Taunia Elick ended up in the travel business because “we needed a bathroom for the girls.”  The girls are her three daughters, now 24, 21, and 19.

When they were small and the family visited the small lake on property Taunia and her husband, John, owned in rural Texas, the girls would complain about the lack of indoor plumbing. In 1998, Tuania bought one of many historic houses in Washington County and had it moved to the lake in Bellville, about an hour and a half northwest of Houston. Once she finished rehabbing the house, the family had not only indoor plumbing at the lake, but also a full kitchen and two comfy bedrooms.

Today, the girls are “old enough to be off the payroll,” says Elick and her Texas Ranch Life www.TexasRanchLife.com guest ranch has grown to eight houses that can accommodate as many as 60 guests at a time. It draws visitors from all over the world who want to experience real cowboy life.

Experiencing the Real Texas

On the ranch, visitors can spend the night, ride horses, catch fish, drive cattle and hunt doves.

A group of 150 Italians booked a day trip to Texas Ranch Life. Taunia and her husband, John, planned to put on a rodeo for them. She was not planning to let the Italians brand a longhorn, but they would be allowed to shoot guns. “I guess they can’t do that in Italy,” Taunia says with a shrug.

Both Elicks are lawyers in town but both seem as though they would much rather be at the ranch. During a recent visit, John, 63, was only half-way through his very thorough explanation of how to mount a horse in a way that doesn’t hurt the horse when his cell rang. He was due in court. “Yeah. I’ll be right there,” he said before hanging up and proceeding with the second half of his lesson and making sure everyone was safely mounted before heading to court. He was back on the ranch an hour later.

The Buffalo Roundup

John is the cowboy, Taunia, 55, is the innkeeper. She has not competed at barrel racing since she became a mother for the first time 24 years ago “and the horses are probably happy about that,” she says.

But she still can round up a buffalo herd, even if it means doing it in a minivan. As she was driving me to the Lakehouse for a tour, she found the ranch’s six buffalo had broken through their pasture fence and were happily grazing in the yard of the Lakehouse. She jumped out of the rented minivan she had borrowed for the drive and ran across the grass waving her arms and yelling at the massive animals. They looked up and, while us city slickers held our breath and wondered whether the buffalo were planning to attack, they started to run—in the other direction, thankfully.

But they weren’t heading back to the pasture, so she jumped in the minivan to herd them in the right direction. The minivan bounced across the prairie and she honked the horn and circled to keep them headed in the right direction. Just when it looked like she would succeed, the buffalo ran across a median that might have been an option for a heavy duty pickup but was no match for the minivan. She gave up and called John, who would head over and finish the roundup.

Building the Guest Ranch

Taunia’s passion is “collecting houses.” She can’t stand to see any of the early 1800s Texas houses torn down and everyone around Washington County knows it. Some of the guest houses at Texas Ranch Life were given to her by others who wanted to save the houses, provided they could be saved on someone else’s land. So Taunia agrees to take the house, calls her house movers and gets the process rolling. She just got a bid to move an old schoolhouse to the ranch for $39,000 and Southwestern Bell charges her $3,000 to drop a phone line for 30 minutes while the house passes by.

Originally the guest houses were weekend retreats where their family and friends stayed when they came to visit. Then she got the idea of finding hour families in Houston and getting each to rent a week at a house each month—sort of a Texas Ranch Life timeshare.

“This is such a wonderful lifestyle,” Taunia says. “But so many people can’t afford to enjoy this lifestyle, so I thought if we could rent the houses for one week a month, it would be relatively easy to do.”

But that never panned out—too many people signed on to rent for a weekend.

Kids’ Reaction

When John and Taunia started their business, the girls “thought we were the biggest hicks,” she says, “until they went to college and started having ranch parties here.”

Between lawyering and running the guest ranch, there’s not much time for anything else. And John doesn’t like to leave the ranch. But Taunia does. She’s just back from Cabo San Lucas and has made John promise that he will take two trips a year with her. They recently spent a night in Beaumont, Texas, for a wedding. “He said that was No. 1 for the year,” she says with a hearty laugh.

Doesn’t matter, though. She’s got those three girls.

“They’re always ready to go with me,” she says.