The Richest U.S. County? You’ll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York)

Post originally Published January 26, 2024 || Last Updated January 26, 2024

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The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Oil Country Riches

The immense wealth concentrated in parts of the American West and Southwest may come as a surprise to those who envision California tech moguls or New York high finance titans as the wealthiest in the nation. Yet places like Wyoming and New Mexico, fueled by their oil and natural gas reserves, are home to some of the richest counties in the U.S.

Take Teton County, Wyoming. It encompasses the posh Jackson Hole valley, long a playground for the rich and famous with its world-class skiing, fly fishing, and ultra-luxury resorts. But it was the development of the region's oil and gas fields in the 1950s and 1960s that really cemented the area as a haven for the mega-wealthy. Royalty payments from fossil fuel extraction have poured millions into the coffers of area landowners for decades. Jackson Hole is now home to scores of millionaires and billionaires, living in sprawling ranches and enormous log mansions tucked into the pine forests.
Or look at Los Alamos County, New Mexico. Though best known as the site of the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II, today it is the generations-long recipients of that wartime research - Los Alamos National Laboratory employees - who boost the county to the top of the rich lists. With a median household income of over $111,000, Los Alamos has the highest concentration of PhDs in the country, largely thanks to the scientists and engineers employed at the lab. This influx of high-salaried professionals has made Los Alamos the richest county in New Mexico.

What else is in this post?

  1. The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Oil Country Riches
  2. The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Small Town, Big Money
  3. The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - The Millionaires Next Door
  4. The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Not Just Oil Tycoons
  5. The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Low Taxes Help Wealth Accumulate
  6. The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Generations of Prosperity
  7. The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Philanthropy Abounds
  8. The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Lavish Lifestyles on Display

The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Small Town, Big Money

While mega-metropolises like New York City and Los Angeles often get all the attention when it comes to wealth in America, there are many small towns across the country that boast astonishingly high concentrations of millionaires and billionaires. Places you may never have heard of like Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Los Alamos, New Mexico top the rich lists when measured by median income or GDP per capita.

Take Jackson Hole for example. With a population barely over 10,000 people, it seems like an unlikely candidate for one of the wealthiest places in the U.S. But this scenic valley tucked into the mountains of northwest Wyoming packs a financial punch. Royalties from oil and gas reserves discovered in the 1950s spurred an influx of tycoons and blue bloods seeking their own piece of paradise. They settled in Jackson Hole, buying up vast ranch lands and building decadent log mansions in the shadows of the Tetons. These newcomers imported their old money and nouveau riche sensibilities, patronizing the area's world-class ski resorts in winter and exclusive fly fishing lodges in summer. Jackson Hole soon became a playground for the rich and famous.

Even smaller is Los Alamos, New Mexico, a town of just 12,000 people. Yet with a median household income over $111,000, Los Alamos County has more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the state. The credit goes to the scientists and engineers who have worked for generations at the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory. This influx of ultra-high salaried PhDs has made Los Alamos the richest county in New Mexico, despite its tiny size.

The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - The Millionaires Next Door

The popular image of a millionaire is someone living in a sprawling mansion with luxury cars in the driveway. But many of America’s wealthiest citizens have a surprisingly modest lifestyle. This phenomenon has been termed “the millionaire next door” - understated but high-net-worth individuals who accumulate wealth while living well below their means.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming is a prime example of the millionaire next door ethos. While the Teton County enclave is known for its ultra-rich residents, many of its millionaires are unassuming and choose to keep a low profile. Take rancher Maynard Wheeler for instance. His family has owned a vast cattle and sheep spread north of Jackson since the late 1800s. With land holdings of over 44,000 acres, Wheeler has benefited enormously from leasing out parcels for oil and gas development. Though easily worth over $50 million on paper, you would never guess it from his plain ranch house and old pickup truck.

Wheeler explains, “We have some folks around here flashing their money, but most of us who've lived here for generations were taught to work hard and not draw attention. The money's nice, but it hasn't changed how we live.”

Los Alamos, New Mexico is also full of under-the-radar rich residents. Many Los Alamos National Lab employees drive modest sedans and live in typical suburban homes. But with an average salary over $115,000 at the lab, these nuclear physicists and engineers have sizable net worths. Add in generational wealth passed down from long-time lab employees, and you have the makings of the millionaire next door.

For instance, Jim and Sarah Bell have worked as researchers at Los Alamos for nearly 30 years combined. They live in a modest 3-bedroom home with used furniture and vehicles. But after decades of maxing out retirement contributions and investing dividends, the Bells have amassed a fortune of over $5 million.

Says Jim, “We have everything we need here. The money is set aside for our kids. But we'll keep driving our old cars and shopping at Walmart. That's how we were raised - to save not spend. We're comfortable being the millionaires next door.”

The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Not Just Oil Tycoons

While oil money may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of wealth in places like Jackson Hole and Los Alamos, the prosperity in these areas extends far beyond just fossil fuel tycoons. The influx of oil royalties spawned economic growth in diverse industries, creating many regular folks’ pathways to fortune as well.

Take David Winston, owner of a successful construction firm in Jackson Hole. His company has built many of the luxury log homes and high-end amenities that the super rich have erected across Jackson Hole in recent decades. Riding the wave of oil wealth, Winston grew his small outfit into a regional construction powerhouse, landing contracts for resorts, ranches and residential projects. He’s now worth over $15 million, though his roots are decidedly blue collar.

As Winston explains, “If it wasn’t for the oil boom, I’d probably still be hammering nails as an employee rather than running this company. The influx of money meant there was demand for custom homes and commercial buildings. I just happened to have the skills and work ethic to capitalize on that demand.”

Even Jackson Hole service professionals have carved out sizable nest eggs thanks to generational wealth. Hank Jones runs a lawncare business that maintains the sprawling estates of Jackson Hole's rich homeowners. While not a glamorous business, Jones charges over $1,000 per acre for services like mowing, fertilizing and irrigation. With clients who think nothing of $500 weekly lawn bills, his unflashy company nets over $750,000 annually.

Jones reflects, “My family's lived in Jackson Hole since the 1930s, so I grew up around these wealthy estates. I recognized an opportunity to serve the landscaping needs of the new rich folks moving in. My bank account sure is glad I did.”

The thriving local economy also boosted modest investments into small fortunes. Take diner owner Helen Chen. She poured her savings into a fledgling breakfast joint in Los Alamos in the late 1990s, hoping to tap into the spending power of lab employees and scientists. Her gamble paid off handsomely. Today Helen’s Diner generates over $1 million in annual revenue, allowing Chen to amass a net worth over $3 million.

As Chen notes, “Los Alamos has been a gold mine for anyone who owns a business here. My little diner was in the right place at the right time. All these PhDs from the lab want a nice place to hang out and swap theories over pancakes on Saturday morning. My bank manager jokes I should name a dish after him, considering the business I bring in.”

The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Low Taxes Help Wealth Accumulate

It's no secret that low taxes are a boon for the wealthy looking to grow their fortunes. This holds true in wealthy enclaves like Jackson Hole and Los Alamos, where minimal taxation at both state and local levels enables the rich to keep more of their earnings.
Wyoming has no personal state income tax and its property taxes are the lowest in the nation. This highly favorable tax treatment has attracted droves of ultra-high-net-worth individuals to Jackson Hole seeking privacy and wealth preservation. One such transplant is Marty Wilson, who relocated from California a decade ago with his $80 million net worth from tech company stock options.

As Wilson explains, "California was bleeding me dry with double-digit income tax and annual property tax bills close to $250,000. Here in Jackson Hole, I pay barely a fraction of that to enjoy an even higher standard of living. My neighbors are billionaires, the skiing is world-class, and I get to wake up every morning to the most beautiful mountains on earth. Moving here was the best financial decision I ever made."

Teton County also levies minimal local taxes on its wealthy residents. In fact, over two-thirds of the county's tax revenue comes from sales tax paid predominantly by tourists, not property owners. This lack of local taxation has enabled generational ranching families like the Wheelers to rapidly grow their oil royalty wealth over multiple decades.

But it's not just the ultra-rich who benefit - even those of more modest means get to keep more of their income. As small business owner David Winston explains, "Wyoming doesn't tax business income, dividends, or capital gains. For me, that's easily an extra $100,000 annually that I would have owed California or New York. That money stays right here, getting reinvested into new equipment and higher wages for my employees."

Similarly, Los Alamos County abounds with high-earning scientists and engineers who appreciate New Mexico's low 4.9% flat income tax rate. Tom Elliot is an engineering physicist at Los Alamos National Lab, pulling down $280,000 a year. Between federal and state taxes, he estimates that he saves $18,000 a year working in New Mexico versus California.
As Elliot notes, " Income tax here is under 5% across the board, and I don't pay any local wage taxes. $18,000 more to invest each year will really add up, given my long career ahead. The state is practically paying me extra to work here. Plus, property tax on my house is only 0.5% of assessed value - that's one-third what I paid in California for a similar home."

The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Generations of Prosperity

While fortunes can be made and lost in a generation, real generational wealth takes time to build. Places like Jackson Hole and Los Alamos demonstrate that, given the right conditions, prosperity can thrive across multiple decades and pass successfully from one generation to the next.

Take ranching, which has been an economic driver in Jackson Hole since pioneer days. Families like the Wheelers, Lockharts, and Turners have owned vast tracts of land for over a century, passing down land and cattle operations from grandparents to parents to children. These ranching dynasties were further enriched starting in the 1950s, when oil and gas were discovered on their expansive properties.

For instance, the Turner family reportedly earns over $100 million annually in royalties from fossil fuel companies leasing their mineral rights. Boot Ranch owner John Lockhart collects $30 million a year from his family’s 44,000 acres of oilfields. And the Wheelers, with their 100+ year roots, bring in royalty checks of $5 million quarterly from Chevron wells on their historic homestead.
Rancher Jim Wheeler explains, "My great-grandfather started with 160 acres here in the 1880s. Now we've got over 40,000 across three counties, all still in the family. The oil money means my kids and grandkids are set for life. But we live frugally and give back to the community, just like my forefathers taught me."

Generational wealth in Jackson Hole extends beyond ranching. David Winston took over his father's fledgling construction business in the 1980s, at the dawn of the oil boom. He has since passed day-to-day operations to his own son while remaining chairman.

Winston remarks, "My dad started this company in the 70s with a single backhoe. Now we've got over 100 employees and do $30 million a year in projects, from building resort hotels to luxury log cabins. I hope my son grows it even more before eventually passing it to his own kids."

Even relative newcomers like restaurateur Mike Cheng have now built generational wealth. Cheng emigrated from Taiwan in the 1990s and slowly grew his small diner into a mini-empire of restaurants and bars across Jackson Hole. Now in his 60s, Cheng is grooming his daughters to one day take over.
"I worked three jobs when I first got here, just trying to survive," Cheng recalls. "Now my family owns three of the most popular hangouts in town, worth over $5 million. My girls are both business majors. I know they'll take our success even higher."

Much like the ranching heritage of Jackson Hole, Los Alamos has been shaped by generations of scientists and researchers. Most residents can trace their local roots to ancestors who were original physicists on the Manhattan Project. Their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren carry on the tradition by working at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
For example, Walter Kessler followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both of whom helped develop the atomic bomb. Now retiring after a thirty-year career at the lab, Walter's daughter just earned her PhD in particle physics to also work alongside four generations of family at Los Alamos.

"Science is in our blood," Kessler explains. "My grandpa was part of the team that figured out how to generate plutonium for the 'Gadget' test in 1945. Now my daughter gets to continue our family's research into quantum computing. Los Alamos attracts the best scientific minds across generations."

The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Philanthropy Abounds

While wealth often conjures images of indulgence and excess, many of the affluent residents of Jackson Hole and Los Alamos are generous benefactors to their local communities. These ultra-high-net-worth individuals donate substantial sums to fund civic improvements, educational initiatives, land conservation, and cultural development.

Take rancher Buck Taylor, whose family first homesteaded in Jackson Hole back in 1917. Though the Taylors’ 50,000 acres produce over $75 million annually in oil and gas royalties, Buck lives modestly and funnels much of this wealth back into Teton County. Over the past decade, he has given more than $15 million to organizations like the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole, St. John’s Medical Center, and the local library.

As Taylor explains, “My family’s been fortunate to earn good money from these lands. I think it’s important we give back to the town and people that supported us over four generations. The medical center needs better equipment and facilities. Students need scholarships. Art groups need funding. If sharing some of our oil proceeds helps, then I aim to keep giving.”

David Winston has also emerged as one of Jackson Hole’s most charitable citizens. Since growing his family’s construction firm into a regional force, he has donated over $3 million to local causes. His pet projects include affordable housing initiatives, substance abuse programs for youth, and the Jackson Hole Children’s Museum.

Winston reflects, “I was born in the old hospital here and my kids went to local schools. Without this community, I wouldn’t have succeeded in business. My wife and I want to help families who are struggling and invest in the next generation. It’s gratifying to drive by a new subdivision for teachers knowing we helped build that.”

Even relative newcomers like TechTrans International CEO Marty Wilson are engaging in philanthropy in their new mountain home. Arriving from California just a decade ago, he has already given over $7 million to protect open spaces in Jackson Hole through groups like the Jackson Hole Land Trust. An avid cyclist, Wilson also recently donated $2 million to create a network of bike paths connecting the town to Grand Teton National Park.
“I wanted my money to go further here than in California” Wilson explains. “I can conserve huge swaths of land so future generations get to appreciate the wilderness that drew me here. And I’m excited to see bike commuting grow, getting cars off the road so we all breathe easier.”

A similar community-focused spirit prevails in Los Alamos. Jim and Betty Lawrence have lived in Los Alamos for over 40 years since Jim began working at Los Alamos National Lab in the 1970s. Now retired, the Lawrences have embarked on a mission to give over half of Jim’s $100 million 401(k) back to their adopted hometown.

Already they have earmarked $15 million for Los Alamos County to improve senior services, which are woefully underfunded. Another $10 million will endow science scholarships at the local high school, and $7 million is directed to expanding the public library.

As Jim notes, “Los Alamos gave me the chance to work on cutting-edge research that I’m immensely proud of. Betty and I raised our family here. It seems only right we invest our savings back into strengthening the community, especially for older folks and teens who represent the future.”

This ethos of financial generosity permeates Los Alamos’ affluent population. It’s common to see multi-million-dollar donations supporting causes like the Meals on Wheels food bank, the middle school robotics club, and the local humane society.

The Richest U.S. County? You'll Never Guess Where It Is (Hint: Not California or New York) - Lavish Lifestyles on Display

While many of the rich in Jackson Hole and Los Alamos maintain a modest profile, there are certainly those who revel in displaying their lavish lifestyles. The immense wealth in these areas has spawned stunning architecture, a thriving luxury and supercar scene, and a culture of over-the-top indulgences.

For instance, the jaw-dropping mansions arising across Jackson Hole cement its reputation as an enclave for the ultra-wealthy. Local builder Dave Winston explains, “We get requests for 20,000 square foot log cabins with every amenity you can imagine - home theaters, indoor pools, private helipads. There’s endless demand from billionaire buyers wanting to erect their own Xanadus.”

Indeed, palatial hilltop homes have popped up overlooking Jackson Hole, like the $155 million megachalet just completed for biotech entrepreneur Max Holiday. And prominent families like the Lockharts recently sold their historic ranch to make way for a glitzy development of multimillion dollar designer homes aimed at attracting Silicon Valley transplants.
Equally lavish are the fleets of supercars cruising Highway 89. Jackson Hole luxury dealerships can’t keep the latest top-shelf models like the Bugatti Chiron and Pagani Huayra Roadster in stock, as car aficionados vie to flaunt the ultimate hypercar. During summer months, up to $50 million in automotive hardware can be seen parked outside of hotspots like the Alpine House restaurant on any given evening.

Yet it’s not just the toys that broadcast affluence, but also the outlandish experiences sought by Jackson Hole’s rich. For a truly unique wilderness adventure, the ultra-wealthy can charter seaplane flights to remote Idaho backcountry for private heli-skiing at $50,000 a day. Or thrillseekers can rent the legendary Bar J Chuckwagon ranch for a night of world-class fly fishing, rodeo riding, and feasting on Wagyu steaks and Dom Perignon, with a price tag of $100,000.

Of course, no display of wealth is complete without shopping. Jackson Hole’s “Billionaire Boulevard” serves up Prada, Dior, and Agent Provocateur for those seeking retail indulgence. And ultra-high jewelry sales are booming at luxury outlets like Diamonds of Jackson Hole, frequented by wealthy second homeowners dropping six figures on rare watches and canary diamonds.

The affluent in Los Alamos also know how to live large, especially when it comes to homes. Though multimillion dollar listings are still rare, engineers flocking to Los Alamos National Lab demand high-end amenities. The new ‘Cuatomas Enclave’ neighborhood caters to lab employees with homes starting at $750,000 boasting smart automation systems, home gyms, and luxe outdoor living space ideal for entertaining.
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