The $$$ Trend, Red and Black
By Richard Rutherford
A History of Agriculture in the San Ramon Valley
From The Valley Pioneer Centennial Edition, September 4, 1958
San Ramon Valley’s economic history has been tied to Ceres Goddess of Agriculture. With its fertile valley land, rolling hills, and a mild, temperate climate agriculture has blossomed since the days of the Spanish and Mexican land grants of the 1830’s.
Cattle raising, grain, and orchards have followed one upon the other and only recently have the inroads of industry, and a menacing “suburbia” interfered with its 125 year domination. It was in 1833 that the valley’s economic birth began with the granting of Rancho San Ramon to Bartolo Pacheco and Mariano Castro. This was followed by a grant to Jose Maria Amador in 1834.
With the land grants came the valley’s initial period of the Spanish ranchos and the subsequent raising of cattle, although not on as large a scale as the huge ranches of Don Francisco Castro and Don Ignacio Martinez in the northern half of the county. Wild oats and wild feed were in great abundance throughout the valley, even to the top of Mt. Diablo, and there was little need for the early Spaniards to engage in toilsome farming.
According to early American settlers, lands in the days of the ranchos were only used for grazing purposes. There was no need of fences and the lands were never enclosed and seldom surveyed. A man’s property extended from one well-defined mark to another by mutual agreement. It was unnecessary for a ranchero to keep his cattle on his own land. Earmarked and branded when young, they were turned loose to be found at roundup time, sometimes 50 miles away from their home grounds.
Horses were raised along with the cattle. Hides and tallow were the chief exports of the area as there was no ready market for the meat, besides what was used on the rancho.
Prices of 1830 illustrate the primitive trading methods of the day. Hides were worth $1 each; tallow, $2 per arroba (8 arrobas to a ton). An American ship offered that year $1.50 for hides, $1.50 to $1.75 per arroba for tallow and $4 per 100 for horns. Young heifers of two years for breeding purposes brought $3; a fat steer delivered to the purchaser brought 50 Cents more. Usually, it was considered neither trespassing nor larceny to kill a beef, use the meat and hang the hide and tallow on a tree secure from coyotes where it could be found by the owner.
In 1846 California exported 80,000 hides, 60,000 arrobas of tallow and $10,000 worth of soap. After the pueblos of San Jose and Los Angeles were founded and as other communities flourished a demand for meat grew. Also with the discovery of gold in 1848-50, there came a large demand for beef and mutton to supply the northern mining camps. Beeves were sold by the thousands and at good prices.
The carefree life of the rancheros ended with California’s annexation by the United States in 1848. Cattle raising continued with the valley’s earliest American settlers, but on a modest scale compared with the large ranchos. Pioneers Boyd and Field ran the first herd in the Green Valley area in 1850, and were followed by other settlers in the 1850’s and 1860’s.
By 1860 there were various prominent American cattle growers in the valley with established brands. The partial list included: M. B. Mitchell, A. Ford, August Hemme, B. Hall, S. A. Carpenter, James Foster, S. Stone, F. A. Bonnard, Austin Hammitt, V. Huntington, Albert W. Stone, W. C. Chapman, D. P. Smith, E. H. Cox, W. Hays, S. Wolff and Company, David Glass, Joel Harlan, J. M. Jones and Gold Field, all of Alamo.
Danville cattlemen were: John Smith, Robert O. Baldwin, J. Slippin, D. L. Spencer, J. Sterne, J. L. Larke and Thomas Flournoy.
But, cattle was not to be the bread and butter for long in the valley’s economic history. As was the case throughout the county, fires, droughts, floods and other causes cut into the cattle industry. The floods of 1852 and the great disaster of 1862 took a toll, as did the range fires on the west side of Diablo in 1887, and the 2,000 acre fire on the southwest slope of the mountain in 1922.
Another mishap that befell the stockmen was the hoof and mouth plague of 1924, when losses over the state ran into millions. Some of the most valuable herds in the San Ramon Valley were attacked, and a quarantine was established from Danville to the county line. The epidemic was felt throughout the state, with Contra Costa County third in total losses with a $233,764. Hundreds of head of cattle had to be shot and buried to get rid of the disease, and herds were cut in half or nearly diminished by the action.
It is little wonder that cattle raising in the valley has become a minor industry. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Robert C. Force of the Blackhawk Ranch and Charles J. Wood, of Tassajara (Sycamore) Valley, were the area’s prominent stock men.
Today the Blackhawk Ranch with its 1,000 head and the Fred C. Wiedemann ranch with its 700 to 1, 000 stock, are the valley’s largest cattle farmers. Other valley cattle men on a smaller scale are: Leo Lynch, Jerry Bettencourt, George Wood, Herbert Elworthy and the Hansen brothers.
The range land of the valley also has proved profitable for sheep since the turn of the century. The Bishop Ranch with 1,000 head and George Wood with 500 are the leading sheep raisers of the present day.
Thus, the San Ramon Valley passed from cattle into its second phase of agricultural growth, that of the “golden era of grain.” The gold rush, with its phenomenal population growth, created an urgent demand for grains. As early as 1846, pioneer John Marsh described Contra Costa as “the finest country for wheat I have ever seen.”
It was the same rush to the gold fields that eventually brought many of the returning fortune seekers to make their home in the valley, and it was these settlers who wrote the valley’s second economic chapter.
In 1850-51 Leo Norris, William Lynch and Joel Harlan were the first farmers in the valley. The following year, 1852 Robert Baldwin and his partner William Meese settle near Danville to raise wheat, barley and onions. Other early farmers during the period from 1850 to 1860 included: August Hemme, George McCamley, James and Wellington Boone, Thomas Flournoy, Charles Wood, Robert Love, David Sherburne, Charles and Nathaniel Howard, Philip Mendenhall, Francis Matteson, Harrison Finley, Levi Maxcy, David Glass, Frederick Humburg, D. P. Smith, William Cox, and Bruce Stone.
In 1858 there were 31,115 acres under cultivation in the county. Of these there were 16,870 acres of wheat and 6,300 of barley. Wheat production was then 286,790 bushels and barley, 180,000 bushels.
Wealth created by grain production built roads, schools, churches, wharfs, railroads and whole new communities. Contra Costa grain was shipped to all parts of the U.S. and to Europe as well. After the great disastrous drought of 1871 wheat become California’s great staple crop. It fed the nation and part of the world.
The wheat fever hit the valley and all available areas were sown with the golden crop. Sycamore, Tassajara, Green Valley and the southwestern San Ramon Valley was covered with wheat. The climate and dry-farming method suited the grain, and warehouses sprang up throughout the valley to store the grain, until it was hauled, primarily by rail or by wagon to the county’s coastal ports.
An example of the extent and value of the valley’s wheat is reflected in the following incidents. In July 1886, a field fire destroyed wheat in the Sycamore Valley, but was brought under control before losses were very heavy. Charles Wood lost $2,000; David Sherburne, $300; John Camp, $250; and J. D. Smith, $100. Warehouse fires were also numerous.
Falling prices, competition, government controls, etc., were all factors contributing to the downfall. According to Tassajara (Sycamore Valley) farmer George Wood, grandson of Danville pioneer Charles Wood, wheat could still be raised profitably in the valley if it were not for government control of the grain.
Today grains such as oats and hay are still raised in abundant quantities as livestock feed in the valley. The Wiedemann Ranch alone grows over 2,000 acres of hay and the Bishop Ranch another 1,000 acres as livestock feed. The Blackhawk and George Wood ranches are other large grain raisers at the present, while Bettencourt, Lynch, Reinstein brothers and Frank Simms are other valley grain men.
A sidelight during the grain era was the successful planting of tobacco in 1862 by Stout and Peden near Alamo, but the venture seems to have gone up in smoke.
So ended the second chapter of San Ramon Valley’s economic chronicles. A third phase was the fruit and nut era. Many of the valley’s early farmers experimented, or merely decorated their holdings with orchards. David Glass planted the area’s first orchard in the 1860’s. But with the success of pioneer Myron Hall’s initial walnut orchard in 1872, the general tendency on the part of the valley’s farmers shifted from grain produce into the planting of nut and fruit orchards.
Prunes, apples, apricots, pears, grapes, peaches and almonds were all tried in the valley with varying success. Yet, walnuts seemed to suit the dry farming methods that had worked so well with grains. The transition was a slow process as fruit and nut trees take years to grow and produce, unlike cattle or grain. Many of the early settlers stayed with cattle raising or continued in the grain market.
Orchards were planted in the level valley land and the rolling hills were left for hay and livestock pasture. It was natural that the southern part of the valley with its great level expanses would have the most extensive orchards. The larger ranches of John Baldwin, William Meese and the Bishop Company led the way. The latter under superintendent Frank Rutherford, called the grandfather of San Ramon Valley orchards, developed 800 acres – 500 of walnuts and 300 of pears – into the valley’s largest fruit producer. Baldwin and Meese both had around 150 acres of walnuts each as well as a scattering of pears.
Although primarily a cattle ranch, the Blackhawk also contributed 150 acres to the valley’s walnut total. Other planters of the early 20th century were Fred Houston, Neil Harrison, George L. Everett, the Lynch brothers, Harvey Hook and Howard Wiedemann. The Wood ranch also began orchards, experimenting with 40 acres of almonds as well as prunes and walnuts.
Today the walnut industry is a $4,100,473 asset to the county with some 15,997 acres, of which 5,000 are in the San Ramon Valley.
Other leading valley walnut growers at present are Gerald Deardorff, a director of the Contra Costa County Walnut Growers Association; Fred and Howard Wiedemann, the latter a director also; and the Lynch brothers.
Incidentally pears were the county’s biggest fruit crop in 1930, with some 3,477 acres producing 7,503 tons. In 1958 there are but 1,765 acres remaining with a value of $588,034. At the time the Bishop Ranch was one of the county’s largest exporters of pears with 300 acres planted by Rutherford back in 1911. The ranch has continued to be the valley’s leading producer of pears, as well as in walnuts.
Agriculture has dominated San Ramon Valley’s economic history for the past 100 years and will continue to play a prominent roll in its economic wealth for years to come. Whether the valley’s livestock ranches, grains and orchards will eventually give way to industry, which already has a foothold with Aero Jet Corporation and the General Electric Plant can only be surmised.
A bigger threat is the inroads of the bay area’s creeping “suburbia” to meet the increasing demands of the state’s rocketing population growth. Already real estate developments have subdivided many of the valley’s best orchards and range land.
With an estimated increase of 200,000 people in Contra Costa county by 1970, it appears suburbia will more than likely take its toll of more and more of the valley’s agricultural land. After 100 years, the next century will write its own conclusion to San Ramon’s economic history.
Resources for this agricultural history:
In an article describing The Valley Pioneer Centennial Edition, the editor gave Richard Rutherford, journalism teacher at SRV High School, credit for most of the articles. The author took some information from the 1882 History of Contra Costa County.
Long-time residents who helped with the Edition and presumably with this article included: Ray Donahue, Louise Lawrence, Ina Root, Hannah Harrison, Mrs. Edith Clark, Mrs. Gerald Deardorff, Mr. and Mrs. E. C. Wiester, Leo Lynch, Bob Livermore, Mrs. L. H. Kerns, Fred Wiedemann, George Wood, Maevis Wood, Charlotte Wood, Jerry Bettencourt, L. A. Humburg, Grace Warren, Dr. Roger Schulte, Ivan Chappel, Rose Ferreira and Mrs. Ray Gans.
Transcriber note: In the 1950s writers on agriculture did not include the various ways Native Americans managed the environment by setting fires, pruning and cultivating certain plants. Beverly Lane 6-5-2006