Margaret Medders’ final departure from the tiny North Texas town of Muenster on an unseasonably warm day last January was a far cry from her ostentatious arrival 50 years earlier.

As the wind blew through the cemetery just east of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, about two dozen mourners –– a handful of relatives estranged and otherwise, a few long-suffering friends, and the simply curious –– watched as Margaret was laid to rest in the ground made soggy by rain the day before, alongside two of her three husbands and two of her eight children.

Five decades earlier, the crowds had been just as curious but exponentially larger, when the Medderses brought their six-year circus and soap opera to this small, conservative, heavily German Catholic burg. Their run ended with lawsuits, jail terms, and recriminations, but it started with Cadillacs, champagne, and diamonds. Along the way, a whole lot of farmers, ranchers, and merchants in the flat, near-treeless Red River Valley got fitted for tuxedos, introduced to the civil rights movement, and taken to the cleaners. A president, a governor, and famous entertainers came to visit. And all of it flowed from the head-spinning arrival of Margaret and her second husband, Ernest Medders, that strange Tennessee couple with all those kids –– and all that money. Especially the money.

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Ernest, 52, was a dark, slender, 6-foot-plus man who looked like a cross between Johnny Cash and comic cowboy actor Slim Pickens, in horn-rimmed glasses. Ernest was a slow talker, a third-grade dropout who could neither read nor write and apparently suffered from dyslexia, an affliction that few had even heard of in the 1960s. Back in Tennessee he’d been a mechanic’s assistant. When he moved to Texas, he developed a taste for alligator boots, Western-style suits, and cowboy hats with the side brims pointed almost straight up in a sort of rodeo clown fashion.

His wife was eight years younger and clearly the brains of the outfit. At 5’ 2” and 125 pounds, Margaret was matronly and plain. She could go from kind, motherly, and gracious one minute to cold, insulting, and demanding the next, the mood swings fueled by what family members say was manic depression.

Mostly what Margaret was, though, was in charge — and woe unto those who underestimated her. She knew what she wanted and wasn’t shy in going about getting it. What Margaret wanted was simply the best of everything. If she had little idea at first what actually constituted “the best,” she knew enough to pay good money to those who did.

The Medderses’ combination of unsophisticated backgrounds and apparently unlimited funds drew comparisons to the 1960s television sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. “These people had nothing on the Clampetts,” said one long-time Muenster resident who did business with the family and went to their parties. The couple built a house that was a veritable mansion by Muenster standards, complete with a cement pond, and flew in fancy stuff from Neiman Marcus in Dallas for their parties and Margaret’s wardrobe.

Rumor around town was that their wealth was based on oil. But in the fictional Clampett story, the oil was real. As it turned out, with the real Medders family, it was the oil that was fictional. The only gusher they had tapped into was OPM –– $3 million of other people’s money. Stranger still, most of the money came from an order of nuns in Indiana.


The Medderses began their run of conspicuous consumption in 1961 –– a lifestyle, as documented later by the Associated Press, both foreign and off-putting to many of their new neighbors.

They began by buying a piece of property on the edge of town and hiring a local contractor to build a two-story colonial-style 8,000-square-foot residence with seven bedrooms and seven full bathrooms, one of them outfitted with a bidet –– something most folks in Muenster at the time wouldn’t have known whether to use for spitting, drinking, or, well, whatever. They filled the house with new furniture and had wide, colorful beds of chrysanthemums and other flowers planted along the circular driveway.

During their first few weeks in town, the Medderses leased several vehicles, including a maroon Cadillac Coupe de Ville for Margaret, with personalized license plates that read “Mrs MM.”

And while Ernest may have looked goofy in his dude ranch duds, no one could say he was all hat, no cattle. The Medderses became overnight ranchers. Shortly after the house was finished, they began buying championship-quality livestock. With the help of Margaret’s son Eugene Riggs, they developed successful breeding programs for Appaloosa horses and Angus cattle.

The huge main barn, also constructed from scratch and at considerable expense, doubled as a party and banquet hall, equipped with air-conditioning, a kitchen, an office, a removable wooden dance floor, and a crystal chandelier. The structure could seat up to 1,000 guests for the couple’s frequent, lavish celebrations.


  1. Great article Steve. I worked with a district Alabama Judge in the private sector on up-dating the heirship claim to The Estate of Pelham Humphries from 1986 until the time of his sudden illness and death in August of 1993. The old judge, as an attorney, had taken over the claim after W. T. Weir whom everyone in my family knew as ‘Old Barefoot’ because he sat in his wheelchair in his sock feet to practice law. The old judge always stated in private and in public that the KEY to Ernest and Margaret Medders being able to draw that money from The Catholic church was for two reasons. First, Margaret found out about the money coming to St. Josephs from the Spindletop accounts while she was snooping around on the night shift at St. Josephs in Memphis. Second, Ernest knew all about the claim through his first marriage prior to his marriage to Margaret. Do you know anything about Ernest’s first marriage? I knew about the newspaper article that originated in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I was told that the lawyer behind that took in alot of money and moved to South America??? I wrote two books about Spindletop following the old judge’s untimely death.
    He was planning on retiring from the bench and filing as administrator of The Pelham Humphries Mineral Estate. He stated this at many public meetings. Death prevented his dream. Up-date…there is a suit pending to be filed in Beaumont, Texas (May 21, 2012) styled Wayne Hodge vs. State of Texas, Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office and
    the descendants of W. P. H. McFadden. This might be worth watching if it is litigated. My interest is that my ancestors were summoned by The President of The United States, William McKinely in July of 1901 as heirs of Pelham Humphries. We WON and were granted leave to amend per Case 512 CL90 in Jefferson, Texas (Marion County) in September of 1901. Something happened and the old judge told us that our case is still open in State Court. I have worked two jobs most of my life and assure you that, unlike Ernest and Margaret Medders, I have never received any money from Spindletop. Oh by the way, if the current case goes to court, there is a MEDDERS claim that will probably intervene. These folk contacted me recently as to any knowledge I have that would help them They seem to be nice people but are claiming under a one-eighth unrecorded drilling document.
    Again, great article Steve. Sincerely, Jackie Carroll 205 410-5799

  2. My grandmother was friends with Margaret Medders when they lived in the Hometown Subdivision south of Memphis. My mother and I went to visit them later when they were living in the housing project, Lauderdale Courts. I was impressed because that was where Elvis used to live, but they were pretty hard up because she was working as a nurse’s aide and even though Earnest was a mechanic, he had a bad back and wasn’t working. I was a teenager at the time, but my mother took them a few gifts for their kids because she knew their money was tight and they didn’t get many luxuries. I found it so amazing when I later heard about all that happened to them and their move to Texas.

    Not that it matters, and I don’t know about Earnest, but I do know that Margaret was always a Catholic.

  3. Oh how interesting. It’s so unusual for a very poor person to be so greedy & flamboyant.
    Maybe I’ve just never known anyone that obtains such an opportunity. I remember it well when ther Medderes air castle burst. I am from Montague County & it was mesmerizing. Apparently Margaret Medders had no consicience. She had lots of gall!

  4. I was told many years ago that a Medders drilled 1st well of Spindletop. That we was heirs and not received payout? My Grandmother was a Medders.
    My late X husband was 5th generation from Pelam
    Humphries. They never received a payout. It’s interesting history. My Great Grandmother was a Yates I also heard they were very wealthy from oil.
    Love history. If you have any info on any of this
    love to hear from you.