In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Neal Wanless and his family were barely making ends meet. The year was 2009, and the family’s home in Mission, South Dakota, was repossessed by the bank, forcing Wanless’ parents and brother to move to a camper while Wanless himself continued to work and live on a ranch.
Wanless was just 23 at the time, and unbeknownst to him, he was about to catch the lucky break of his life. While getting gas one day, he bought a lottery ticket that won him a $232.1 million Powerball prize, making him the winner of the largest jackpot ever won in the state.
During a press conference at which Wanless accepted his check, he said, “I would like to thank the Lord for giving me this opportunity and blessing me with his great fortune. I will not squander it.”
And squander it, he did not. Wanless started buying land until he had acquired almost 50,000 acres. Over the years, he built four homes on the property, two luxury homes for himself and his mother, and two smaller residences for ranch hands and guests. Now, he’s decided to sell the entire ranch for $41.15 million because he and his new wife, Jody Gilson Wanless, have been spending more time at her family’s cattle ranch in British Columbia, and the couple recently acquired a home in Arizona where they plan to spend winters.
If the ranch sells anywhere near the asking price, the property will be one of the most expensive single ranches ever sold in South Dakota, according to listing agent Robb Nelson of Hall and Hall.
“Bismarck Trail Ranch is truly a unique ranch from the diverse topography to its diverse uses,” Nelson said in the property’s listing description. “The main improvements are immaculate, very well built, and well maintained.”
The ranch’s name comes from the trail that brought people from Bismarck, North Dakota to Deadwood during the Black Hills gold rush, which was active from about 1874 to 1880. The property includes about 42,000 deeded acres, about 4,000 acres of land leased from the Bureau of Land Management for grazing and about 1,600 acres leased from the state. The grazing leases include about 3,000 yearlings, 1,600 cow-calf pairs and 1,000 wild horses.
Currently, Wanless leases most of the land out to local ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management, so just a small portion of the animals are his own. However, Wanless and his staff are responsible for caring for most of the cows and all the wild horses on the ranch. Other wildlife like whitetail deer, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, wild turkey and grouse also inhabit the property.
The main residence on the property was built in the Western style, and makes up about 6,400 square feet. The five-bedroom, five-bath home includes features like high vaulted ceilings and a stone fireplace in the living room; a main floor office or guest room; basement bar, gaming and theater areas; in-floor heating; a bonus room above the insulated four-car garage; and a full-length balcony around the back of the house.
“If there is a category for luxury working ranches, the Bismarck Trail Ranch would likely be the top listing in the central plains states,” Nelson said in the listing description.
Wanless designed the home himself, selecting everything from cabinetry and furniture to Western art that lines the walls. He also has a robust taxidermy collection on display throughout the house, which includes moose, antelope and zebra.
The overnight change in his fortunes left Wanless in shock all those years ago — his lucky Powerball numbers were a combination of his birthday, his brother’s birthday and his grandfather’s birthday — but, it didn’t change his work ethic and love of ranching.
“I could have retired and done really nothing and sat on my butt and enjoyed it,” Wanless told The Wall Street Journal. “But I love it. Ranching is a hard life, but if you love what you’re doing, it’s an easy life.”
Over the past few years, Wanless has also set up a charitable foundation, donated to the local children’s hospital and has become involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Nelson cited the ranch’s impressive scale and improvements Wanless has made over the years as justifying the property’s substantial price tag, in a conversation with The Journal. Still, the price is within eyesight of other major deals conducted in the area in recent years, like the $32.4 million sale of the 45,443-acre Triple U Ranch northwest of Fort Pierre in 2015, which was featured in the 1990 movie “Dances with Wolves.”