In the face of rapid development, this California family holds tight to its ranch and traditions.
Longtime ranchers in California hold tight to their land and its traditions.
In this fast-moving world of technology and social media, I strive to teach my nieces and nephews to love nature and the great outdoors at my family’s place, the Garcia-Damon ranch in San Luis Obispo, California. We get away from those modern distractions and go out to collect rocks, search for water bugs in springs, assemble tree forts, gather chicken eggs, and hike up the cow trails with the dogs. The kids and I spend hours at the water troughs trying to catch goldfish. We’ll while away a whole afternoon on the tire swing in the big eucalyptus tree. We help my dad, Roy, gather wood, and, as a fun treat, he rewards us with homemade jerky. Our ranch is a special place, and it’s been in my family for almost 80 years.
It wasn’t that long ago that our ranch bordered the edge of the city, but today the city surrounds and surpasses all 200 acres. Now, we are five minutes from downtown. As a kid, I would sit on the front porch with Grandma Irene while she gazed out at the fields of cows and across the road to the first grocery store. “I don’t mind seeing progress,” she would often say. Today, there is a strip mall, several coffee shops and even a car dealership just across the road. My sister Janet and I wonder what Grandma would say now.
Grandma Irene was born in 1896. Her parents were Swiss immigrants as was my grandfather, Aurelio
Brughelli. Grandma met Grandpa when he was milking cows near the Harmony Valley Creamery, a dairy settlement that Swiss immigrants started in the late 19th century on California’s central coast. Soon after they married, they moved to San Luis Obispo and leased land that they would eventually purchase and call the Brughelli Ranch. My mom, Dolly; her sister, Eileen; and their brother, Ercole, grew up there. My mom tells stories of driving a team of horses that pulled a buck rake to harvest hay. She remembers how the family lived a frugal life working endless hours to raise their crops. Grandma, with the help of a couple of farmhands, milked 100 Holstein cows each morning and night. She cooked for the workers in-between milkings. Grandpa transported the fresh milk to the creamery in town in five-gallon milk cans. Then, in the 1940s, my grandparents bought another 200 acres where they raised the offspring of the original Holstein cows. This is the land that we now call the Garcia-Damon ranch.
When my parents got married in 1953, my mom moved off of the Garcia-Damon ranch to town with my dad. Mom loved being a part of a neighborhood community. Dad, who also grew up on a ranch, loved being in the country. After school and on weekends, Dad would load us five kids in the old orange pickup and take us to Garcia-Damon ranch. He taught us how to ride horses and rope, which led to many high school rodeos and 4-H projects. Mom often came out to the “country” with our lunch. Over the years, Dad’s love of the country finally won out, and my parents moved to the ranch in 1981.
My mom missed her neighbors in town, and we felt guilty persuading her to move back to the country, but that didn’t last too long. My parents’ home on the ranch quickly became the core gathering place for most family celebrations as well as Mom’s delicious home-cooked meals. Dad retired after teaching for 30 years, and he started a cattle herd. He also built an arena so he and my brother could train horses and practice for competitive roping events.
These days, Mom and Dad; my sister Janet, her husband, Mark, and her family; my sister Heidi Breese and her family; and my nephew Brian and his family make their home on the ranch. I spend much of my time there. Many other family members live within two miles, so it’s easy to gather often.
Through the decades, my family has seen many changes both on and around our land, and lately the pace of progress has quickened.
“I’m 92 years old now, and I have seen more growth take place in the last two years than in all the years before,” Dad says. “Cars are now bumper-to-bumper on the streets where I used to ride my horses. The city surrounds my ranch. My cows must compete with the squirrels for grass. I have to load my horses in a trailer in order to go anywhere with them now. I used to run about a 100 head of cattle on this ranch, but now I have cut my herd down to 20 head of cows due to the increased development that has occurred on pastures where they used to graze.”
Still, he adds, “My family loves this ranch.” Despite the city ever creeping closer to our land, we
continue to live out the values of my grandparents. My nephew Brian and his wife, Whitney, and their three kids live on the ranch in Grandma Irene’s original house. There they have chickens, sheep, rabbits, goats and dogs. My sister Janet enjoys babysitting her grandchildren.
Some of my favorite photographs are from her Awesome Possum Wednesdays, a day of arts, crafts and outdoor adventures.
My sister Heidi and her family moved into and renovated the old ranch house that sits between my parents’ and Janet’s houses. The path between the three is well traveled by family. Heidi and her husband, Robert, are giving their young sons, Bode and Cash, the opportunity to experience ranch life. The brothers get up early before school to feed and take care of their ducks, cat, chickens, three-legged rescue dog and the heifers that they show at the fair. My folks sure do enjoy having them so close. Every morning, Dad walks Cash to the front gate where he meets his other cousins for the ride to school.
On most Sunday mornings, my sister Debbie and her husband, Dave, cook a grand stack of goldenbrown pancakes for whoever wants to stop by, and there never seems to be an empty chair. They live a short two miles down the road from the ranch near my brother Ronnie; his wife, Amanda; and their young son, Denim. From Ronnie’s place, you can see our cows grazing on the ranch’s mountain.
Every day, Denim and Ronnie are at the ranch tending to the cattle and horses. Just like his dad when he was a little kid, Denim rides his pony in the arena, practicing the barrel-race and pole-bending patterns. Sometimes the other kids join in and we turn it into a timed event. Out of Ronnie’s 20 horses, the kids like to saddle up the tame black Quarter Horse, Ringo, and buckskin, Capone, the most. Mom and Dad, peering through their big
“Cars are bumper-to-bumper on the streets where I used to ride my horses. My ranch is surrounded by the city.”
picture window, get a kick out of watching them ride.
Dull moments are rare around here. I remember the morning Janet shouted out, “Ladybug is having her baby!” Denim, Ronnie, Dad, Mom and I ran to the corrals just in time to watch while Denim’s miniature black-and-white pony, Ladybug, give birth to a solid black baby that Denim named Baby Bug.
Every Sunday night we have a big family dinner on the ranch. At 87 years old, Mom still attracts nearly 40 family members to be part of this weekly tradition. It’s a joy for my parents to spend these evenings with their 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. We can’t wait to eat Heidi’s home-baked bread and Debbie’s and Dave’s pies. Dad also insists that Mom bake an apple pie made from apples picked by the youngsters. Between the main dish and dessert, the kids, ranging in age from 2 to 14, ride bikes and play tag, hide-and-seek or a game of soccer. Sometimes it looks as if there are as many dogs as kids intermingled and competing for the soccer ball. It’s hilarious to watch the tykes chasing behind the older kids.
The old saying goes that home is where your heart is, and, as I age, spending time at the family ranch seems to me the place to be. When I drive up the back road to get to the ranch, I see hundreds of homes built right up to the horse-pasture fence. These homes are on fields that were once used for grazing cattle. But, once I’m over the cattle guard, that first glimpse of our old and rustic wooden barn makes me break into a smile. I cherish and appreciate our family ranch life, yet I worry about what’s to come as the town inches nearer. I fear the difficult decisions we will face as a family from the pressures of growth. When I hike to the top of our mountain and see the changes below, I think about the conversations that I have had with my dad about being one of the last ranches standing. I love this ranch and its location, and I hope to remain here for the next generation and beyond.
Roy Garcia teaches his 4-year-old grandson, Denim Garcia, to paint.
CALIFORNIA POPPIES dot the mountaintop above the ranch’s roping arena, barn and houses. Clusters of new homes and strip malls abut the road that runs along the ranch’s perimeter (above). Roy and Dolly Garcia love animals, and they have five dogs on...
JESSICA BASS, one of Janet’s daughters, enjoys a moment with her horse, Ringo.
“I love the early spring after it rains and there’s a sea of vibrant green grasses that sparkle when the little black calves run about,” says Londie Garcia Padelsky.
AMANDA AND RONNIE GARCIA exercise three of their horses in a field of mustard flowers as several ranch dogs tag along.
On a chilly winter afternoon, Heidi Breese and Roy Garcia hike up the mountaintop where they can see the rapidly growing city below (above). Ronnie Garcia enjoys a spectacular sunset during an evening ride (below).