How many homes can claim their own freeway exit? Briarpatch Ranch, located just north of Lockhart on Texas 130, can.
This weekend — and then again in two weeks — the eclectic ranch complex built by the late Dollie Ann Fechner Cole and her family will turn once again into a giant estate sale. Two sales have already taken place, but innumerable items remain.
Now, don’t visualize overpriced antiques and heirloom paintings. Cole, who died in August 2014, just loved buying. Often, in bulk. Sometimes at estate sales, like this one at her stone ranch house and nearby barns; sometimes at Kmart.
On sale are tens of thousands of items, some high-end, many others bargain-basement. Pieces of apparel alone numbered more than 5,000, guesses her daughter, Anne Cole Pierce, who oversees the bazaar.
“People from Lockhart lined up to see Mom’s closets,” Pierce says. “They’d heard about them for years.”
Also, don’t expect the house to be some sterile testament to oversized luxury. This is a working ranch with cattle wandering up to a patio that overlooks an ample stock pond. And although large — about 15,000 square feet — the house itself is more whimsical than overpowering. One room was salvaged from an old cotton gin, another from a Wendy’s burger stand.
Fort Worth-born Cole, a startling beauty and widow of former General Motors president Edward N. Cole, liked old things. Her land — there’s another ranch south of town, which once included a “living history” village staffed by locals in costume — is dotted with full-size school buses, fire trucks, portable school houses and a post office.
On the South Ranch sits a 1917 ice skating rink, right where Cole moved it.
Cole also collected famous friends — Carol Burnett, John Glenn, Barbara Walters, Phyllis Diller, Barbara Stanwyck, Jim Nabors, Ruth Buzzi and Andy Griffith — who relished her themed parties. Her guest list was inclusive. Sales clerks and other acquaintances were always invited to her shindigs.
Cole also loved giving things away. She sent truckloads of goods to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Labor Day fires in Bastrop. Among her major charities were Lockhart’s Pegasus School, the National Corvette Museum, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, PBS, the Michigan Humane Society, the Detroit Zoo and Project Hope.
She didn’t just write checks. While serving on boards, she urged groups to take sometimes controversial decisions, like mixing African-American and white children at play for the first time on a public television show.
“She said what she thought, and she did what she thought was right,” Pierce says. “When Project Hope was in its infancy — not as well funded then — it ran out of money for fuel for its floating hospital ship when it was in a South American country. Mother put all her gas cards on the table and got everybody else on board to do it, and they got the ship fueled.”
Quite a journey
Cole came from a broken home. She was Miss Dr Pepper of 1950 and a rodeo barrel rider. She summered in Kingsville and looked not unlike movie star Grace Kelly.
Her future husband spent most of his adult years as an executive in the car industry. He was one of the chief architects of the Corvette, as well as father of the Corvair and the small-block Chevy V8 engine.
They met on a date for dinner and a Broadway show.
“Halfway through the show, he said, ‘Will you marry me?’ and she said yes,” Pierce recalls. “This was their first meeting! They were very well matched.”
Supportive yet independent, Cole could hunt and fish as well as look effortlessly elegant and sound awfully convincing in public arenas.
“She changed what executive wives did,” says Pierce, 61, an attorney married to a retired GM executive. “Before, it was: ‘Don’t be noticed.’ Mom wasn’t about that. She was very outspoken. ‘She inspired charity and controversy.’ That was the title of an article about her in the the New York Times.”
Cole’s husband, who adopted two of her children, including Pierce, from a previous marriage, moved on to other companies after retiring from GM. He died while flying to work on May 2, 1977.
Dollie Cole outlived him by almost four decades. Besides Pierce, she left behind three sons: W.J. “Jeffy” McVey, Robert Michael “Joe” Cole, and Edward Nicholas “Nick” Cole Jr., the rancher who lives on the land and who built large parts of Briarpatch Ranch.
As part of a contemplated family agreement, Jeffy will buy a quarter of the ranch, and Nick will buy almost all the rest from the estate, except the main house and about 33 acres, which will continue to be used for special events as well as for movie and television productions. Briarpatch has already starred as a location for “From Dusk to Dawn,” “Revolution,” “The Leftovers,” “Bed of Lies,” “The Green Ghost” and “Machete,” among other films and TV shows.
Work started on the main barn in 1984, and construction was continual for the next three decades. Besides the main house, the structures include a guest house, a fun house, a gift house, Jeffy’s house, the main barn, a big shop, three other large buildings and many smaller ones.
“She was from Texas and loved Texas,” Pierce says. “And she was married briefly to Richard ‘Dick’ Reynolds, father of Mike Reynolds, who had a ranch nearby.”
Dick Reynolds, who died in 2014, had earlier married into the Kleberg family of King Ranch fame and had joined his brother in the menswear business running the Reynolds-Penland stores. One of his daughters is philanthropist Katherine “Chula” Reynolds.
While she gave much of her wealth away, Cole could not resist acquisition.
“Mother had a black belt in shopping, and it was well-earned,” Pierce says. “She was a big gift giver.”
The family is sending the contents of a 53-foot trailer of files and films from their father’s executive years in Detroit to the Bentley Museum at the University of Michigan, in keeping with their historical value. Files from Corvair-related litigation — consumer advocate Ralph Nader bashed the car in his book “Unsafe at Any Speed” — will stay with the family.
“Dad debated Nader on the ‘Phil Donahue Show,’” Pierce says. “After Mom cold-called into an earlier show, taking on one of Nader’s most vocal supporters.”
Now that’s an estate sale
What to do when someone like Dollie Cole dies?
“When a person of means passes away, you have nine months to do the federal inheritance tax return,” Pierce says. “You have to make important decisions, hire lawyers, accountants, appraisers. It’s very overwhelming.”
The inheritance tax return alone weighed 27 pounds.
The third sale, this weekend, will open up new buildings. The whole circus is being handled by June Hayes, who does appraisals and estates from her base in San Antonio. Hayes and her staff helped stage all the nicer items in the main house, garages and main barn and will be working on the other buildings shortly.
“June’s motto is you need to amaze and enchant,” Pierce says. “Don’t just throw things on tables. Arrange them by themes in a way that is appealing and interesting. It’s a huge undertaking. There’s so much, and so much of it is different, unusual, exotic.”
Hayes’ staff has been at the house three days a week for months. Volunteers from the Settlement Home for Children, which runs a massive pre-holiday garage sale each year at Palmer Events Center, helped out during the first sales. Helpers from the 100 Club of Central Texas will man sale No. 3.
“Mom was very involved in that charity, too, helping to raise money for families of first responders killed in the line of duty,” Pierce says. “It was very generous of both charities to help out — giving back to someone who made it a mission in life to give back.”
Overseeing the sales keeps Pierce busy, but she sorely misses the person who was the center of her life for so long.
“She was fun and funny, and we had a great time,” Pierce says of her mother. “One thing I learned is that every parent should write a letter to each of their children and hide it to be found. It’s one last touch.”
While she never found such a letter, she felt two “touches.” While cleaning out her mother’ desk, she found, under the pen holder in the main drawer, two of June Hayes’ cards.
“I didn’t know that Mom came down to her sales in San Antonio,” Pierce says. “I asked June about it, and she said: ‘Oh yes, especially if there were alligator bags and belts.’ But June never pulled the I-knew-your-mother card. Classy.”
To appraise Cole’s gun collection, Pierce hired a “great old Texas character,” Waco gun dealer Leo Bradshaw.
“One day, I was organizing her calendars, getting them ready in case the Bentley museum wanted them,” she says. “I picked out her 1971 calendar. I wanted to see if she wrote down my birthday. Tucked inside was Bradshaw’s card. You get that one more touch. Made me smile.”