Times Past: Rancho saw rise and fall of cattle

August 11, 2012 

There were cattle and horses on the more than 1,000 hills of the Rancho Corral de Piedra during the 1840s and ’50s, but this paradise was short-lived.

Many of us drive through the vast rancho granted in 1841 to José María Villavicencio as we travel south over Orcutt Road or Highway 227. Today, much of the land is vineyards. But in the rancho’s heyday, horses and cattle were king.

The Corral de Piedra, or “Stone Corral,” had been one of the richest rancherias of Mission San Luis Obispo. The large herd of California mustangs, later owned by Capt. William G. Dana at his Rancho Nipomo, were first bred in the stone corrals of the Edna Valley.

The thousands of head of cattle, once prized only for the value of their hides, became California’s most important food commodity as the world rushed into the Mother Lode during the Gold Rush.

José María’s ample herds of cattle delivered by ship to San Francisco or driven overland to Stockton brought as much as $200 a head. With saddlebags heavily laden with gold dust as payment for the beef, he could live as lavishly as most of his Californio neighbors and relatives. He greatly enlarged the Villavicencio Adobe, adding verandas and patios. His fandangos soon rivaled those of Joaquin Estrada at the Santa Margarita Rancho.

These parties lasted for days with the expense of feeding and housing the guests. But by the time of José María Villavicencio’s death in 1853, the lucrative sale of cattle, horse and sheep began to decline in value. Other sources of food were developed in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

He left his ranch to his seven sons and his widow, Rafaela Rodríguez. The family was likely overleveraged in 1853, but matters worsened. Drought and flash floods brought on typhus followed by cholera. Many of the Native American vaqueros died. The ranch fell into disrepair.

There was the cost of the land survey and documentation of the 1841 Mexican Land Grant required by the United States Land Act of 1851. California Sen. William Gwin’s legislation was intended to bankrupt the Californio rancheros. Most of the Californians had little knowledge of a cash economy because barter was the custom of the territory until the coming of the Americans. Confronted with high county taxes, three dollars an acre for good land and inflated surveyor and attorney fees, Señora Villavicencio borrowed the funds from local merchants such as David Mallagh and Sam Pollard.

Finally, in 1860, Rafaela borrowed a large sum from her brother, Jacinto Rodriguez, a Monterey County rancher. The Great Drought of 1863-65 left scarcely a drop of moisture, and the great herds of Mission-era cattle and sheep died off. Jacinto persuaded Rafaela’s sons to sell their share of the Corral de Piedra to him.

Jacinto had become acquainted with dairymen George Steele and his brothers Edgar W., Isaac C., and Rensselaer E. Steele. The Steeles, from Ohio, started farming north of San Francisco. They found fog-shrouded Point Reyes in Marin County was ideal for dairy farming.

Their cheese- and butter-making operations in nearby Petaluma made them wealthy pioneers of the California dairy industry.

They were unable to purchase more grazing land at Point Reyes, so in 1861 they purchased the Rancho Punta del Año Nuevo in western San Mateo County.

The Steeles knew the rains would return to the drought-stricken Corral de Piedra. They purchased it in 1866 and made San Luis Obispo the dairy center of Western America.

Next week: The sale turns sour.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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