I always wanted my mother’s affection but could never get it,” he says. “I married two women who reminded me a lot of my mother. They were unable to love anyone other than themselves.” With Rooney, he’s certain he’s found the right one. “She’s got a great character and she could love me besides loving herself.”
In 2011, Koch founded Oxbridge Academy, pledging $60 million because, he says, he wasn’t satisfied with the education options in Palm Beach, and he didn’t want to send his children off to boarding school. He runs the school like a business: The headmaster is the “president and CEO,” and the kids and the parents are the customers. “Kids come first,” he says. “Staff comes last.” The school’s five-person board of directors contains three Oxbow executives, including Koch. He’s been on the board of four different schools and says, “You can spend more time debating the problem than solving it.” Being on the board of the school is, Koch says, “the equivalent of holding the stock in Oxbridge.”
In addition to the school and Bear Ranch, Koch has a 42-acre Cape Cod estate, comprised of the former Dupont and Mellon family properties; a 90-acre estate in Aspen made up of four neighboring properties; and his primary residence, a 35,000-square-foot house in Palm Beach, Florida. The collection of properties may appear to be stereotypical billionaire preening, but Koch says he has different intentions. “What I really want to do is create family compounds, so my sons will see each other and they’ll have a reason, when they get older and they have their own families, for staying together.” He’s sensitive to any hint of sibling rivalry or infighting among his children and is quick to punish them if he senses any—taking away iPhones, Facebook privileges, or grounding the teenagers. “That’s one of my goals in life: to make sure my kids get along, respect each other, and love each other.”
This past October, with the land exchange still in limbo, Koch turned up in the news yet again when former Oxbow executive Kirby Martensen filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California alleging that Koch had kidnapped Martensen, imprisoned him, and held him against his will at Bear Ranch in March 2012. Martensen had been the senior vice president of Oxbow Carbon & Minerals International’s Asia division, based in Singapore. Martensen claims in the suit that he came under scrutiny after raising concerns about Oxbow’s “questionable” tax-avoidance strategies. He says his relocation to Asia was “a part of a plan being implemented to evade paying taxes to the United States on profits in excess of $200,000,000 per year.”
According to the suit, Martensen asked to be driven to Aspen to catch a flight home after being interrogated for hours at the ranch. “This request was denied,” the suit says. “Martensen was told that he was being taken to Denver. Martensen then was kidnapped and kept captive in the vehicle during the trip to Denver.” Martensen, his attorney, and another former Oxbow executive, Joe Lombardi, who was also at the ranch during the incident and was fired, all declined to comment for this story.
Koch tells a different version of the events. After being tipped off by an anonymous letter in 2011 to possible corporate criminal misconduct by Martensen and two others, Koch began an investigation into their activities. Oxbow management started collecting emails, telephone recordings, documents—more than four million items in total—and testimony from others implicated in the ploy that pointed to the fact that Martensen had “participated in a wide-ranging scheme to systematically misappropriate revenues and business opportunities” and used his position as an executive at Oxbow to “illegally enrich” himself, according to a complaint Oxbow filed in Palm Beach on March 22, 2012. Koch says Martensen and the other implicated executives “had a scam going against us that cost us $40 million.”
Koch says he invited Martensen—and five other executives thought to be involved in the scheme—to the ranch for a corporate retreat in mid-March. They were to hold strategy meetings, and each executive was to undergo a 360-degree performance analysis. The first night, Koch hosted the men for dinner at the ranch. The next day, after the group strategy session, Koch had lunch with the executives and then took them on a helicopter tour of the town, after which the performance reviews took place.
The men were interviewed individually. Steven Fried, Oxbow’s COO, questioned Martensen. Fried says he started the conversation by talking about Martensen’s division’s performance and about Martensen’s contributions to the company, which Martensen thought were “prolific.” The conversation turned when Fried brought up some of the examples of Martensen’s alleged corporate wrongdoings. Fried asked about Martensen’s dealings with a competing company that he was allegedly accepting kickbacks from. Fried asked if Martensen had ever heard of the company. Martensen said no. Fried asked why, then, there had been several email exchanges between Martensen and the company. Ultimately, Fried says, Martensen admitted to some of the alleged misdeeds, but not all of them. Koch, who was interviewing another executive in a different building, says he watched Martensen leave, weeping.
After his review, Martensen was driven to another part of the ranch, Crystal Meadows, to wait for the five other men who were being interviewed, three of whom lived in California like Martensen. On his way to Crystal Meadows, he was served termination papers and a lawsuit. Koch says he separated the six men to avoid any collusion between them. Martensen also had a history of losing his temper, and Koch worried the men would become violent, so he hired an off-duty, unarmed local deputy for security purposes. Once Martensen arrived at Crystal Meadows, his Oxbow-issued computer and cell phone were taken away. Koch instructed his team to ask to inspect Martensen’s bags to ensure that he wasn’t stealing any company property.
Martensen’s lawsuit says he asked to leave but was held captive at the ranch. But in a deposition filed in Florida last month, another Oxbow executive, Charlie Zhan, who was present during the episode at the ranch and was subsequently fired, said neither he nor Martensen were ever physically threatened, restrained, intimidated, or made to feel as if they couldn’t leave. Zhan says there were no armed guards, and that both men were offered a cell phone to use once they left the ranch, where cellular reception is limited. Martensen made no calls, according to Zhan. Both Zhan and Martensen took Koch’s private plane back to California.
Martensen unsuccessfully appealed the March 2012 suit filed by Koch in Florida. Martensen then took his case to California, where he filed his complaint this past autumn. “They’re playing a legal maneuvering game because they want the case to be held in San Francisco, which would be considerably more liberal than the court in Florida,” Koch says. It could take years for either case to go to trial.
Fried, who’s worked for Oxbow for about 14 years, is mystified by Martensen’s alleged offenses. “Anyone who knows Bill knows that he will chase down someone who has wronged him to the end of the earth. So it’s been staggering to me to know that senior people in the company would steal from him,” he told me at Oxbow’s corporate headquarters in Palm Beach. “He’s obviously a driven guy, whether it’s business or sailboat racing or collecting wine or holding people accountable when they’ve mistreated him. He’s dogged in his pursuit.”
As we reached the last leg of our ride through his ranch, Koch pushed ahead alone. We turned toward the barn, and the horses were skittish, sensing that we were heading home. The high mesas in the distance silhouetted Koch’s frame as the late-afternoon sun began to cast long shadows. He’d been quiet this afternoon; Koch had stayed up late into the night, drinking whiskey in the saloon with his brother-in-law and a few friends. After the festivities died down, Koch retreated to his quarters, where he sat in a rocking chair on the deck, flossing his teeth and looking at the stars, his town spread out beneath him.
In 1936, four years before Bill and David were born, Fred Koch wrote a letter to his boys, Frederick and Charles, and to his future children. Their father was keenly aware of money’s inherent paradox. Each brother now has a framed copy of the letter, which Koch has read often over the years.
When you are 21, you will receive what now seems like a large sum of money. It will be yours to do what you will. It may be a blessing or a curse. You can use it as a valuable tool for accomplishment or you can squander it foolishly. If you choose to let this money destroy your initiative and independence, then it will be a curse to you and my action in giving it to you will have been a mistake. I should regret very much to have you miss the glorious feeling of accomplishment and I know you are not going to let me down. Remember that often adversity is a blessing in disguise and certainly the greatest character builder. Be kind and generous to one another and to your mother.
In the twilight of his life, Koch says he wants to focus on the things he loves the most: his family, collecting, and building the Old West town. “I’ve had my fair share of the spotlight,” he says. “I don’t want much to be in it anymore. I want to live the rest of my life and enjoy that, and be a good father to my kids and hopefully leave my kids with very good values and very good ethics.” He’s also reflecting on his past, “warts and all,” as he says, contemplating the things that influenced his life’s course. “It took me a long time to realize I have some talents and capabilities and if I just put them to work, I could create my own life and my own accomplishments independent of where I’ve come from,” he says. “And the town represents that.”
In December, Governor John Hickenlooper visited Koch and the town. The governor has also met separately with Ed Marston. Ever the shrewd politician, Hickenlooper is working quietly to broker a peace deal between the two on the land exchange. Koch says the governor would like Koch to host an exhibition of his Western collection at a museum in Denver and open the town to high-paying visitors and schoolchildren. Koch’s not yet sure what he’ll do, though he’s not totally opposed to the governor’s terms.
Regardless of the land swap’s status, Koch’s immediate family will come to western Colorado to see the town this spring. But today, it’s still a work in progress: Just months ago, the Victorian houses on Main Street gleamed with freshly painted shades of pink, yellow, and blue. Koch recently bought a wardrobe from a movie set, and future guests will be able to dress up in Western garb. There are no TVs in the guest rooms and no cars in the town; instead, guests will ride horses and carriages, watch movies in the theater, and have historical discussions. There will be family dinners, parties, and corporate retreats. It’s Koch’s fantasy come to life, made possible by his staggering wealth.
Back at the barn, we pull up to the hitching post. Koch swings his leg over the top of his mount and hops off. He ties his horse up to the rail and thanks our wrangler for the ride. He loosens his cinch, gives the saddle a tug, and carries it into the barn, where he hangs it on the rack. In a dimly lit corner of the tack room, he places his leg on a trunk and, one by one, unzips his chaps. He leaves his spurs on.
Kelley McMillan writes frequently for the New York Times and Outside magazine. This is her first piece for 5280.