James Sinton, a longtime San Luis Obispo County rancher, died late last month, his family said. He was 101.
Sinton, whose family connections to the area stretch back more than 100 years, was recently instrumental in negotiating an easement to preserve more than 12,000 acres of rangeland on the Avenales Ranch near Pozo, which has been in the Sinton family for six generations.
Sinton was born in the Bay Area in 1916, but he made regular visits to the Avenales Ranch throughout his childhood and college years at UC Berkeley.
“He always wanted to be here,” his son, Steve Sinton, said.
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Steve recalled that his dad, known as Jim, was constantly thinking. He would customarily read two books at the same time: a “fun” one, such as a history or biography, and a challenging one, such as one by famed physicist Stephen Hawking, that was “technical and difficult,” Steve remembered.
A 2009 profile of Jim in the New Times detailed his love for and knowledge of the history of the Avenales Ranch.
“I was always in awe and admiration of his constant curiosity in life,” Jane Sinton, Steve’s wife, wrote to The Tribune.
She said her husband’s doctors would joke that he never went to an appointment without an article or a book he thought they might want to read. Shortly before his 101st birthday Dec. 13, 2017, he sent his entire family a copy of a Scientific American magazine about Nobel Prize winners who changed the world, Jane said, adding that the articles included complex explanations of subjects like the discovery of the structure of DNA.
“He was interested in everything and everyone he met and had a memory for details that would astound you,” she said.
She remembered that her father-in-law would see a truck carrying sugar beets and wonder where it had come from, where their market was and how it affected the cattle business.
“He called me maybe a month before he died and said he was listening to a program on the radio about energy costs going up, and he was thinking about how that would impact our vineyards and the cost of irrigation,” Steve said.
Jim and his late wife, Norma, built a home on Canyon Ranch, south of Shandon, in about 1940, Steve said. That’s the home where Steve and his siblings grew up. But Jim, along with his brother, also owned ranches in Oregon, Nevada and California. The brothers owned cattle in places like Texas and New Mexico and ran the Sinton & Brown feed store in Betteravia, along with the Brown family of Santa Maria.
“He always was a cattleman,” Steve said.
But he was also constantly thinking about how to diversify his operation, Steve said, since the cattle business is a “break-even business.”
“I can’t tell you how many crops have been grown,” Steve said. “We’ve grown sugar beets and alfalfa and cut flowers, anything we could think of to make it work better economically.”
In the 1970s, the family began planting grapes on Canyon Ranch and became among the earliest such growers in the Shandon area.
“It was very tough for the first decade or so,” but the business, Shell Creek Vineyards, Steve said, has “been quite successful.”
“I doubt that anyone who met Jim considered him just a crusty old rancher,” Jane wrote. “There was an intellect there that you couldn’t miss or fail to be impressed by.”
She added that “his honesty integrity were at the forefront of everything he did,” and he encouraged his family to be involved in the businesses.
“I learned all the practical business I know from working with Jim,” Jane wrote.
Jim was also known as a steward of the land. He was recognized as the California Rangeland Trust Conservationist of the Year in 2009 and was also honored by organizations including the Sierra Club’s Santa Lucia chapter and the California Native Plant Society.
“He’d never been accused of overgrazing the land, he would look at ways to improve it rather than use it,” Steve said.
Known for thinking ahead, Jim had spoken with Steve for years about needing to find someone to protect the Avenales Ranch. In October, he helped ensure that the 12,284-acre property would remain an open space when he helped negotiate an easement to preserve the land “in perpetuity.”
“He did a lot of the heavy lifting,” Steve said.
Jim was also passionate about finances and investing; if he had a good year, he’d take the extra money and buy stock or invest it, Steve said.
“He saw things coming all the time, or he’d wonder about why things were or why things weren’t changing,” Steve said. “It’s a standard that’s hard to live up to.”
There will be no funeral services and the family asks that donations be made to the California Rangeland Trust, Shandon Unified School District libraries or the San Luis Obispo County Community Foundation.