Land Report 100er: William Noble Lane II
Bill Lane believed in taking the “steeper path to the farther goal.” A visionary with an independent spirit, Lane’s love of the land and the Western lifestyle led him to resurrect New Mexico’s legendary Bell Ranch and return it to its former grandeur. The Bell and Lane’s other significant landholding, 7,600-acre Eldon Farms in rural Rappahannock County, Virginia, have been enjoyed by generations of the Lane family and have also served the public by preserving two beautiful and historic natural resources.
Lane’s road to the Bell Ranch began in 1947. A naval aviator during World War II, Lane, his brother, and a close friend made a modest investment in a struggling manufacturing company with sales of $250,000 and 20 employees. Under his leadership, General Binding Corporation grew into an industry giant. By 1967, the company, which by then had gone public, operated 17 plants around the world with offices in more than 50 countries and sales in excess of $20 million.
But business wasn’t Lane’s only strong suit. The Milwaukee-raised mogul possessed an uncanny ability to identify one-of-a-kind properties. His first major foray was in Virginia’s Piedmont Country. In the early 1960s, he discreetly acquired farm after farm in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains: Rappahannock, Culpeper, and Madison counties. Through more than 40 purchases, he assembled almost 9,300 contiguous acres. Devoted primarily to cattle as well as orchard and row crops, Eldon Farms evolved into one of Virginia’s largest private land holdings.
In 1969, Lane’s search for a sprawling spread led him to Northern New Mexico and the iconic Bell Ranch 150 miles east of Santa Fe. The Bell’s 130,855-acre headquarters had been the keystone of the historic Pablo Montoya Land Grant, a massive 655,468-acre holding whose storied past dated back to 1824. When Lane purchased the tract in 1970, it was the largest sale in the Southwest in decades. Lane made clear his intention to “keep the ranch running like it has been in the past–a real working ranch for the production of fine cattle.” The Bell Ranch became his passion, and, within a few years, he had increased its size to over 290,000 acres, almost half the size of the original Montoya grant.
Bill Lane’s ability to start small but think big was echoed in many aspects of his life, including his business career and his land holdings. Beginning with Eldon Farms and subsequently on the Bell Ranch, his wisdom in selecting properties with enduring value is even more apparent today than when he acquired them 40 and 50 years ago — a testament to his love of land.
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