A WORLD WE HARDLY KNEW
The Carrisa Plains
by Craig Deutsche
Fifty miles inland from the California Coast the Carrisa Plains are bounded on the west by the Caliente Mountains and by the Temblor Range on the east. The only road running through the valley, largely dirt, connects Highway 166 on the south with Highway 58 on the north. It is a long, empty, and dusty road to “nowhere.” There are no accidental visitors. Cut off from the rest of California, few people know the geography or history of this place.
To Native Americans this valley is sacred land. It is uncertain whether there were ever permanent settlements on the Plains, but archeological relics, lithic scatter, and pictograph sites indicate that it was visited seasonally by Chumash and Yokuts groups. The proximity of Salinan lands to the north makes it probable that these peoples were present also. The earliest European explorers to arrive left very uncertain records, but it is clear that by the early 1800s itinerant sheepherders and cattlemen used these interior parts of the central coast for their stock. Although there were Spanish land grants awarded in the Cuyama Valley along highway 166, no records have been found to indicate that such grants existed within what is considered the Carrisa Plains today. The first named resident of the Plains was a “J. Garcia” who in 1850 is believed to have kept sheep and occupied an adobe near the present Saucito Ranch. The more certain historical record begins twenty-five years after this date. Before this, however, the name “Carrisa” ought to be explained.
“Carrizo” is a Spanish designation for a tall reed that grows in damp ground and near springs. The 1853 US Railroad Survey Map
for California designated the present plain as “Llano Estero,” and it located a “Carrizo Ranch” fifteen or twenty miles farther west. Llano Estero, which translates roughly as salt marsh or estuary, undoubtedly refers to the large, ephemeral Soda Lake in the center of the valley. As the Carrizo ranch was the only occupied settlement nearby, the name eventually displaced “Llano Estero.” Early immigrants were from many countries with only rudimentary educations, and so the spoken word led to a number of different spellings which included Carisa, Carriso, Carrissa, and Carrisa. The Carrizo Plain National Monument adopted the original Spanish word, but the older ranching families at the north are very definite that their community belongs to the Carrisa Plains. It is a curiosity that the reed grass for which the Monument was named has never been definitely found within the present boundaries.
The first Europeans to live permanently on the Carrisa Plains were the family of Chester Rude Brumley. Originally Chester was a manager for a large absentee landowner, James McDonald, but he subsequently became owner of the ranch known as El Saucito and in 1876 built the rather elegant two story house that still stands there. He died in 1888, and a few years later the land was foreclosed by a bank. At about the same time a homestead was established in the Elkhorn Valley by Peter McCart who had arrived from Bakersfield. Another homestead in the southern end of the Plains was established in those years by the family of Edmund and Mary Morris. Mary died in 1896 and lies in a grave plot near the homestead. These families are the only ones for which I have been able to find definite records, although there were once physical remains from homesteads of this period near the Temblors south of Highway 58 and along Bitterwater Road north of 58. The years 1898 to 1900 were ones of drought, and most small landowners gave up and sold out. In the dry conditions of eastern San Luis County 160 acres were simply not enough for a farm to survive.
Between 1910 and 1935 farming and ranching returned. Oil had been discovered near Taft, and a railhead had been established at McKittrick. Although roads were marginal, these towns on the east side of the Temblors provided a market for grain and beef. Ranching families purchased large parcels of land and leased still more until operations involving thousands of acres became common. The names Beck and King were notable along Highway 58. Beyond the immediate necessities for family food, the crops were almost exclusively wheat. In these same years Jesus and Adalida Garcia lived at the Saucito Ranch with their twelve children. They were all cowboys, and a large part of their business was raising stock that was sent to rodeos all across central California. The rodeos were managed by Guadalupe Garcia, brother of Jesus, who was also known for creating and selling elaborate and ornate riding tack: bridles, saddles, and more. Jesus was a good cowboy but a poor businessman, and upon his death the Saucito went, once again, to a bank in Taft. The last of the families that might be mentioned during this time period was that of Alejandro and Clemente Galainena. These were Basque immigrants who lived east of the Temblors but trailed large flocks of sheep through the Carrisa Plains and were widely known. During these years no one was rich, but at least some families with large holdings managed adequately.
The Prosperous Years
Although it is normal for wet and dry years to alternate unpredictably, the year 1939 was one of unusually heavy rainfall. Farmers who owned land raised bumper crops and bought machinery, trucks, and automobiles. They added onto their buildings and some were able to take extended vacations. The profit was in the dryland wheat they raised on a two year cycle: planting in fall allowed winter rains to grow the crop, harvest was in late summer, and then the land would be left fallow for a second year before resuming the cycle once again. Farmers would have half their land in crops and half remained fallow so that there was a harvest every year. Some farmers who leased land were sufficiently successful that they could buy property of their own with the profits of these years. During World War II farming became more profitable still. Wheat was an essential commodity, and every bushel that was raised could be sold at a good price. Where ranches included ground too steep for farming, the hills were used for cattle. This was an obvious benefit in years when grain crops were poor.
Along with the relative affluence of these years, a strong community developed at the north of the Plains. The junction of Soda Lake Road and Highway 58 was known as the Simmler community. The Farm Bureau and the elementary school were centers of social life: Saturday dances, card tournaments, school dramatic productions, a June barbecue, a women’s group, and in later years a volunteer fire department. Everyone knew their neighbors, and indeed nearly everyone was related in some way to their neighbors: cousins, in-laws, uncles and aunts. Poor roads and distance isolated the Plains from the outside world so that it was to be expected that families married nearby and neighbors knew and helped each other. Some families who had arrived early in the 20th century were fourth generation farmers. It would be impossible to tell stories of everyone who lived on the Plains during these years but the names of these extended families included Cooper, Washburn, Goodwin/Werling, Van Matre, Kuhnle, Cavanagh, Lewis, McMillan, Traver, Wreden, Rexroth, and Twisselman. It is perhaps curious that the Saucito Ranch had a series of owners who remained for rather shorter periods of time, Edgar, Bingeman, and Wildman.
During these years, 1935 to 1970, there was also another and rather separate community that lived toward the south of the Plains, near and along Highway 166. It was simply easier for these families, Stubblefield, Jobe, Hudson, and Wells, to reach Maricopa and New Cuyama than to hazard a trip north to Simmler on the single road through the Plains.
The Later Years
Because it was isolated from the rest of California the Carrisa Plains was settled rather later than most other areas. This isolation could not last forever, and by the 70s and 80s the outer world was beginning to intrude. Between 1940 and 1980 prices paid for grain had increased only slightly. The cost of diesel fuel, however, had gone from 25 cents a gallon to several dollars. Similarly, the cost of a tractor in 1935 might the seven thousand dollars, but by 1980 it could be one hundred thousand. To be sure, the larger equipment allowed farmers to work greater acreages, but this in turn meant that a poor crop was not merely a hardship, it could mean the end of the farm. The federal government provided subsidies to farmers to grow less wheat, and although some ranchers planted barley in its place, the profitable years had gone past. Farmers were willing to sell.
Harvest on the Beck Ranch, probably in the 1960s
The southern part of the Carrisa Plains is drier than the north, farming is more precarious, and by 1980 the greater part of these lands had been sold to the Oppenheimer Corporation who sold stock to investors who need tax write-offs. When tax laws changed, Oppenheimer was happy to sell their lands to either the federal government or else to The Nature Conservancy which in turn sold them to the federal government. This was not without controversy. The newly federal lands were no longer available for leasing as they had once been, and farmers north of Highway 58 who had depended upon these leases were financially pressed through no fault of their own. When farming in the south ended and grazing became limited, the flora changed, some wildlife species suffered, and sandhill cranes which had migrated through the Plains for years no longer arrived.
In addition to these physical changes the community itself evolved. It became necessary for ranchers to take second jobs in town, wives commonly worked, and children aspired to college degrees and white collar work with shorter hours and more comfortable circumstances than the farms could provide. With better roads, with television, and now with Internet, the Plains were in contact with the rest of the world. Why would someone spend evenings playing cards in Simmler when there were good restaurants, movies, and clubs within an hour’s drive to the coast. Indeed, the Carrisa Plains is no longer the isolated world it once was.
The Plains Today
El Saucito Ranch, Soda Lake beyond, and the Temblor Range on the skyline
Perhaps the first great change to arrive on the Carrisa Plains was the creation of California Valley. In 1964 a developer bought the 7500 acre Chicote Ranch just south of 58 and divided it into two-and-a half acre parcels. These were promoted all over the state as a retirement paradise. The cost was $10 down with payments of $10 a month. The promotion effort was spectacular even by standards of the 21st century, and the lots sold. Paradise, however, is still a work in progress. Water quality is poor, if it is available at all, and municipal services are minimal. Their is no local government; it is administered as a part of San Luis Obispo County. Most lots are still vacant, but on the other hand it is quiet, the sky is huge, and city distractions are an hour away. Perhaps paradise depends on the beholder.
The other great change on the Plains has been the creation of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. In 1990 the federal lands were designated a “natural area,” but administrative policy was at the discretion of the Bureau of Land Management. In January, 2001, then President Clinton created the present National Monument under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Monument was created specifically to preserve a number of natural features, biological, geological, and historical. Visitors are accommodated and welcome with the provision that they do not compromise the conservation of species and habitat. Roads remain primitive, campgrounds have limited facilities, and the Visitor Center maintains restricted hours and these for only six months a year. In exchange for these inconveniences, it is possible to see a part of California much as it was 200 years ago before Europeans arrived and the land was settled.
Much of the earliest history is accessible in BLM papers kept in a small library at the Monument Visitor Center.
A history of agricultural development on the Plains is given in a Masters Thesis written in 1971 by Marijean H Eichel at the San Jose State College.
The greater part of the information given here was extracted from an extensive oral history project conducted by Jackie Czapla and Craig Deutsche. The recordings and transcripts of about ninety interviews are available at the San Luis Obispo County History Center and also in the Kennedy Library at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.