Denise McGaha wakes up with the sun. There’s work to be done—animals to feed and pastures to fertilize. She and her husband, Scott, hop in their Polaris Ranger and traverse the 20 acres of Decatur land they’ve owned since July 2021, on the lookout for goats that might’ve gotten their horns caught in a fence or a cow that’s escaped its enclosure. They notice a fallen limb that needs to go in the burn pile and a particularly dry patch of grass that could use more water. It all goes on the to-do list for later today.
Welcome to Denise’s version of slow living: intentional and purpose giving, yet anything but leisurely.
Yes, ranch life is a far cry from the world of luxury interiors and headline-grabbing home-collection launches to which the Dallas designer has grown accustomed—but it’s perhaps not as far from her core as you might think. Denise grew up on a ranch in Central Texas and was granted a full scholarship from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo to attend Texas A&M, where she earned an agricultural economics degree. But, she concedes, “I’ve been out of that world since I left home.”
So it was no small surprise when her city-born-and-raised daughter, Jori, found her footing in her high school’s Future Farmers of America organization. Looking for a place to keep Jori’s show cattle, Denise and Scott decamped an hour northwest from Dallas and purchased the 1974 ranch house, which bears a striking similarity—in layout and feel if not exact aesthetics—to the house Denise grew up in. “When I first brought my brother here, he said, ‘You know you’ve just recreated our childhood,’ ” Denise recalls. “I realized then that he was right.”
Though the house was in disrepair when they purchased it, Denise, unafraid of a challenge, decided to restore it rather than raze it—a choice she admits they might’ve rethought with the benefit of hindsight. Two years later, she says, they are “80 percent done with what we had envisioned we were going to do, and 180 percent into the cash that we thought we would spend.”
But the reward is a home with depth and character ingrained into every board and stone. “Anyone who walks in there, it just kind of—I don’t know how to explain it. It has a soul,” Denise says. “It has this feeling when you get there. I worked so hard to keep it. I wish I could describe it. And I have always thought it was because it reminds me of my childhood, but other people that visit are like, ‘Oh my gosh, this place is so special. I know why you love it now.’ ”
Intended as a weekend retreat (though the McGahas find themselves there far more frequently), the property, which they’ve dubbed Flintlock, has given them more than they could have anticipated. During the pandemic, Denise found herself unable to travel and, thus, professionally uninspired. Flintlock has filled that void and then some. “So much of what I’ve designed in the past two years has come from inspiration that I’ve had at Flintlock,” Denise says. She also marvels at how this place has sharpened her perceptive nature, which she credits with making her a skilled designer. “It really heightens your senses even more to live in a world like that,” she notes. “I’m so aware of when the wind blows, what the temperature is, when the rain is going to come, what animal’s acting strange or off.”
But the larger return on investment has been outside of work. Flintlock has given the McGaha family—which includes kids Jaxon, 22, and Jori, 20—a sense of balance. Whereas in Dallas, Denise and Scott’s professional lives keep them busy round the clock—with her eponymous design firm and the orthodontic laboratory he owns—here, they don’t check their watches, and they make a point to leave their day jobs at the door. Whereas in Dallas, Denise is a fixture at glamorous industry events and openings, here, she may wear the same clothes two days in a row without thinking twice.
Flintlock has also given them a sense of belonging, a community. Their neighbors have become close friends, lending a hand by day when a well freezes or loaning a piece of equipment, then convening in evenings to enjoy dinner, spectacular sunsets, and conversation. “It’s a tight-knit group,” Denise says. “It’s like we were meant to be there.”