Features & Stories
Where Did All the Spanish-style Ranches and the Old Ways Go?

By Leslie Desmond
Printed with the permission of the author

The ranch lands are still where they always were, of course, but many of the largest California ranches relocated in the latter part of the 19th century when mandatory fencing laws came into effect.

These were the ranches that had split off from the once-enormous, private holdings that had been deeded to non-church members during the Spanish and Mexican land grant era between 1810 and the mid-1840s. Those huge cow outfits re-established themselves on the vast ranges of the Great Basin and there they thrived. The Spanish influence that is the hallmark of many Great Basin cattle outfits today can be traced directly to that massive exodus of California fence-fleers in the 1870s.

Photo-historian Matt O'Brien of Berkeley, California, cites the human stampede for gold in 1849 as a main reason for the drastic decline of the ranchero era. He explains that others who mourn the nearly-loss of these customs blame mechanization. And yet another bunch says it fell apart in the 1930s, and according to O'Brien, it was partly the dust bowl that did it. Dad-gum dust drove the out-of-staters in . . . which lead to speculation that cowmen of another stripe were really the ones who usurped California's sacred traditions. But no matter how it's viewed or arrived at, the conclusion that many people have drawn is about the same: After 100 years of industrialization, the economics of old-fashioned ranching were beaten to a pulp.

The 1980 U.S. Census seems to support this simply in terms of math. What the ranching industry suffers from is a basic case over population. But that doesn't fly with western heritage buffs and ranching insiders. Cowboys have a way of staying single for the longest time, so this explanation is countered quickly with the observation that vaqueros simply weren't breeding fast enough. In any case, after Uncle Sam called their ranch hands to serve the country in back-to-back World Wars, the majority of ranches that remained in California were never the same again. But there is more to this, as the land-use pinch has been felt by almost everyone who's owned a horse or a cow in the last 40 years.

Since the early 1960s, one might have noticed that a trend in America towards "faster-cheaper-everything" has steadily combined forces with "we're just gonna-do-it" land-use politics. The irreversible effects of rapid growth support California realtor Linda Boston's observation that that most of the state's large ranches were earmarked for sale between 1975 and last week.

As the ranches were sold off to subdividers, the values they stood for all but disappeared. Meaning, values that placed a higher importance on the way a thing was done, rather than on how fast it was done, could not, in most cases, withstand the pressures a rancher had to shoulder to keep his own gates open. Ironically, the old work ethics and the approach to living and livestock that sustained these operations for so long is quite possibly what contributed to the downfall of a lot of them. Consult an old vaquero, and he may tell you how it was to see the old ways go.

In his books "El Vaquero," "El Buckaroo," and "The Reata Men" fifth generation vaquero Ernest Morris of Templeton, California, depicts it well. It wasn't just a farewell to the buildings and beef. It was farewell to ways of being that had been carried forward for generations… farewell to ways that carried honor . . . and farewell to cowboys who understood the value of self-respect, and who held others of their kind in the highest esteem. Nevertheless, the 72-year-old vaquero-author-artist-philosopher insists that "it isn't exactly goodnight for the vaquero," either.

Morris said, "I want people to remember these things: California was known to the Spanish as the 'land of manana.' They had plenty of time, good weather, lots of space and suitable real estate -- and they didn't mind using all of it. It was speed that destroyed the vaquero. It's hard for people today to understand, exactly, the freedom that the vaquero possessed.

And here's where I take a poke at stock trailers, because most cowboys today just haul their horses from range to range instead of riding them around. But now that I've taken a poke at them, I'm going to make it right. I thank God for those trailers because a fella can load up and get from one range to another, so they've still got some freedom."

Fortunately, not all the ranches succumbed to the zoning laws that rolled inland from the cities and towns along the coast towards the grazing lands. No, some cattle operations were even managed well enough to survive the squeeze of plummeting beef prices, and still have something to show for it. If one searches for them, working ranches where vaquero traditions hold the line can still be found. Although they are few and far between, some California ranches still have the flavor of the old ways. And, on many of the bigger ranches in the Great Basin region Spanish-style buckaroo outfits are keeping the old traditions young.

Although distinct regional differences can be seen in the way a piece of equipment is used or referred to, the way a loop is thrown and the way the cattle are handled, the buckaroos and cowgirls who still do things the old way made a conscious decision to do it. It belongs to them, and they belong to it. There aren't many of them left. But those that are, are no accident.

It was also no accident that just about the time when reverence for the careful handling of livestock was fading from the modern impression of what a cowboy should be, a lifetime commitment to bettering one's Spanish-style horsemanship skills was no longer considered a legitimate topic of discussion either. At least not in most places. It was just about the bottom of the barrel for the old vaquero ways when two men from Monterey County, California, did their part in the early 1990s to turn this trend around.

No, It's Not Goodnight for the Vaquero: Ranch Roping Schools
Got Things Turned Around

In hopes of reviving a broad interest in the old methods of working livestock and handling a rope, the late Bill Dorrance of Salinas, CA, and Joe Wolter (formerly of Carmel Valley, CA, and now of Guthrie, TX) teamed up to resuscitate an art they all knew was a breath away from dead and gone. They traveled throughout the state to put on a series of public and private Ranch Roping Schools. For a couple of years they did this. They went to several cow outfits that were still holding on around the Monterey Peninsula, they went up past Sacramento, and they held a lot of them closer to home. One time, when Bill Dorrance was about 89 years old, they flew out to Colorado. A few years later, they worked together on an instructional video about ranch roping called, "There's Roping to Do - Ranch Roping From the Ground Up, " and this did a lot to get the word out about the value of handling cattle in a smooth and gentle way, and it explains the many different ways a rope can be thrown.

Eventually, their efforts paid off. It wasn't long before some clinicians who'd been using the Spanish-style techniques all along started roping schools for the public, too. Nowadays, without stretching the truth a bit, a person could say this ranch roping phenomenon has taken the recreation-riding end of the horse world by storm. And this is a good thing, because we can't bring the ranches back or do anything about what's gone. But at least the core of the tradition is preserved well enough so that the people who are living it now, who know it inside out and want to share it, are the ones bringing the lessons forward.

Martin Black of Homeland, Idaho, winner of the 1999 "California Big Loop - All Around" award, is doing this. While the fifth generation cattleman has serious doubts about the future of ranching in the Great Basin region, Black said he finally adjusted in his lifestyle to fit the changing situation. He now spends most of the year raising good horses and passing on the vaquero traditions to pleasure riders in Kentucky, Florida, Australia and many places in between. "Some ranchers are going broke and their kids are getting jobs in town. Once you lose the connection with the land you lose the understanding of stockmanship and land use . . .. it's a war I don't believe we can win."

He said what he likes about this style of riding horses and handling cattle, however, is that it appeals to people who just want to learn these methods for pleasure and recreation. "Today, a lot of people have money to spend on their horses and their horsemanship," he continued. "Ranch roping and horsemanship clinics have become very popular. I think the reason that this type of competition is catching on is because the preparation and practice it requires -- handling livestock soft -- makes sense all the way around."

Look at it this way…when a member of the hunt club in Stockton, New Jersey, follows the hounds in his Justin boots and chaps, and guides his Piebald ranch-hunter over coops in the back forty wearing a traditional hackamore setup … we're talking complete with the fiadore and mane-hair mecate now ….well, that just points to the fact that this revival of the vaquero's lost ways is turning into a full-blown movement.

If they could see the way that things are going now, there are probably a few old bridle horsemen who'd be really pleased to know that the old ways they hoped would survive are alive and well. Thanks in large part to them, it's a heritage that shines.

For additional information contact:
Mollie Palmer at 510-537-6982 (tel and fax)
or cowboss@cowboygathering.com

Other articles by Leslie Desmond

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