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JAUNTS : Tracking a Working Ranch's Past : The county Museum of History and Art is displaying historical and contemporary photos of the 54,000-acre spread on Santa Rosa Island.

August 03, 1995|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It looks like a scene from the Old West: cowboys herding cattle over miles of dusty, wind-swept prairie.

But this is a 54,000-acre ranch in the least likely place--Santa Rosa Island, 30 miles off the coast of Ventura County, where ranching still goes on pretty much as it did more than a century ago.

You can get a feel for the place if you visit the new exhibit at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, "Isla de los Vaqueros: The Ranching History of Santa Rosa Island, 1843-Present."

The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 22, combines historical and contemporary photos of the ranch and its proprietors, along with some ranching paraphernalia, like lassos the island cowboys still make from hides they tan.

The exhibit tracks the ranch's history, beginning in 1843 when Mexican governor Manuel Micheltorena granted the island to two brothers, Jose and Carlos Carrillo. The brothers, in turn, gave it to their two daughters whose husbands stocked it with cattle, sheep, horses and pigs.

After the two men had a falling out, the island was purchased by the More family who used it mainly as a sheep ranch. Wool was in high demand around the time of the Civil War, and some 100,000 sheep once grazed on the island.

Alexander P. More, well known in the ranching circles of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, made an even bigger name for himself in 1884, when he shot and killed his Chinese cook as the man was trying to leave the island on a visiting schooner. More got off on a technicality, though, because the slaying occurred on the wharf over water and jurisdiction could never be established.

Walter L. Vail and J.V. Vickers, a couple of neighboring ranchers in Arizona, bought the island from the More family in 1902. That partnership is still intact, enduring three generations of family management.

After Vail and Vickers took over, they removed the sheep that had overrun the island and later brought in cattle. Theirs was a "stocker" operation, one that takes young calves to the island and fattens them up for later sale back on the mainland.

Today, Al and Russ Vail, grandsons of Walter L. Vail, run the cattle ranch with foreman Bill Wallace. (The Vickers family is mainly a silent partner in the operation.) But the ranch's days are numbered. The National Park Service bought Santa Rosa Island for $29 million in 1986, with the caveat that the ranch could continue operating for another 25 years.

"It was inevitable that the park service would acquire it one way or another," said John Woolley of Ventura, great-grandson of Walter L. Vail. "It was too good to be true to have a place like that to yourself."

For his mother, Margaret Vail Woolley, 75, losing the ranch has been "like a death in the family." A Los Angeles area resident, Woolley has spent her life visiting the ranch.

The younger Woolley remembers frequent trips out to the island as a kid, sometimes staying a month in the summer. Now he takes his young children there.

"It was paradise for a little kid," he said. He rode horseback, "pretending to be a cowboy," or roamed the beaches or hiked the backcountry. A couple of summers, as a teen-ager, he worked the cattle.

"It really is a 19th-Century ranch," he said.

Nowhere in the exhibit does it mention the current flap over the cattle ranch. The National Parks and Conservation Assn., a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, has threatened to sue the National Park Service, saying the ranching operation is endangering some native plant species and birds.

Woolley and others say that's ludicrous. "Anything that survived the sheep era is there for the duration," he said. "It's a stable system. They've managed it really well."

In anticipation of the ranch becoming extinct, the Santa Cruz Island Foundation and several members of the Vail, Vickers and More families created the Santa Rosa Island Chapter in 1993. The idea was to preserve the island's history, mainly through oral interviews with people who lived, worked at and visited the ranch.

It's these oral histories and pictures that form much of the exhibit, which has been organized by the chapter's Kerry Blankenship Allen and museum curator Tim Schiffer. Photographer William B. Dewey provided the contemporary look of the ranch and its cowboys.

You'll see old photos of the cattle being unloaded from the Vaquero I, the cattle boat built in 1913 to transport the animals to the island where they would swim ashore. Newer photos show the Vaquero II, built in 1958. Other photos show the ranch house, bunkhouse and even a little school on the island.

Old saddles, refurbished over and over using leather from island stock, are in the exhibit, along with handmade whips, reins and lassos. Perhaps the most amazing ranch implement is a 1950s lawn mower. The machine was built from a boat propeller and other scrap by onetime foreman Diego Cuevas, who was known for his ingenuity.

Details

* WHAT: "Isla de los Vaqueros: The Ranching History of Santa Rosa Island, 1843-Present."

* WHERE: Ventura County Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St., Ventura.

* WHEN: Exhibit runs through Sept. 22. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: Adults $2, children 12 and under free.

* CALL: 653-0323.

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