Pierre, S.D. If this were a movie, nobody would believe it: A rancher struggling to eke out a living in one of the poorest corners of America claimed one of the biggest undivided jackpots in U.S. lottery history Friday — $232 million — after buying the ticket in a town by the name of Winner.
Neal Wanless, 23, said he intends to buy himself more room to roam and repay the kindness other townspeople have shown his family.
“I want to thank the Lord for giving me this opportunity and blessing me with this great fortune. I will not squander it,” he promised, wearing a big black cowboy hat and a huge grin.
Wanless, who is single, lives with his mother and father on the family’s 320-acre ranch near Mission, where they raise cattle, sheep and horses. They don’t own a phone, a mobile home of theirs was repossessed last year, and records show they have fallen $3,552 behind in their property taxes.
Wanless bought $15 worth of tickets to the May 27 30-state Powerball drawing at a convenience store in Winner during a trip to buy livestock feed. He will take home a lump sum of $88.5 million after taxes are deducted.
The Wanless home stands in a grove of trees in Todd County, home to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. It was the nation’s seventh-poorest county in 2007, according to the Census Bureau.
Dave Assman, who owns farmland next to the Wanless ranch, said he is happy the family won’t have to worry about money any more. “They’ve been real short on finances for a long time,” Assman said. “They are from real meager means, I guess you’d say.”
“I hope they enjoy their money,” said county assessor Cathy Vrbka, a family friend. “They work hard, backbreaking hard work.”
Wanless’ father, Arlen Wanless, 54, has made a living in recent years mainly by buying and selling scrap metal, but his fortunes dropped with the price of iron, said Dan Clark, an auctioneer from Winner and a friend of more than two decades.
The younger Wanless told lottery officials that he spent the last week working on the ranch and that he intends to continue that lifestyle, albeit on a larger piece of land. According to lottery officials, he recently told his horse, Eleanor, “It’d be nice if we go for a longer ride than usual on a bigger ranch of our own.”
An Oregon family turned $40 worth of tickets into $340 million Powerball prize in 2005, and at least four other winners collected larger jackpots than Wanless’ prize.