Building Natural Wealth

"I'm out planting a forest," says Leo Drey's answering machine. "Please leave your name and number, and I'll try to get back to you before it matures."

Leo Drey owns more land--160,000 acres in the Ozarks--than any other private landowner in Missouri. The answering machine in his downtown St. Louis office is his sole concession to modern technology. His old Underwood typewriter still stands ready for action. Ledgers written in his tiny, neat script record his land acquisitions back to 1951. They reside in an unlocked safe that looks like it was new during the California Gold Rush.

Drey purchased his first chunk of land from "Doc" Jim Buford of Reynolds County. He bought more than 1,400 acres for about four dollars per acre.

"Doc Buford was a real doctor, Drey said, "but he only had one patient his entire practice. He decided that was enough for him and took up cattle ranching. He once claimed that he walked through a log yard and spotted a tree that had come off his property. He said he went to check, and sure enough, it was gone."

Drey bought a lot of his land for back taxes. Most had been heavily logged. That suited Drey because he was committed to restoring a resource that had been virtually exhausted during the massive timber harvests in the early part of the 20th century. He also contacted potential land sellers throughout Reynolds, Carter and Shannon counties by mail. He occasionally visited with them in person, too, but with mixed results.

"I visited a fellow in his home once," Drey recalled. "He wasn't very talkative. I told him his land would have value if he could keep the cows off, but he just kept looking at the fire. I rambled on about cattle and so forth and finally got back around to asking if he'd sell his land. He never stopped looking at the fire, but he said, 'Best go out this door. I'll watch to see the dogs don't get you.'

"I really respect the people of the Ozarks," Drey continued. "They managed to make a living from those hills through sheer hard work. They'd find a spring, clear some land, and be pretty self-sufficient with what they could grow and raise."

The most profound improvement in Ozarks land management occurred when open range was finally closed in the 1960s.

"That was a vast, vast change