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Flying L Guest Ranch - pilot's dream lands in Life

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

Pictured: Photo courtesy Flying L Guest Ranch
In addition to constructing Lapham's Lodge right next door, Flying L Guest Ranch is renovating the iconic Pilot's Lounge, site of the ranch's grand opening fashion show in 1947, when this photo was taken, and the place where pilots arriving at the ranch picked up their keys before taxiing to their villas.

Photo courtesy Flying L Guest Ranch
Col. Jack Lapham's dream of a series of "dude ranch airparks" took its first step to reality with the Flying L Ranch in Bandera in 1947.

Photo by Carolyn B. Edwards
Before email, before Facebook, before Twitter, this was how people communicated. This old typewriter, complete with letter, speaks of the past in the Pilot' Lounge.

Photo by Carolyn B. Edwards
Flying L Guest Ranch entertainment director Buck Shannon shares the history of the ranch with guests at the groundbreaking for Lapham's Lodge, a multi-use facility.

Photo courtesy Flying L Guest Ranch
Stanley Marcus of Dallas produced a runway show featuring specially designed flying and ranching clothes for the grand opening of Flying L Ranch in 1947. Life magazine covered the event.

You might play golf on the links, enjoy the water park with the kids in the summer, suggest your weekend guests might like to stay there or attend a business meeting or seminar. For many of us, the Flying L Guest Ranch just outside of Bandera on Highway 173 is a lovely facility that we may use from time to time. And while we may pass by the gate frequently, we may not be aware of the ranch's fascinating history.
Believe it or not, the guest ranch's opening in 1947 was featured in Life magazine, with a fashion show by, as one ranch spokesman put it, "a fellow named Marcus, who had a partner named Neiman."
What drew a couple of Dallas moguls and a bevy of New York City photographers and reporters to a little bump in a Hill Country road called Bandera?
Well, big money draws big money, and Flying L founder Col. Jack Lapham apparently had a pile of it. A son of the fellow who financed the first two wells of a company that would become known as Texaco, Lapham and his wife invested $750,000 in his dream project to be built on 543 acres.
Lapham, a pilot in the Army Air Corps in World War II, loved flying. When the war ended, he developed a plan for a series of "dude ranch airparks" around the country. The Flying L was the first in that anticipated string of jewels.
Lapham wanted to build a place that people could fly to and get away from the hectic pace of city life. Travelers could land on the ranch's 3,200 foot runway, check in at the office (now known as the Pilot's Lounge) where they were given their room key. Then they taxied the plane to their room where there were tie-downs for the plane. "They could sit in their room and keep an eye on their plane," said Flying L's entertainment director Buck Shannon at the ranch's recent groundbreaking ceremony for Lapham's Lodge, a 10-room multi-use facility planned for a 2014 opening.
But Lapham's dream went far beyond just having a top-class vacation spot. Veterans on the GI Bill could learn to become an airplane mechanic on site, and anyone could sign up for flying lessons.
From the beginning, the ranch offered horseback riding and a pool. Guests could also enjoy turkey hunting and black bass fishing, all for just $15 a day. The golf course was installed early in the ranch's development, yet another way to help guests escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
Twelve "villas" designed by associates of the noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright offered beautiful accomodations in structures meant to be reminiscent of the airplanes that would dot the facilities.
Today, Flying L Guest Ranch offers time shares, the Lone Star Lagoon water park and chuckwagon dinners in the summer, along with golf. Families enjoy evenings around the campfire, with the traditional s'mores and entertainment by internationally noted trick roper Kevin Fitzpatrick, and story teller extraordinaire Lee Haile, as well as plenty of guitar pickers and cowboy singers.
Non-guests are invited to call the ranch to make reservations for dinner, or horseback riding. A riding concessionaire even leads rides at the scenic Hill Country State Natural Area. Check the ranch website and Facebook page for information about special events.
The addition of Lapham's Lodge in 2014 will provide another flexible facility on the ranch for groups. "It will have 10 bedrooms and 10 baths, with a 1200 square foot common area for meetings and get togethers, along with a spacious patio with a fireplace," said Shannon. "It will be ideal for family groups and our signature corporate team building program with the Cowboy Olympics."
The design by Ed Urbanek Designs echoes the Pilot's Lounge right next door. "The lounge had been used for storage for the last 30 years," said Shannon. "We've been working hard to clean it out and are now working on renovating the building." In fact, the groundbreaking open house was held in the Lounge where guests enjoyed the warmth of the big fireplace and marveled at the view from the window wall.
Preserving the ranch's history is important to managers Jody and Susan Jenkins. They have established the Pilot's Club, to receive donations to help return the Pilot's Lounge to its original 1947 glory.
Back in 1947, Lapham frequently flew to the ranch from San Antonio in his favorite red and white Beechcraft Bonanza. He often dropped in for a steak dinner prepared by Chef Lenny Koll Sr. who had been head chef at the Plaza Hotel in San Antonio before Lapham enticed him to move to Bandera. At the Flying L, Koll served steak dinners to guests for $1.50. He was also featured in a Coca Cola commercial, serving Cokes in the signature little green bottles to a pair of lovely models in a plane parked in front of the Lounge.
Through the years, Flying L has played host not only to Stanley Marcus and his models, but to John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Tex Ritter and many more notables. An episode of the TV series "The Cisco Kid" was filmed at the ranch. It's rumored that a number of locals had roles as extras in that episode. Unfortunately, one of them got hurt during the filming and the episode was never aired.
The airfield at Flying L was apparently still in service in 1985, but was closed by 1995. Aerial photos in '95 show the central portion of the runway had become a driving range.
Col. Lapham died in 1956, never seeing his dream of fly-in guest ranches come to life. But in Bandera, a portion of his dream lives on, as the ranch he founded honors his memory in the name of its newest facility.