The History of The Sea Ranch from the Pomo Indians to Present

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The Early Years
The Later Years
The Present

The Early Years

The first recorded visitors to this land known as The Sea Ranch  were Pomo Indians who lived over the first ridge to the east. They made seasonal treks to the coast to gather kelp, seaweed, and shell fish, but the strong coastal winds deterred them from establishing their homes here. A peaceful tribe, the Pomos lived in kinship with the land: hunting, fishing, and tightly weaving native materials into baskets that could hold water.

Settlement proceeded slowly. Access by land and sea was difficult and navigation hazardous. In 1846, Ernest Rufus, a naturalized Mexican citizen, was given a grant of five Spanish leagues (17,580 acres), which stretched south from the Gualala River to Ocean Cove. Called the "Rancho de Hermann" and later simply the German Rancho, it was one of the last Mexican land grants, as California broke away from Mexico three months later. The previous year, 1845, Rufus had sent another German, Frederick Hugal, to the land he had selected. Mexican law mandated that a grantee make improvements upon the granted property within one year to finalize the grant process. In order to satisfy this requirement, Hugal built a cabin on the hill above the present Equestrian Facility, fenced in pasture for his beef cattle, and constructed a warehouse near the bluff, from which he planned to ship and receive cargo. He also planted fruit trees, potatoes, green peas, and other vegetables. In 1849, the German Rancho was transferred to two German immigrants, William Benitz and Charles Meyer. By 1855, Germans William Bihler and Charles Wagner acquired title to the northern 2 1/2 leagues. Bihler bought out Wagner's interest in 1857.

Bihler's Coastal Rancho

Bihler's interest in the coastal property focused on the open meadows which he wanted for pasture for his livestock operation. Arriving in California in 1849, when he was 21 years old, he apprenticed as a butcher in San Francisco for a couple of years before becoming a partner in a beef-raising operation on the Huichica Rancho, which stretched across southern Sonoma County and into western Napa County. When he acquired his German Rancho property, he sent back to Baltimore for his two young nephews to join him and manage his two cattle ranches. The elder, Jacob Stengel, would run the Huichica ranch and the younger, Christian Stengel, along with Adam Knipp, would operate the German Rancho Property. By 1859, Adam Knipp and Christian Stengel, both in their early 20s, were developing a large cattle ranch on Bihler's coastal rancho. Jacob Stengel worked the Huichica ranch until his death from a horse accident in 1862. Chris Stengel had his brother's body buried on the hill not too far from where Hugal had built his 1845 cabin. Within a couple of years, Knipp and Stengel would build a 2-story residence on the same hill in a location that looked out upon the headstone erected to the memory of Jacob Stengel. Over the next 60 years, other graves began to dot the area around Jacob's tombstone, but their locations were marked with redwood markers, many of which burned when a fire swept the area about 1920. Today, only Jacob's headstone still stands on the top of the hill above the Equestrian Facility.

Beginning with a 900-acre purchase in 1865, Knipp and Stengel gradually bought out William Bihler's 3,220 acres of ranch land on the German Rancho. Bihler sold the forested areas between the meadows and the eastern Gualala River to Gualala Mill and Lumber Company, in which he was a founding partner. The northern 985 acres (from the north end of Unit 28 to the northern Gualala River) has a history that differs from the rest of the ranch. Squatters settled the northern area in the 1850s. Although Bihler had the sheriff remove them in 1861, he was unable to obtain what he considered to be a clear title to the land. Instead of passing the northern 985 acres to his nephew and Knipp, Bihler sold the property to Robert Rutherford over the years from 1872 to 1882. Like Stengel, Rutherford also raised cattle. It was the inability to gain clear title to the land which eventually resulted in Oceanic Properties, Inc. responding to the County's demand for public access in 1968 by deeding the north end of Sea Ranch to be developed into a county park.

Three events occurring in the late 1870s caused Knipp and Stengel Ranch to reduce the percentage of beef cattle and increase their dairy herd. The first was Bihler's construction of a landing at Black Point; the second was the construction of a county road (although unpaved until 1928); the third was the advent of refrigeration for shipping. Until this time, cattle were driven overland to Petaluma where they were fattened before slaughter. Only enough meat, butter, and milk were produced locally to supply the sparse population. Refrigeration and improved transportation permitted dairy products to arrive at Bay Area markets before they spoiled.

Remnants of the final two decades of the 19th century are few. The barn at Black Point, the seasonal blooming of calla lilies, and bits of glass in the ground provide the last evidence of the landing and settlement that once thrived at Bihler's Landing. The small cabin at Black Point dates from a later period. Stengel constructed the large white Knipp-Stengel barn, which stands alongside Highway 1 at mile marker 53.76, as a dairy barn. Rutherford had a similar barn constructed at what is now the northwest corner of Halcyon and Highway 1. The Knipp-Stengel barn and surrounding outbuildings constitute an historic district that was listed on the National Register in 1987. Chris Stengel also built the smaller barn which stands to the southwest of the Knipp-Stengel barn. A lonely tombstone marking the 1862 burial place of Chris Stengel's brother Jacob stands on the hill above the barn. In 1903, Knipp and Stengel were ready to retire and sold their ranch land.

Gualala resident Joe Tongue leased Rutherford's ranch during the 1890s. He raised grain and fruit, which he shipped out from an exposed north-facing landing he constructed on Rutherford's land. Rutherford's 985 acres were lost to bank foreclosure in 1895 and were resold to Bender Brothers Mill and Lumber Company in 1903.

The Lumber Years

As early as 1897-98, Bender Brothers had constructed a landing on the property and was shipping out split stakes and tan bark. Late in 1903, Bender was able to acquire both the 3,220-acre Knipp-Stengel Ranch and the 985-acre Rutherford Ranch. They immediately began construction of a large mill on the bluff. Alongside the county road, they built a saloon, store, and warehouse. In recognition of the location, they named the landing and mill Del Mar. Within six months, they had financially overextended themselves and went into receivership.

The court-appointed trustee turned the logging and mill operation over to lumbermen Frank Glynn and Hans Petersen. Petersen and family moved into the small cabins that had been built by Clary and Rutherford and that had been relocated to a location alongside the county road. Although the cabins are now gone, the well that served the family can be identified by the stone well house that stands today a few yards to the southeast of the remodeled Ed Ohlson house at the Del Mar Community Center. As dozens of workers from the recently closed Gualala Mill came to find work and built cabins for their families, there developed a settlement known as Del Mar. In 1905, the Del Mar School, which stands at the southwest corner of Highway 1 and Deer Trail, was constructed.

Between 1903 and 1910, when the Del Mar Mill burned, the lumber company operated a rail line which stretched across the meadow from Del Mar Landing to the creek to the north of the Knipp-Stengel barn. Oxen pulled the harvested lumber from the hilly steep canyons to a location where they could be loaded into rail cars. The oxen were sheltered in the bull barn across Highway 1 from Del Mar School. The tree-hidden warehouse, Del Mar School, the deteriorated bull barn, and the smaller barn north of the present Del Mar Community Center are remnants of the once-thriving Del Mar Community. A deteriorated wooden railroad bridge can still be located in Unit 24 north of Whalebone Reach.

The Bender Brother trustees finally sold the Del Mar property to capitalist Walter Frick in 1912. Frick, who resided in San Francisco, knew that several hundred Russians, fleeing religious persecution, had sailed from Russia to San Francisco, arriving in June 1912. Headed by Emil Noshkin, the Russian colonists were searching for a large tract of isolated land where they could farm and rear their children in their native traditions. Within a couple of weeks of buying the coastal property, Frick leased the property to the Russians.

The Russian Colony

The Russians planted all sorts of fruits and vegetables on Frick's 4,819-acre Del Mar Ranch. They used steam tractors, which were fed with posts from fences remaining from ranching days, to work their fields. The Russians' new life was beyond their wildest dreams. Not only were their crops abundant, but Sonoma County provided a Russian-speaking teacher who taught their children during the day and the adults at night. Regional newspapers wrote glowing tales of the successful Russians at Del Mar.

Unfortunately, the Russian colony lasted only until 1914. Confident that they could successfully farm Del Mar, in January 1913, Noshkin offered to buy Frick's ranch. Frick, who had witnessed the extent of the Russian success, agreed to the sale but set up an impossible payment schedule which the naive colonists signed. Within three months, payments were in arrears and, with fields ready for harvest, the Russians were forced off the property in 1914.

The only remaining evidence of the Russian colony today is a sod-covered circle of stones located at the bluff edge beyond the end of Sea Stack. The stones mark the burial place of a Russian named Nicholas Podsakoff, who died in September 1912 while bringing a steam tractor from Point Arena wharf to Del Mar.

Walter Frick owned the property which he named Rancho Del Mar (The Sea Ranch) from 1914 until his death in 1937. He lived in San Francisco and later on his vast Diablo Ranch estate. He considered the home he used at Del Mar a summer place.

Yet Frick brought many changes to the coast. Between 1916 and 1929, he planted the hedgerows as windbreaks and to divide the meadows. He developed Del Mar into a sheep ranch and employed resident ranch foremen to oversee day-to-day operations. There are several structures left from Frick's ownership: the shepherd's cabin at Black Point, One-Eyed Jack's cabin, the shearing shed, the ewe pens at Monarch Glen, and the playhouse next to Del Mar School.

Frick died in 1937 and left a complicated estate. From 1937 to 1941, the property taxes on his Rancho Del Mar went unpaid. Finally, in March 1941, the property was auctioned off on the steps of the Contra Costa County Courthouse. Margaret Ohlson from Annapolis and her four sons--Edward, Chester, Ernest, and Elmer--purchased the ranch for $100,000, 40 percent of the price Frick had demanded from the Russians thirty years earlier! The Ohlsons paid an additional $25,000 for 2,200 ewes.

Ed, Chester, and Elmer Ohlson managed the ranch very much like the ranch foremen had done. Ernest Ohlson continued to manage the family ranch in Annapolis. Ed, his wife, and two children, and Chester moved into the house formerly occupied by Clary, Rutherford, Hans Petersen, and Walter Frick.

While the Ohlsons raised sheep during World War II, the military established a Signal Corps base near the present Drovers Close cul de sac. The ranch was busy during the war years: the Army's Signal Corps on the hill, the Navy combing the beaches with dogs in search of any enemy that had come ashore, and the Coast Guard patrolling offshore. The only remaining evidence of this period are the large concrete pads and cuts in the earth which are still visible approximately 100 yards down the hill from the Drovers Close cul de sac.

By 1953, Ed Ohlson was ready to build his family a new home, which he had built only one foot away from his previous home. His home has been remodeled and is now known as the Ed Ohlson house, which constitutes part of the Del Mar Community Center. At the same time, he had a new home built near the Knipp-Stengel barn for his brother Elmer. Today that building is the Ohlson Ranch Center. The only other standing structure from the days of the Ohlson Ranch is the larger of the two barns to the north of the Del Mar Community Center. Ed and his son Ross constructed the barn in 1946.

The Later Years

Architect and planner Al Boeke rediscovered the land for its beauty. He began to conceptualize the possibilities of a second-home community that harmonized with and was not injurious to the environment. Boeke approached the Hawaii-based Castle and Cooke Inc. with his idea of "building clusters of unpainted wooden houses in large open meadow areas and not allowing fences or lawns." In 1963, Castle and Cooke, through a subsidiary, Oceanic California Inc., purchased the entire 5,200-acre ranch for $2.3 million. Boeke's enthusiasm for his ideas of stewardship of the environment attracted a number of experts to the challenge.

Massive studies of native plants, animals, soils, and climate were conducted. Logging slash and debris were removed from the forested areas. The logged and overgrazed areas were replanted with thousands of trees. To reverse the effects of erosion and to provide wildlife refuge, native grasses and wildflowers were reseeded.

Lawrence Halprin, renowned landscape architect, drew on the Pomo Indians' earlier philosophy--"live lightly on the land"--in his contribution to the overall master plan for the development. The plan incorporates a set of building guidelines that require homes to be designed and sited to blend all structures into the natural setting and minimize their visual as well as physical impact upon the landscape.The name itself reflects a continuity and respect for the past: Rancho Del Mar has simply been translated into its English equivalent, The Sea Ranch. The community has become world-renowned for its sensitivity to and respect for the environment around it.

Architects

The architectural firm MLTW (Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker) created the unique Sea Ranch design with Condominium I, near Bihler's Point, and a number of the early homes. Joe Esherick developed the concept of the "Hedgerow Homes" along Black Point Reach, and also designed the first phase of The Sea Ranch Lodge. Robert Muir Graves, recognized as one of the foremost golf course architects, blended a Scottish Links style,championship-length course into the natural landscape.

Soon, The Sea Ranch began to draw unprecedented attention in the American press and in architectural journals throughout the world. Within months came the first of what was to be a long list of environmental and architectural awards for this new community.

In May 1991, the American Institute of Architect presented Charles Moore its Gold Medal Award, architecture's highest honor. This was in recognition of decades of an unfailing pursuit of design excellence, education, and professionalism. At the same time, Sea Ranch Condominium I Unit received the AIA's Twenty-Five Year Award. AIA gives this award each year to a building project, completed 25 to 35 years ago, which exemplifies a design of enduring significance that has withstood the test of time. Other buildings so honored include Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, both in New York City, and Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The 1991 Honor Awards Jury noted that The Sea Ranch is "profoundly conscious of the natural drama of its coastal site" and has "formed an alliance of architecture and nature that has inspired and captivated a generation of architects."

The Sea Ranch Today

The goal of the developer was to create a community where one could come to escape the rigors of city life, walk the more than 10-mile-long bluff trail in solitude, beachcomb on the sandy beaches, hike through the quiet redwoods, or simply sit on a headland such as Bihler's or Black Point to observe the whale migration in season. Other activities include swimming pools, tennis, basketball, and volleyball courts, stables for boarding horses, a private airport, and The Sea Ranch Golf Links, rated by Golf Digest in 1990 as "one of the five best 9-hole golf courses in the world." The course has since been expanded to18 holes.

The original 5,200 acres of The Sea Ranch eventually became 2,310 individual building sites on 3,500 acres, half dedicated as common, open space, with the remaining 1,500 acres as forest preserve. The other 200 acres became Gualala Point County Park and campgrounds.The private road system totals more than 40 miles. The building sites are provided with underground utilities: water, electricity, telephone, and TV cable. By 1988, all of the individual sites had been sold.

Sea Ranchers

The majority of the individuals attracted to the lifestyle of this area, quite predictably, come from the San Francisco Bay Area. As in the early years, the area is a resource for many of the needs of the Bay Area population. Now, instead of beef, hides, lumber, and the illegal imports from Canada and Mexico, the resource is escape from the urban and suburban life, if only for an occasional weekend. The resource is the natural beauty of this coastline, the abundant wildlife, the many species of wildflowers, the sea life, the redwoods, and many other facets of Sea Ranch life. Those who have been able to make the Ranch a full-time experience include authors, artists ,and composers, as well as people in aviation and consulting, and others who need not occupy an urban office on a regular basis. Many participate in Gualala Arts, the theater group, the community garden, and a variety of other activities.