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The Western Ranch House

The California of the 1850s that greeted the first wave of American settlers was primarily comprised of large, fenceless cattle ranches that stretched over hill and dale, for as far as the eye could see. Wherever one looked, there was cattle grazing lazily in tall grass. It was an idyllic scene that reminded one observer of a phrase from the Bible (Psalms 50): "the cattle on a thousand hills."

The people who ran these cattle ranches, or ranchos, as they were called, were pensioned Spanish soldiers, who were granted large tracks of land (about 40-square miles each), as a reward for having served faithfully in one of the four presidios that the Spanish government had built to protect the missions. The missions, in fact, were part of Spain's larger plan to secure and colonize the territory they had claimed for the Spanish crown. The Spanish land-grant ranchos were yet another step in securing Spain's claim on the territory.

The California Gold Rush of 1849 was the lure that drew Americans to the West Coast. What they found was a Spanish culture that, to their Puritan work ethic, was indulgent and wasteful. While the Spanish ranchers were incredible horsemen, who could ride, rope and round up whole herds of cattle in no time, they also frittered away much of their free time in drinking, and games of chance. They also slaughtered cattle merely for their hides (which they sold to the ever-present Yankee cutters that plied the coastal waters).

Richard Henry Dana, the proper Bostonian, who arrived in California as a sailor on one of these Yankee cutters, and later wrote about it, observed, "Horses are as abundant here as dogs and chickens. There are probably no better riders in the world. They are put upon a horse when four or five years old, their little legs not long enough to come halfway over his side, and may almost be said to keep on him until grown to him." The Californios (as they were called) "can hardly go from one house to another without mounting a horse."

Horsemanship was not simply a matter of displaying an acquired skill--it was essential to the sole business of the province--raising of cattle. To keep these Yankee cutters supplied with hides and tallow, there were frequent round-ups and rodeos for counting and slaughtering of stock.


California's pastoral period, as it has since been called, began around 1820, and lasted until the drought of 1864, which destroyed much of the grass, and decimated most of the herds, forcing many of the cash-poor Spanish ranchers to sell their properties to the Americans. By then, California no longer belonged to Spain, but was a territory of the United States, and the Spanish ranchers, who once had crowded out the Indians in their grab for land, were themselves now being crowded out by the influx of land-hungry Yankees.

Novelist Helen Hunt Jackson spent several years in Southern California toward the end of the pastoral period, and wrote a classic novel about it, not to romanticize the time of the ranchos, but to illustrate the plight of native Americans, who, during the secularization of the 1830s, had been forced off the missions, with nowhere to go. A few, but only a few, managed to find work on one of the ranchos, one of whom was a sheep shearer named Alessandro, the fictional character of "Ramona".

The actual setting of her story, is Rancho Camulos, in the Santa Clarita Valley, not far from Los Angeles. Rancho Camulos is one of the few Spanish ranches to have survived the drought, thanks to its proximity to the Santa Clara River. It's still a working cattle ranch, as well as one of the last major growers of oranges in the state. The ranch house is among the last surviving Spanish ranch houses to have remained it its original state, and has served as a model for what has become known as The Western Ranch House. Indeed, I spent the first ten years of my life living in a 20th-century version of the Western Ranch House, but more about that later.

Rancho Camulos is located about midway between Mission San Fernando Rey de España and Mission San Buenaventura, and, back in the day, was a welcome stop for weary Franciscan padres traveling on El Camino Real. There was even a chapel on the property, for padres to hold religous services. Rancho Camulos has become known as "The Lost Mission."


Jackson's novel captured life in the Camulos ranch house, which is the only record we have of how these people lived. She writes: "The house was of adobe, with a wide veranda on the three sides of the inner court, and still a broader one across the entire front, which looked to the south. These verandas, especially those on the inner court, were supplementary rooms to the house. The greater part of the family life went on in them. Nobody stayed inside the walls, except when it was necessary. All the kitchen work, except the actual cooking, was done here, in front of the kitchen doors and windows. Babies slept, were washed, sat in the dirt, and played, on the veranda. The women said their prayers, took their naps, and wove their lace there . . . The herdsmen and shepherds smoked there, lounged there, trained their dogs there: there the young made love, and the old dozed; the benches, which ran the entire length of the walls, were worn into hallows and shone like satin; the tiled floors also were broken and sunk in places, making little wells, which filled up in time of hard rains, and were an invaluable addition to the children's sources of amusement, and also to the comfort of the dogs, cats, and fowls, who picked about among them, taking sips from each.

"The veranda along the front (facing south) was a delightsome place. It must have been eighty feet long, at least, but the doors of five large rooms opened on it . . . Here the Señora kept her flowers; the great red water jars, hand-made by the Indians, stood in close rows against the walls, and in them were always growing fine geraniums, carnations, and yellow-flowered musk. Beside these were many sorts of climbing vines--some coming from the ground, and twining around the pillars of the veranda: some growing in great bowls, swung by cords from the roof of the veranda, or on shelves against the walls.

"Between the veranda and the river meadows, out on which it looked, all was garden, orange grove, and almond orchard: the orange grove always green, never without snowy bloom or golden fruit; the garden never without flowers, summer or winter; and the almond orchard, in early spring, a fluttering canopy of pink and white pedals. Nothing was to be seen but verdure or bloom or fruit, at whatever time of year you sat on the Senora's south veranda."

While most of the cattle ranches ended up being subdivided and sold as individual land parcels, and their adobe ranch houses allowed to melt away in the rain, the ranch names live on as the names of various California towns and cities. For example, Rancho La Habra, is now the City of La Habra. Another, Rancho Cañón de Santa Ana, now occupies present-day Orange County, and includes the cities of Santa Ana and Irvin. On the other hand, Rancho Las Cienega, is now the site of "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Angeles", or, as it is known today--Los Angeles. Hollywood occupies land that had once been Rancho de la Brea (Brea is Spanish for tar, as a tarpit was located on the ranch, the tar of which Spanish Californians used to seal their roofs against the rain). Today the La Brea tarpits are famous for the excavated bones of ancient animals, that long ago became mired, sunk, and died there.

Another is Rancho de los Palos Verdes, a cattle ranch that resided on a peninsula mountain bluff, extending well out into the shimmering Pacific. Today, the one-time cattle ranch is known as Palos Verdes Estates, home to about 14,000 Southern Californians.

My parents fell in love with the green rolling hills of Palos Verdes, on their first visit. At some point thereafter they met architect Cliff May who, at the time was designing Western Ranch Houses for clients in the San Diego area. This is what May wrote about the Western Ranch House: "Whether built a century ago or the day after tomorrow, the Western Ranch House has several recognizable characteristics that set it apart from other types of homes.

"In its original form, the Western Ranch House owed many of its qualities to architectural patterns that stretched back several centuries into the history of Spain. Some features came from the reapplication of familiar building methods and materials in a foreign but familiar climate and terrain. Some were the result of compromise forced by poor materials and poorer labor. At its best, the results were simple, sane, and craftsmanlike . . .

"The early Californians had the right idea. They built for the seclusion and comfort of their families, for the enjoyment of relaxation in their home. We want to perpetuate these ideas of home building." One of May's ideas that attracted clients such as my parents, was his quest to build homes "with a garden in every room", inspired by Hunt's view from the veranda of the Camulos Ranch House in "Romana."

Note: our home is one of several featured in "Western Ranch Houses" by Cliff May" (published by Hennessy and Ingalls, c 1997). See pages 112-117.

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