The Cow Creek Chronicles - A series

 

This is the fourth in a series of stories about the lives of a pioneering cattle family and the vast ranch they established.

‘Time to leave’

Cow Creeek Ranch
After the sale of the 17,000-acre Cow Creeek Ranch in 1976, TL and Jo Ann Sloan held onto a section along Orange Avenue Extension that contained a successful grove operation. The section also had its own cow pens. GREGORY ENNS

Financial problems persist for TL and Jo Ann Sloan even after they sell their beloved Cow Creek Ranch

Frank Raulerson founded Cow Creek Ranch about 1923, first buying a small section of land to set up a base to run cattle during the days of the open range.

When T.L. “Tommy’’ and Jo Ann Sloan in 1976 sold 17,000 acres that compromised the heart of Cow Creek Ranch, they were facing mortgages totaling $4.5 million.

Poor business decisions and the free-spending habits of TL had put them in the position of having to sell the ranch, which was begun by Jo Ann’s grandfather, Frank Raulerson, in 1923. 

The purchase of a small section of land that year enabled Raulerson to establish a base of operations in the days of the open range, where cattle roamed freely and the state’s interior land, either swamp or hard scrub, was seen as having little value. A member of the state’s livestock board and a former state senator, Raulerson knew the days of the open range were drawing to a close — Florida’s Fence Act was implemented in 1949 — and began purchasing other sections of property around the headquarters to eventually assemble a 23,000-acre ranch on the St. Lucie-Okeechobee county line that became known as Cow Creek. He also purchased two other ranches, Dixie Ranch and Taylor Creek, but later sold them.

At Cow Creek, which he considered his home ranch, he builds a barn, home, bunkhouse and various houses for his ranch hands. The ranch was called Cow Creek after the ever-expanding and contracting swamp that bisects the ranch from east to west, a waterway sacred to the Seminoles who lived along it.

When Raulerson dies in 1954, he leaves his entire estate to Jo Ann. Her father, Alfred Raulerson, had died in 1938 in a drowning accident when Jo Ann was 8. Her grandfather and grandmother, Annie Louise, had wrested custody of Jo Ann from her mother. Mother Lou and Granddad, as she calls them, raise her, with Mother Lou tutoring her in the Victorian principles of being a lady while Granddad teaches her the ways of cattle ranching and the Florida backwoods.

In 1952, Jo Ann marries TL, a clothing salesman who grew up poor. After a brief stint in the Army, he returns to run the ranch. Over the years, he builds three new block houses and a bunkhouse for the ranch hands. 

He also modernizes equipment for vaccinating and dipping cattle against diseases; is featured as a model rancher in the national ABC television show Discovery; and becomes president of the Florida Beef Council and the Florida Cattlemen’s Association.

After reaching such heights in the cattle industry, he begins a spending spree virtually unmatched on the Treasure Coast: planes, a yacht, a city block in Fort Pierce and a farm in North Carolina, along with various other investments in aviation and real estate. 

Cow Creek Ranch headquarters
This entry into the old Cow Creek Ranch headquarters shows the house Frank Raulerson built for his stays at the ranch at left.

GROWING FAMILY

Diane Robertson and TL Sloan in the 1990s.
Diane Robertson and TL Sloan in the 1990s. ROBERTSON FAMILY ARCHIVES

In addition, with Jo Ann’s knowledge, he is supporting two families from extramarital relationships. In addition to two daughters from Jo Ann, Debra and Kathy, born in 1953 and 1954, he also has a son he fathered with another rancher’s wife, William Thomas “Tee’’ Sloan, born in 1963. In 1970, his relationship with his secretary and later financial manager, Diane Robertson, is revealed, and he eventually lives with her and her three children.

Jo Ann’s upbringing has steeled her emotions, allowing her to quietly endure almost anything. She remains married to TL but spends most of her time at Tellico, the 230-acre farm they purchased in North Carolina in 1970.

Back in Fort Pierce, TL buys the city block on Orange Avenue around Jo Ann’s family home, built by her grandfather in 1922 and where Jo Ann stays when she is in town, and renovates the houses on the block. He builds a corporate office next to the Raulerson house and renovates a house on the east side in which he, Diane and her three children live. He builds a wall around much of it, and family members call it “the compound.’’

To the public, the well of money from the estate Frank Raulerson created for his granddaughter seemed bottomless. But the 1976 sale of Cow Creek gave an indication that the money well was drying up and TL was spending too much money.

“Tommy was her downfall,’’ says Thomas Kindred Sr., who graduated with Jo Ann in the Fort Pierce High School Class of 1948. “She should have never married that boy. He didn’t do anything but spend her money.’’

TL’s primary motivations for selling the main part of the ranch seemed to be to pay off debts he accumulated and to generate cash for investing in his development and aviation interests. The ranch sale incurs a $675,000 tax bill.

“I’ve only seen Mother cry a few times, but when the papers were signed to sell Cow Creek, she cried,’’ daughter Debra says of Jo Ann.

With the ranch sale, TL and Jo Ann net $2.26 million on the total $6.76 million property transfer to neighboring Adams Ranch Inc. for 3,800 acres and Charles Vavrus of Illinois for about 13,200 acres. Vavrus changes Cow Creek’s name to his brand, V-2 [pronounced V Bar Two].

TL and Jo Ann retain ownership of some 2,500 acres of land that comprised the north side of the ranch, where in the 1960s TL had begun a successful citrus grove operation. With the sale of the big part of the ranch, TL and Jo Ann are confronted with what to do with their longtime ranch hands.

One of those hands, Earl Storey, who lived at the ranch with his wife and three children, had already gone to work at another nearby ranch.

TL asks grove manager Curtis Arnold to stay on along with Curtis’ best friend and brother-in-law, Will’um Thomas, who had been working at the ranch since the late 1940s under Jo Ann’s grandfather. TL builds a small house for them at the grove entrance on Orange Avenue, where they can stay during the week and return to their wives at their homes in Okeechobee during the weekends.

Jimmy Percy, who began working at the ranch as a summer cowboy at the age of 14 and became manager, stays on as manager of TL’s other operations.

When Vavrus takes over the ranch, Jimmy recommends that a relatively new ranch hand, Larry Kesner, take over as foreman instead of longtime ranch hand George “Junior’’ Mills, who had worked at the ranch from 1970 up until the time of the sale Oct. 1, 1976.

“Tommy said if you want to stay here this man has promised me he’s going to take care of you,’’ Buddy Mills remembers TL telling his father. Though Junior feels slighted over being passed over for the foreman’s job as he had raised his kids at the ranch and felt it was home, he decides to stay on under Vavrus and work for Kesner. Mechanic Jack Murphy, who also lived at the ranch with his family, moves on to another job.

Robin Robertson Longstreet
Robin Robertson Longstreet with daughter Leighton, named after Thomas Leighton Sloan, at the pool at the compound around 1986. ROBERTSON FAMILY ARCHIVES

A NEW FOCUS

With the largest part of the ranch sold, TL focuses on new and existing business ventures. In 1977, he creates Golden South Airways, a commuter airline using nine-seat Chieftain planes. He’s on the board of First National Bank in Fort Pierce. He also becomes the fixed-base operator at North Carolina’s Macon County Airport near Tellico.

Robin Robertson Longstreet, who was raised by TL and considered him a father, also worked for him at the Cow Creek corporate office he had built at his compound on Orange Avenue, managing his Southern Properties company. She remembers his work ethic in those years.

“He was never one to lay around and not do something,’’ Robin says. “He was dressed every morning and in the office or at the ranch working. We were in that office from 8 o’clock to 5 o’clock every day.’’

One of the goals of Southern Properties was to build affordable housing such as townhouses and duplexes that could attract a workforce to the area. The company’s classifieds in the local News-Tribune boasted: “We have places to rent that can be within everyone’s budget.’’

The strategy of his commuter airline, Golden South Airways, was to connect Fort Pierce with the growing hubs of Orlando and West Palm Beach.

‘‘I thought he was a visionary,’’ says Robin, who named her daughter, Leighton, after TL, whose middle name was Leighton. “The things that have happened in this town were things he talked about and they happened. He was pretty smart.’’

‘THE BOSS’

Donnie Robertson
Donnie Robertson was president of the Future Farmers of America at Okeechobee High School in 1978.

Since shortly after her mother and TL came out publicly in a relationship in 1970, when Robin was 13, she had considered TL a father and called him Dad. Her mother, Diane, had divorced her father, a ranch hand at Cow Creek. Her youngest brother, Darren, also began calling TL Dad.

Not so for their middle brother, Donnie. “I called him The Boss,’’ Donnie says of TL.

“I just kind of kept my mouth shut, kept my head down and went to school,’’ he says. “He just didn’t really care for me, I guess because of my dad.’’

His dad, Don Robertson, worked for King Ranch in Texas after leaving Cow Creek and later for the Seminole Tribe in Florida. Don blamed TL for breaking up his family, a position Donnie shares as well.

Donnie sometimes lived with his dad in Okeechobee and Texas and sometimes lived with his mother and TL at the Orange Avenue compound. His siblings lived full time with TL and their mom. Donnie says TL would rarely address him directly, instead speaking through his mother. 

He remembers going to Okeechobee one Saturday morning to see friends and stopping in to say good-bye to his mother, who was working in the corporate office.

“Tommy walked in, saw me and didn’t address me,’’ Donnie recalls. “He asked my mom, ‘Why don’t you have Donnie clean those leaves out of the pool before he goes?’ The pool was wide open [without a screen] and had leaves in it all the time. It was like he had to find something for me to do, and he didn’t even address me to do it.’’

The friction continued for years. Donnie says that when he was attending Texas A&M University, TL saw a friend of Donnie’s and told him that Donnie was flunking out of school. 

“I didn’t flunk anything, but that’s what he said about me,’’ says Donnie, who has a cutting-edge business in Texas conducting ultrasounds on cattle to determine potential beef quality. “I didn’t understand some of the things he did like that.’’

Brother Darren got along with TL and grew to admire him. Darren says TL gave him a job at the grove and made sure he didn’t receive special treatment. “Anytime I was out there he made sure nobody would take it easy on me because I was his son,’’ says Darren, logistics manager for Guettler Brothers Construction in Fort Pierce. “I was there to work. He would provide for you but he wouldn’t give us money.’’

Darren recalls some of the sayings TL drilled into him: “You fight with a skunk you smell like a skunk; we eat at 6 o’clock, not 6:01; a leopard can’t change his spots; be polite.’’

At dinner, Darren says, the boys were told to always stand until all the girls and ladies are seated. And, he says, all those at dinner had to be prepared to engage in conversation. “He would aggravate you to make sure you were in the conversation and had an opinion.’’

NEED FOR PRESTIGE

While Robin and Darren had grown to call TL Dad, TL’s daughters, Kathy and Debra, were growing to view him more as a caricature. Instead of calling him Dad, they called him TL, a name many of his business associates used for him.

Debra recalls how he’d keep a thick money roll in his pocket, with hundred dollar bills showing on the outside. “I told him why don’t you put them on the inside so somebody doesn’t knock you on the head,’’ she says. “Having money and being prestigious to TL was his life. That’s what he wanted.’’

Kathy Sloan Blanton, who died Oct. 11 as this series was being reported, recalled in interviews earlier this year another difficult relationship TL had with Tee, the son TL fathered from another relationship. 

“He wanted Tee in his life but he never told Tee he loved him,’’ Kathy said. “He always lorded money over him. Nobody was ever good enough for TL.’’

THINGS GO SOUTH

Debra says TL and Jo Ann incurred a $675,000 tax bill from the 1976 Cow Creek sale, with TL continuing to defer payment year after year. 

 “That was pretty stupid because he had enough money; he could pay that tax and be done with it,’’ she says.

At the same time, Southern Properties never became the financial panacea TL was hoping for. Robin says a change in tax laws — the 1986 Tax Reform Act extending depreciating schedules — made the properties unprofitable and they were sold off, often at a loss. 

In addition, the value of property he purchased to create his one-block compound at Orange Avenue, along with other nearby property investments, took a precipitous drop as businesses and churches moved away from the once-thriving Orange Avenue during a time of urban blight. Golden South Airways never really took off, either.

Robin also lays many of TL’s problems on his health. Besides a two-time break in his right leg in 1958 and 1963 that left him with a limp and in chronic pain, he also suffers a progression of illnesses, including kidney cancer, from which he recovered. His medical decline started in 1976 when he unknowingly had a perforated eardrum and treated what he thought was an ear infection with a syringe and solution that caused a stroke. That same year, he also was afflicted with Bell’s palsy, a chronic neurologic disorder that left him paralyzed on one side of his face. 

The illnesses rob him of the handsome countenance he enjoyed as a young man. They also cause balance issues, forcing him to give up flying and boating. He went from occasionally growing a beard to having one all the time to conceal his facial paralysis. 

“He had that disability with the ear and his mouth, and it wasn’t the same as when he was healthy,’’ says friend Bill Yates, well-known Fort Pierce funeral director. “I think it took something out of him.’’

TL and Jo Ann Sloan’s grove property
TL and Jo Ann Sloan’s grove property was purchased by a company controlled by Bernard Egan in 1981. GREGORY ENNS

ANOTHER SALE

Robin also blames some of TL’s financial problems on an accountant’s advice on a tax deferment schedule. “When the economy fell out, he couldn’t sell his properties. The taxes compounded daily and it added up.’’

None of his investments earn enough money to cover expenses, so in 1981 — five years after an injection of cash from selling the home ranch — TL and Jo Ann sell the remaining part of the ranch that had been turned into citrus groves. The land is sold to Pennsylvania Groves for $2,675,000. The company is owned by a partnership controlled by Bernard Egan, whose Bernard Egan & Co. is the largest marketer and shipper of Florida citrus. 

The sale is the last piece of agricultural land that the family owned and which at one time exceed 75,000 acres in the days of Frank Raulerson. 

It also means TL and Jo Ann had to cut ties with their most loyal employees, Will’um and Curtis. Will’um had worked at Cow Creek for Frank Raulerson going back to the late 1940s and Curtis had worked there almost as long. They had married sisters and were also best friends. 

Several of the sons of Cow Creek current and former cowboys had also worked at the grove for Curtis, including Deroy Arnold, Curtis’ son; Buddy and Kent Mills, sons of Junior Mills; and Stevie Arnold, son of former Cow Creek foreman Aubrey Arnold. Diane’s sons, Donnie and Darren Robertson, had also worked for Curtis.

Bernard Egan keeps Curtis on to manage the grove and hires Will’um to work there as well.

EYE ON NORTH CAROLINA

Tellico Trout farm
The opening of the the Tellico Trout farm was featured on the front page of the Franklin Press in 1987

With the sale of the grove, TL turns his sights to the North Carolina farm. Tellico had been Jo Ann’s haven and had become her full-time home after TL began living with Diane. 

In their early years of owning the farm, they raised registered Herefords, but it had been mostly a nonworking, nonincome producing property. However, while recovering from kidney cancer, TL comes up with the idea to create a trout farm using the creek that ran through the property. 

“What he wanted to do was supply processors with fish to make food products,’’ Debra says.

The move requires the installation of expensive raceways, a stepped system to house various sizes of trout. The work takes several years but by the mid-1980s the Tellico Trout Farm is established. Construction costs and improvements to the farm total $1.3 million.

The opening of the new trout farm makes the front page of the Franklin Press on July 3, 1987, and the newspaper quotes TL as saying, “I had no idea when I bought this place that someday I would built a trout farm here, but I wanted to put the farm in
a productive mode.’’

The article says TL designed the facility after visiting other farms. The farm includes 4,000 feet of concrete raceway, which is terraced into 60-foot and 80-foot holding ponds, with water from Tellico Creek flowing through. The article says the farm can produce 1,500 pounds of trout per day.

At first, Debra is brought in to manage the farm and she is eventually hired to manage the business. She tries to work with TL to develop a budget for the farm. “He said, ‘You know, I’ve never learned how to live on one of those,’’ she remembers her father telling her. “I thought, ‘Boy, I’m in trouble.’ ”

the farmhouse at Tellico
The farmhouse at Tellico was built in 1870. When TL and Jo Ann Sloan purchased the house in 1970, it had no electricity or running water. GREGORY ENNS

TL and Jo Ann build a house on the property for Debra, which she later purchases from their corporation, Macon County Investments, the technical owner of the farm.

TL would make occasional visits from Fort Pierce to check on the farm. Sometimes he would bring Diane and her children and grandchildren, with Jo Ann always a gracious hostess.

Sally Richeson, a friend of Jo Ann’s from Fort Pierce, says Jo Ann would handle her personal issues such as her husband taking up with another woman and her financial setbacks in the same way.

“She was stoic,’’ says Sally, who also has a home in North Carolina and would visit Jo Ann at Tellico. “It was like you can just keep on kicking me, but I’m not going to give in. She wouldn’t cry. I never saw her show any emotion. She would just smile and carry on. She just bore up. Maybe losing your parents at an early age and being raised by elderly grandparents gave her some different backbone, I don’t know.’’

Besides Debra joining her mother at Tellico, Kathy’s four daughters also begin living there, after Jo Ann gets custody of them while Kathy fights a long-term drug addiction. Kathy later moves there and reunites with her children during her recovery. Around the same time, Debra says, Jo Ann gives up drinking after a health scare.

Debra says the opening of the trout farm doesn’t solve the family’s financial problems. TL had overspent on building the farm — his raceways were too big for the carrying capacity of the small creek — and leveraged too much to clear any profit. She recalls TL playing a shell game with various banks.

“He’d go to one back to borrow a couple hundred thousand dollars and when that was due he’d go to another bank and borrow another amount of money. He never figured out how to run an enterprise to make money.’’

LOSING HONEY

Honey Sloan
Honey Sloan, the matriarch of the Sloan family, died in 1991.

In early 1991, TL’s mother, Honey Sloan, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The prognosis wasn’t good, and Debra drove down from Franklin to spend time with her. After the death of her husband, Aubrey, in 1979, Honey had moved from their home on Rosedale Avenue in Fort Pierce into a home TL had renovated for her inside the compound.

Honey was the matriarch of the family, the glue that held everyone together and kept things on a light note. Though her given name was Catherine, her granddaughters bestowed the name Honey on her after hearing their grandfather call her that. 

Honey also provided Kathy and Debra the affection they say they weren’t able to get from TL, who was focused more on his own pursuits, and Jo Ann, who was raised not to show emotion.

Debra recalls one night during her visit with Honey when the subject of TL came up.

“I just went down there to visit her because I knew she didn’t have long,’’ Debra says. “She popped me some homemade popcorn that you pop on the stove. She delighted in doing things like that for people. We were sitting in her TV room, and she just looked at me with a really sad expression and said, ‘Your father’s not the man I raised.’ ’’

In his 58 years of life to that point, Thomas Leighton Sloan had risen from a meager beginning, the son of Aubrey Sloan, a disabled railroad inspector, and Honey, who spent many of her years as a newspaper motor carrier. Money and power had changed him since his beginnings with Honey and Aubrey in tobacco country in south Georgia.

“I think they were pretty poor because when he would talk about growing up in Georgia he’d say that they had all those tobacco houses,’’ says Darren Robertson. “When he was a kid, he said they made him catch rats coming into the tobacco houses. He hated rats. I think him being poor he always wanted more. That’s just the kind of guy he was. He always wanted to be out front.’’ 

Aubrey, Honey and their only child, Tommy, eventually move to Melbourne and in 1948, Tommy’s junior year, they move to Fort Pierce, settling in a modest home almost on the railroad tracks on Avenue E. In just two years he had become a star on the football team and class officer and was voted Most Popular Boy in the 1950 class at Fort Pierce High School.

As he grew up, Honey had imbued in her only child a sense that the world was at his feet and that he could accomplish anything. His good looks and self-assurance extended to his relationships with women, where he declared in his senior yearbook that he was a “creampuff for the ladies.’’

As Honey approached the end of life and looked back, TL had been her main accomplishment, rising from a clothing store salesman to marry Jo Ann, St. Lucie County’s richest eligible young woman.

Honey had loved her son unconditionally and instilled an incredible sense of confidence. Along with confidence, he had the gift of charisma and achieved much as a young man. “Tommy was a dynamic personality,’’ friend Bill Yates says. “You couldn’t help but like him.’’

But along the way, TL’s success, access to money and self-confidence manifest itself as narcissism. He not only believed that he could achieve anything, but he also believed that he could have anything: yachts, planes, the best lifestyle, women besides his wife.

“I believe that Honey raised a person that had manners and who was kind and caring — that’s what she tried to instill in him,’’ Debra says. “But I believe his good looks, his charm and his lust for women were his downfall, and the other was he had no idea how to run a business.’’

Nevertheless, TL’s narcissism was tempered with heavy gestures of generosity toward his friends and family. When Deroy got married and was working at the grove, TL built a house for the couple at the grove. When Will’um came down with a mysterious lung ailment, he and Jo Ann arranged to fly him to Duke University Medical Center to be examined. TL and Jo Ann always made sure their ranch hands had three meals a day provided by the ranch and paid them wages above other area ranches. They also allowed some of the hands to keep their own herds at the ranch. 

Buddy Mills says raising the herd and selling it enabled his father, Junior Mills, and mother, ranch cook Betty Mills, to purchase property where they could retire and keep cattle.

“People may throw down on Tommy Sloan, but I tell you this, he was good to my mom and dad,’’ Buddy says. 

As Honey approaches death, she is confronted with what her daughter-in-law had lost over the years at the hands of her son. Because of his unfettered spending, Jo Ann had been forced to sell her beloved Cow Creek and she had lost her husband in all but name. Worst of all, in the months before her death, there were concerns that her son and Jo Ann were in danger of losing the compound to the bank.

Jo Ann was more than a daughter-in-law to Honey. She was a best friend. In the early years, because of their close relationship, many people mistakenly thought Honey was Jo Ann’s mother. Later, as Jo Ann’s hair turned gray and Honey’s stayed dark, people began mistaking them for sisters.

The two were almost inseparable, with Honey stopping by the house on Orange Avenue almost daily after completing her motor delivery route for the afternoon News-Tribune. They sewed shirts together for the Cow Creek ranch unit at the annual Cattleman’s Day Parade. They drank cocktails together. When Jo Ann began spending most of her time in North Carolina, Honey would travel up there to stay with her for weeks. 

So as Debra’s visit with Honey ends, Jo Ann soon travels to Fort Pierce to care for Honey, spending the next nine months with her. Jo Ann is at Catherine Bailey “Honey’’ Sloan’s bedside when she dies May 30, 1991.

ancestral home, the 1920s-era Raulerson house
Jo Ann Sloan lost her ancestral home, the 1920s-era Raulerson house, in a 1991 bank foreclosure. GREGORY ENNS

LOSING THE COMPOUND

Jo Ann’s time with Honey would be one of her last visits to Fort Pierce and the Raulerson house, the 1922 home she grew up in. Five months after Honey’s death, Citizens Federal Savings and Loan forecloses on the Orange Avenue compound.

The Raulerson house had been the site of countless post-Cattlemen’s Parade parties. When he created the compound, TL also built a large pool in the shape of a cloverleaf, the Cow Creek brand. The compound and pool had been the site for many gatherings of family and friends over the years. Robin and Darren both had their wedding receptions there.

“All my birthdays were there because they had that big pool,’’ says Jamie Percy, son of Cow Creek manager Jimmy Percy.

Before the foreclosure, TL and Diane ship much of the furniture from Jo Ann’s grandparents’ house, which included bedroom sets, dining tables, oriental rugs and various other furniture, to North Carolina.

Meanwhile, TL and Diane move to a house on North Indian River Drive in St. Lucie Village purchased by Diane.

Sloan compound on Orange Avenue
The sprawling Sloan compound on Orange Avenue in Fort Pierce was the site of Darren Robertson’s wedding to Alana Conrad in 1983, photo at left, as well as the marriage of Diane’s daughter, Robin Robertson, to James Longstreet in 1988. The compound was the site for many family events over the years. ROBERTSON FAMILY ARCHIVES

THE LAST HOPE

Debra Sloan helped oversee her mother Jo Ann’s affairs the last two decades of her life, which were spent in North Carolina.
Debra Sloan helped oversee her mother Jo Ann’s affairs the last two decades of her life, which were spent in North Carolina.

Jo Ann and TL’s last hope to turn around their fortune lies with Tellico Trout Farm. But the cost to run the farm and maintain the 1800s farmhouse, known as the “big house,” in which Jo Ann is living, far exceed any income coming in. For about a decade, Jo Ann had been raising Kathy’s four daughters at the big house with Kathy living nearby. Debra also helps raise the girls.

Faced with mounting debt, including a $28,000 feed bill when she began managing the farm, Debra says she sold whatever she could to keep the farm going and maintain the house. She first sold a canary diamond ring that TL had given Jo Ann earlier in their marriage, a transaction that yielded $60,000. Then she resorted to selling silver goblets, oriental rugs and some of the furniture of Granddad Frank and Mother Lou that had been shipped to North Carolina. 

When that money was depleted, Debra says she at first leased out the trout farm — with Jo Ann staying in the farmhouse — to two separate companies. When that didn’t solve the money issues, Jo Ann filed personal bankruptcy and bankruptcy for Macon County Investments, the family corporation that owned the farm.

“There wasn’t any way to keep the farm going, because it wasn’t generating any income,’’ Debra says. “It cost $50,000 a year to support the big house. Mother filed bankruptcy because it was the only way to protect her and the farm for as long as possible.”

Debra says TL and Jo Ann still had the $675,000 IRS tax debt from the Cow Creek Ranch sale looming as well as outstanding loans from Riverside Bank in Fort Pierce and a $100,000 private loan against the farm. No longer able to get a conventional bank loan, TL had taken the latest loan out from a private individual.

“He never filed any bankruptcy because Mother owned the lion’s share,’’ Debra says. “I think it was a matter of pride for him.’’

The financial arrangements between TL and Jo Ann were unusual. Deed records from the sale of Cow Creek showed Jo Ann with a 77 percent interest in most of the sections of the ranch and TL with a 22 percent interest. Debra believes the split in ownership of Macon County Investments was similar. 

Even though Jo Ann was the overwhelming majority partner, she always allowed TL to make the business decisions. “It was her money and she allowed him to use it, which was my issue,’’ Debra says.

In her interviews, Kathy put it more bluntly: “He got away with everything but murder. She could have told him no at anytime. He blew an $11 million estate because he had no college or management background or anything like that.’’

Whenever her daughters asked why she allowed her husband to continue going through her money, Jo Ann always responded the same way: “Because I love him and I trusted him.’’

Debra recalls that when Jo Ann filed bankruptcy, TL asked, “ ‘Aren’t you embarrassed about the fact that you had to file bankruptcy and all of these things?’ She straightened up and looked at him and said, ‘I didn’t lose the money.’ That was the first time I heard her speak her truth to him.’’

With the farm hanging in the balance, a new farm lessee showed up about 1993. He is successful Atlanta businessman Michael Macke. 

Macke likes the farm and the family. Before long, he proposes a deal to buy the farm by helping Jo Ann out of bankruptcy and her debts.

“When he stepped in he said he’d just take care of all this,’’ Debra says. “I said that would just be wonderful.’’

The process took several years before the deal for $660,000 was closed in 1995. Though it yielded no cash for Jo Ann, it resulted in her bankruptcy being discharged and her tax issues being settled. For the time being, Macke also allowed Jo Ann to continue living in the farmhouse. Debra’s house and 10 acres on the farm remained under Debra’s ownership.

“That took Mother out of everything, and she continued to live in the big house a couple more years,’’ Debra says.

With the sale, for the first time in her adult life, Jo Ann Raulerson Sloan, once one of the largest landowners in St. Lucie County, doesn’t own property. Anywhere. 

TL, too, is without property, living at the St. Lucie Village home owned by Diane, who was working for a local insurance company. Robin says those years were happy for the couple, who she says were in an exclusive relationship throughout their 26 years together.

TL and Diane
TL and Diane, left, with ever-present German shepherd and visits by family at the house in St. Lucie Village that became their home in 1991. ROBERTSON FAMILY ARCHIVES

“After it was all over and done with he always maintained he was never happier in his life than with him and Mr. [Bill] Padrick up there [at St. Lucie Village] drinking rum and fishing in the river,’’ says Darren Robertson. “He said that once he got rid of everything and lost everything he had never been happier because he didn’t have any more worries. They took everything, he didn’t owe them anymore and he was going to live out his days.’’

Thomas Leighton Sloan lived until Nov. 10, 1996. In the days before his death, he had a visit from Jo Ann, who traveled from North Carolina with her granddaughter, Grace Summerlin, for a visit, staying at the house with TL and Diane.

Before her departure, the 64-year-old TL had a request of the woman who was legally his wife and erstwhile business partner for the past 44 years. Would she grant him a divorce so he and Diane could get married?

Before, TL and Jo Ann had always told family and friends that it would be too expensive and complex to get divorced because of their joint holdings. 

“Jo Ann was always very quiet about” TL’s relationship with Diane, friend Sally Richeson says. “She carried on as though she was his wife and never said a word. I said to Tommy one time, ‘Why are you doing this? Why don’t you divorce Jo Ann and be up front with Diane?’ He said, ‘Financial.’ That was his only comment.’’

When Jo Ann repeatedly was asked over the years why she stayed married her response was always the same: She still loved him.

But on that visit before his death, given his failing health, she agreed to the divorce and headed back to North Carolina.

The divorce and marriage never happened. Three days later, a Sunday, Jo Ann received a call from Diane notifying her that TL had just died of an apparent heart attack.

When TL’s death is announced two days later in The News-Tribune, the obituary lists Diane as his first survivor with her three children and then “his wife, Jo Ann R. Sloan and their children, Kathy Blanton and Debra Ann Sloan, all of Franklin, N.C.; and his son, William Thomas Sloan of Knoxville.’’

Jo Ann, Debra and Kathy make their way back to Fort Pierce for the service at Yates Funeral Home and later a gathering at Diane’s home. Once a family with the deepest of roots in Fort Pierce, they no longer have any ties with TL and with their property gone, they return to their lives in North Carolina. 

JO ANN’S LAST YEARS

After more than a quarter century of living at the Tellico farmhouse, Jo Ann, in the late 1990s, makes the move to a rented doublewide manufactured home in Franklin.

About two years later, Debra hears of a new manufactured home community being developed west of town. She buys the second lot in the development, setting up her mother in the home.

“It was a good place for her,’’ Debra says. “She fixed it up, and it was easy for her to get into town.’’

But that domestic tranquility would only last until 2015. With Jo Ann’s only source of income a $770 Social Security check, Debra had to subsidize her mother’s expenses. “I was supporting two houses on a state employee’s salary,’’ says Debra, who works for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “I couldn’t do it.’’

Debra says she was forced to sell her mother’s home at a $30,000 loss and move her into the Grandview Manor Care Center nursing home in Franklin. As always, her mother’s reaction was stoic, emotionless. She had lost her parents at an early age. In adulthood, she had lost her beloved Cow Creek Ranch, her ancestral home, her prized Tellico, and ultimately her husband to infidelity and death, so why would her reaction be any different?

“At that point she just flowed with it,’’ Debra says. “I said, ‘Mother, I don’t want to do this’ and she said, ‘Well, we have to. There aren’t any other choices.’ ”

At the nursing home, Jo Ann shares a room with another patient. Debra says Jo Ann got into a group of friends who would play poker and do jigsaw puzzles. “She was kind of social, which was unusual for her, but she was put in a position that she had to be.’’

She’d also receive visits from her ever-growing family. Kathy’s four daughters whom she helped raise at Tellico would produce 10 great-grandchildren for Jo Ann. In turn, the great-grandchildren produced eight great-great-grandchildren. The Frank and Annie Lou Raulerson line once at risk of extinction, with Jo Ann the only survivor, was now flourishing.

During her visits with her mother, Debra says she would take her out to eat or go shopping or to stop at a site where they frequently saw bald eagles. The outings became less frequent when Jo Ann began using a wheelchair about 2018. Debra says Jo Ann never complained about the past or expressed any regrets.

But Debra had a lot of regrets about her mother. She wished she could put her in a better facility with her own room. Her mother, she says, deserved better. “There were a lot of things that she lived through that she shouldn’t have had to live through.’’

Debra blames TL for what her mother endured and still harbors resentment toward her father, something she is trying to work through. 

“If I had to sum up Jo Ann, I’d say that she was a woman who was put in most situations that most people would not have been able to deal with well and she dealt with them like a lady,’’ Debra says. “She didn’t complain. I think if I were in her position and I knew what was going on I would have left TL and wouldn’t have given him a dime. But she took it all in stride. I think she just kind of learned from Mother Lou and Granddad that you just have to suck it up.’’

In December 2020, Jo Ann was failing rapidly. The COVID-19 pandemic made visiting her mother difficult. Debra didn’t think her mother would make it until Christmas, so she asked a nurse’s aide with whom she had grown close to call her when the end was near.

“I told her, ‘I don’t want my Mother to die alone, will you please call me?’ ” Debra recalls. “She called me about 3 o’clock in the morning on Dec. 20 and she said, ‘Debra, you need to get here now.’ I made it in there in record time. Mother was in a coma and I just held her and told her that her body was worn out and people were waiting for her on the other side. I was encouraging her to let go. I told her we’d be OK.’’

Jo Ann Raulerson Sloan, 90, died about 9:30 that morning.

The obituary in the local paper wrote about her “graceful exit” and began: “Jo Ann Raulerson Sloan was a lady, and a lady always knows when it’s time to leave.’’

IN THE NEXT ISSUE: THE CONCLUSION

Cow Creek Chronicles writer Gregory Enns shares his journey in reporting the series and visits Cow Creek and

Tellico while also catching up with descendants of the Cow Creek cowboys.

HEAR THE COW CREEK CHRONICLES PODCAST

Listen to the podcast here

Get the Cow Creek Chronicles series

Read the series to date online:

Part 1

Frank Raulerson creates Cow Creek Ranch and develops his granddaughter, Jo Ann, to take it over.

Part 2

Jo Ann and her husband, Tommy, take over the ranch in 1954 when Frank Raulerson dies.
Writer and publisher Gregory Enns shares his link to Cow Creek Ranch.

Part 3

Tommy and Jo Ann buy an old farmhouse in North Carolina while the family undergoes tremendous change. Kathy gets married and has children and Tommy reveals another extramarital relationship. Tommy’s free-spending ways continue, putting Cow Creek Ranch at risk.

Part 4

Financial problems persist for TL and Jo Ann Sloan even after they sell their beloved Cow Creek Ranch.

Part 5

Publishing in the Winter 2023 issue. The conclusion: Cow Creek Chronicles writer Gregory Enns shares his journey in reporting the series and visits Cow Creek and Tellico while also catching up with descendants of the Cow Creek cowboys.

 

See the original article in the print publication

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