Buying River with Back Taxes

Learn how one family bought a piece of river by paying back taxes and how you can do it too.
By Mable Scott
March/April 1971
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Your home is a beautiful place to relax and enjoy nature.

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What's wrong with having a river run through your back yard? "Easier said than done," you're probably thinking . . . but it wasn't so hard in our case.

About once a year our local paper advertises lots, plots and acreage on which back taxes are due. Usually this land is available for the taxes and advertising costs; occasionally the parcels are auctioned. We cut out the legal descriptions of any plots up for sale and hie ourselves to the county map at the county tax assessor's office or on the wall of an abstracting firm. When we have the lots located we select the ones we want and purchase them.

In one particular transaction, our five 25' X 150' lots turned out to be partly in the North Canadian River . . . a small matter since there is still sufficient terra firma for the granting of a building permit and public utilities (if desired) are less than a block away. This for a princely investment of $100, fifteen dollars more for costs and annual taxes of $1.14 on the bare lots.

Town lies south of the five plots but no neighbors are close enough to make us feel crowded. North—beyond the river—is farming and grazing land. East and west, which we are free to roam as far as our underpinnings will carry us, is the North Canadian River.

In its heyday the North Canadian swelled with the spring rains and roared through the countryside tearing out bridges. Now, with flood control dams, it has become a delightful pussycat of a river and is always interesting and enjoyable.

After heavy rains, a small dam twenty miles upstream lets out considerable water and bevies of catfish come swarming up from the larger dam fifty miles downstream. It's not unusual to catch 5 to 10-pound cats on bankpoles during such times; Some are channels, some blue cats and some flatheads. Any are tasty morsels when rolled in flour and cornmeal and fried to a golden brown.

As the water recedes, the cats hang to the deeper pools where you can fish for them with a rod and reel, cane pole or trot line. There are also carp, white bass and acres of perch and gar (that saw-toothed, snaky-looking fish which is, nonetheless, edible) in the river.

When the water is running shallow and clear we pack a lunch and wander up or down the river bed. There's always something interesting around the next bend: Racoons come to fish from logs that have fallen in the sandy spots; deer from the state park (about four miles downriver of our lots) come to drink; rabbits and quail abound in the underbrush along the shaded banks and wild turkeys migrate in flocks along the stream.

High or low, the river offers even more entertainment: When the water is down we can have cookouts on the silvery sand . . . if the current is up we might ride an old innertube miles downstream to a spot where we can be picked up by the family car.

We'll money-grub a little longer until our three teenagers have finished their educations but—in the near future—we plan to build a small house on our lots, raise a garden and relax. Our children (adopted when they were babies) are Irish-Indian and all have a natural affinity for nature. The whole family may end up on the riverbanks after they get out of college.

If you have little money and a large hunger for land, try consulting your local tax sales. Maybe, like us, you too will wind up owning part of a river. It's a can't lose proposition: If the former owner suddenly decides to pay the taxes due during the year grace period he has after you take possession, he'll also have to reimburse you everything you've spent on it before he can reclaim the property. They seldom do this.

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