Price­less Land

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).

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