HUNTSVILLE Ralph Baker has been buying land longer than he's been sheriff, at least since 1967. In large part, he has been dealing with old friends, acquaintances and neighbors, buying and selling judiciously, usually at a profit.
Over the years, often in partnership with relatives, he has bought about 2,400 acres, for which he paid about $484,250, nearly all cash, or traded other land. He has been involved in transactions to sell at least 1,092 acres, receiving about $319,000. Again, he and relatives received land instead of money in some deals, and some acreages moved back and forth among family members.
Baker and his partners now own at least 1,450 acres, mostly in southern Madison County, valued at $227,865, according to tax records. Most of that land is taxed on its value for agricultural use. It would bring far more than its tax value on the market.
Baker won't talk about his land. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reviewed mortgage, deed and property tax records in Madison, Carroll, Franklin, Sebastian and Washington counties. The newspaper examined more than 200 documents.
The records paint a picture of an astute businessman who aggressively bought low and sold high.
"A lot of people don't have the money to meet their light bill, much less buy a piece of property," said Kenneth Baker, a cousin and frequent partner in land deals. "A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck and day to day. I've never been satisfied doing that, and I'm reasonably sure Ralph hasn't either."
The sheriff's acumen has other admirers.
"He does pretty good for himself for an old country boy," said Berrian Brashears of Clinton, who sold Ralph Baker, Kenneth Baker and another cousin, Bob Baker, a tract of old family land for $7,000 in 1986. Brashears said he attended school with Ralph Baker and has known him for decades. "But I have no idea how he obtained [all] the land. I wouldn't even venture to guess."
Four months after the Bakers bought the tract from Brashears, they sold it to James and Margaret Cornett of Little Rock for $15,000.
"I think real estate's a good investment. That's a legitimate way of making money as far as I'm concerned," Margaret Cornett said. She didn't begrudge Baker and his cousins their profit.
Neither did Jack Lackey of Combs, who sold 5.19 acres to the three Bakers for $4,000 in 1986, then paid $6,000 when he "just wanted it back" in 1989.
"They had to make money off of it," he said.
Assessor Edward D. "Buck" Ham, who partnered with Baker to buy 120 acres in 1987 and then to sell them nine years later, said Baker is simply a good businessman who knows how and when to buy and sell.
He started doing that in 1967, Democrat-Gazette research shows, with the acquisition of 25 acres from Bobby and Mildred Gulledge, a couple he's continued to make deals with over the years.
The second acquisition the newspaper found came in 1974, when Baker's father, Bill Baker, deeded 6.23 acres to his son. The land included "my home place," says the deed, signed by Bill Baker.
Most of Baker's transactions have occurred since 1982, with bursts of activity in the late 1980s and 1992-94. In the last two years, those transactions have involved selling, rather than buying.
"Getting old," said Kenneth Baker.
It could also have something to do with land prices, which can vary widely.
"Up here right now ... don't put a price on anything unless you want to sell it," said Kenneth Baker. "Somebody's going to come along and buy it. It's one of the last places where you can get a little privacy."
The newspaper's search of records found just one transaction that involved Baker borrowing money.
Along with his wife, Noreta, and Kenneth Baker, the sheriff signed a mortgage in 1980 for $8,000, secured by 68 acres of land the two cousins had just acquired for $17,000. Kenneth Baker later sold his share to Ralph and Noreta for $10,000, and the Bakers sold the land to Casondra LeMay of Kansas City, Mo., for $20,000 in 1989.
Kenneth Baker said he and his cousin were lucky enough and resourceful enough to come up with the cash they needed.
"I've always had a few bucks, and Ralph has, too," he said. "My dad left me some money, and his left him some. Most of these, probably if you'd put them in a chronological order, there's not been that much money made off of them down through the years. We've traded the money on the one hand for the next land on the other hand, and it's built up a little bit down through the years."
Another secret is avoiding long-term debt, he said. "I try to never have any bills. I don't owe anything, and I haven't owed anything in years."
The family's well-established ties in the community help as well.
"Ralph's dad was a very well-thought-of man here. ... My folks were too, and we know so many people," he said. "We might not have had the money but we had access to the money. ... If they wanted to sell something, we managed to come up with the money for it."
Most of Ralph Baker's later transactions involve the R&N Baker Trust, established, apparently in June 1988, with his wife.
One of the transactions is the partnership with Ham and his wife, Margie. In 1987, the two county officials and their wives had bought 120 acres of timberland from Minsie Leathem, the widow of former Sheriff Noah Leathem, for $8,000. Ham said he asked the Bakers in because "I had just bought some other land and didn't have the money."
The Hams put their half of the land into a trust in 1988, and in 1993 the Bakers sold their half-interest to the Ham trust for $4,000. Less than a year later, in February 1994, the Ham trust sold a half-interest to the R&N Baker Trust, again for $4,000.
In 1996, the Hams and Bakers sold 40 of the 120 acres to Phillip McGarrah Jr. and Phillip McGarrah Sr. A notice of escrow documenting the transaction does not indicate a price. However, revenue stamps on the sale of the remaining 80 acres to Dr. F. Allan Martin and Debbie Martin of Fayetteville indicate the Bakers and Hams got $39,000 -- a 628 percent increase in the per-acre price.
"Boy, that sure is a nice deal," said Dr. Martin, told of the dramatic increase. He said he wasn't aware of any reason for the price to increase so much. "I wish I could come up on something like that."
Still, he said, the price seemed in line with other land he looked at. "It's tremendously lower than things closer in to Fayetteville, where I live," he said.
Martin said the land remains unimproved, "just woods."
Ham said the property value increased because of an easement -- the right to cross other property to access the land -- acquired before it was sold to the Martins and McGarrahs.
McGarrah Sr. said the Hams and Bakers are "good people to do business with." He said he wants to clear some of his land and raise cattle on it. It's also a "heck of a good hunting spot."
Baker's biggest transaction occurred two years ago. The R&N Baker Trust bought 744 acres in the St. Paul area from a general partnership, Crawford Brothers, in November 1995. Senior partner Robert G. Crawford said Noreta Baker wrote him a $200,000 check.
He said he didn't know how the Bakers got the money: "I kind of had a feeling it was from her family. I didn't pursue it."
Baker declined to say whether he and Noreta had family money to work with. But a check of probate records in Madison County shows no evidence of an inheritance by either. Noreta Mae Burrell's family was from Benton County. Probate records there show a $10 inheritance from the estate of Joseph Sphere Burrell in September 1963.
Kenneth Baker said the lack of a formal record of Ralph Baker's inheritance is a reflection of Bill Baker's distrust of banks.
"Ralph's dad was kind of like my dad," he said. "They were old-timers. Both of them lost money in the banks when the banks folded in the '20s, '30s."
After that, the two generally kept their money in their pockets, he said.
Crawford, whose parents knew Ralph Baker's father, said his deal with the Bakers was one of several involving family property. He approached Baker because he had heard the sheriff was in the market for property in the area.
"I wanted to give people who lived there the first chance," he said. "I went to some people, and Ralph was one. I knew he bought land. ... The question I had was what is Ralph going to do with it."
Crawford said the tract contains some bottom land that had been farmed, but that it is mostly mountain, suitable only for hunting. The timber there was harvested 20 years ago.
Much of Baker's land -- and much of southern Madison County -- is heavily wooded. Land there is most commonly used for hunting, timber production or, after clearing, pasture.
The lumber and wood-products business is a major source of employment, according to census records. Arkansas Forestry Commission figures show Madison County produced 111,557 tons of hardwood and 11,502 tons of pine in 1996. And the Cooperative Extension Service reported early this year that county livestock producers had 66,000 head of cattle and 32,000 hogs and pigs.
Baker's second-biggest transaction involved a land-for-land trade with the federal government. In 1992, Baker and his cousins swapped 320 acres for 284 acres of U.S. Forest Service land.
Such swaps are not common, but they fit in with the Forest Service's policy of trading to acquire land that is already surrounded by or adjacent to the forest. Baker's former property became part of the Ozark National Forest.
Forest Service documents on the sale indicate the agency estimated the values of the swapped land to be equal.
A much smaller transaction gave Baker his living room back.
In March 1987, Louann Wheeler, an elderly widow, went to court to win clear title to about four acres of land in southern Madison County. Over the years, confusion had arisen over the property line. The Bakers, owners of adjoining land, were two of the defendants, although the case file contains no indication that they or anyone else contested Wheeler's claim.
Ten days after the court order, Mildred Gulledge bought Wheeler's land for $6,000. The same day, she and her husband sold it to the Bakers, again for $6,000.
Gulledge said she wanted the Wheeler property, but then realized that, because of the confusion over property lines, it took in the living room of Baker's house. She said Wheeler hadn't wanted to sell to Baker. "I sold it to him without her knowledge," she said.
Wheeler said she didn't remember Baker ever wanting to buy the land. Wheeler also said she didn't recall filing the lawsuit.
An auto body shop figured in the quick profit that Baker and his cousins turned on the land they bought from Berrian Brashears.
In January 1985, Dr. James Kelly Cornett of Little Rock, his sisters and their spouses gave about 10 1/2 acres in southern Madison County to their cousin, Brashears, and his wife, Reta.
The Brashears couple sold the tract to the three Bakers for $7,000 in February 1986. Then, in June, the Bakers sold the land back to the Cornetts -- for $15,000.
James Cornett died last spring. His wife, Margaret, said she and her husband bought back the land they had given away because they were concerned the business would place junk cars next to the family cemetery.
"We didn't realize he [Brashears] ... sold it to the Baker boys, the three Bakers, and they were going to sell it to someone we understood was going to put a used-car junk pile on that land."
Neither she nor Brashears knew who wanted the land for the shop. Kenneth Baker said he doesn't recall, either.
Cornett said Baker is a distant cousin who leases land from the Cornett family. "That's why Ralph really almost had to sell it to us, because he knows how much that land means to us, and all the family is buried up there in that Brashears Cemetery.
"So he made a profit. There were three Bakers, so they each wanted $5,000."
Said Brashears of Dr. Cornett: "He wanted the land back so bad that he would have paid any price for that. It all boils down to the fact that they did not want any outsider owning land on that farm. ... I'm sure you wouldn't want a bunch of wrecked cars 20 foot from your folks' grave."
The deal was like many others -- the profit "wasn't spectacular," Kenneth Baker said.
"Some of the two- and three-way deals, you might make a couple of thousand dollars each off of it," he said.
"It was play money, not serious money. If you gather all this stuff up, probably if you figure it all out, I've probably made 50[,000] or 100,000 dollars off of land transactions over 30 years," he said. "We're not talking about much money."
Information for this article was contributed by staff writer Michael Whiteley.