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A way of life slips out of range

Steve Tellam is an anachronism: a fourth-generation cowboy in San Diego County. He may be the last of his kind.

March 30, 2009|Mike Anton

RAMONA, CALIF. — The highway is jammed with people who wanted to live in the country inching their way toward jobs in the city. A few miles and a universe away, the last cowboy is making a living in what's left of that country.

Steve Tellam is bent over in a foul patch of mud and cow dung stroking a calf and feeding it milk from a bottle. He is wearing a straw Bangora hat, checkered shirt, Wranglers and a belt buckle the size of a salad plate. His hands are misshapen by decades of labor, hard as ax handles and rough as an old baseball glove. Two bicyclists pedal past the corral in Day-Glo outfits and don't even glance at Tellam and the starving newborn.

The calf was born overnight in a pasture Tellam leases from the local water treatment district. A dim bulb even by cow standards, the animal can't figure out how to grasp hold of its mother's distended udder.

Tellam has to teach the calf how to eat. Twice a day, he will milk the mother and toggle between the bottle and her udders until the calf gets the hang of it.

"They're fragile just like little kids," he says. "If they get sick one day, they could be dead the next. Coyote bait."

Tellam, 54, is a fourth-generation cowboy working in a region where being a cowboy no longer makes sense.

A century ago, San Diego County was a cattleman's paradise -- endless open range, plentiful water, tall grass and convenient transport to slaughterhouses and growing cities.

Tellam's great-grandfather, George Sawday, was Southern California's largest cattle baron. At a time when the Wright brothers were demonstrating that man could fly, Sawday ran vast herds on land stretching from the coast to the desert and from the Mexican border to Riverside.

A semblance of the Old West survived in the folds of the backcountry around Ramona and Julian well into the 20th century. Faded black-and-white photos of ranchers and their families line a wall in the small museum at the Santa Ysabel Indian Mission. The weathered faces look to be those of pioneers. In fact, the snapshots were taken in the 1930s and '40s, a time when old hands sensed an era was fading away.

The headline on a 1934 story in The Times about the area's depleted range described the future bluntly: "It's 'Last Round-Up' This Time!"

"Three score grim-faced men met here today," the story begins. "They came minus the hopes of their youth -- minus the vision of mighty herds with which to feed the multitude of city dwellers, without the rollicking songs of men of desert and mountain. They brought instead a feeling of pathos and despair, for they came to plan the beginning of what may be the end of the great range cattle era in this county."

Today, the range has been subdivided and developed, the water sucked away by cities, the grass thinned by years of drought. With the beef industry consolidated far from Southern California, raising cattle in these mountains is as viable a business as selling surfboards in Nebraska.

Tellam doesn't need a full hand to count the number of full-time cowboys in the area.

"It's not going to survive into the next generation," he says.

Through the decades, much of Sawday's land empire slipped through the fingers of Tellam's branch of the family. What's left is 500 acres near Julian -- valuable land, but in dry California not nearly enough to support a full-time cattle business

Tellam and his minority partners -- brother Mike and their 77-year-old father, Willie -- do all the work; they can't afford hired help.

Willie, and later Steve, learned everything they know about cattle and horses from a man named Hans Starr, a stern stockman from the Dakotas. After Willie's father was killed by a rattlesnake, Starr was hired as manager of the family ranch. He later married Willie's mother.

Starr knew cows. But he didn't understand that the value of the land lay in ranchettes, not ranches.

"He was a helluva cowboy but not a good businessman. . . . A lot of poor decisions were made," Willie says. "What happened, happened. There's no need dwelling on them."

Steve Tellam possesses a century's worth of accumulated knowledge about a way of life that is all but extinct in Southern California. Great wealth is not the goal. The singular passion and purpose he has for his work is its own reward.

"If we broke down what we make to hours worked -- that would be too depressing," Tellam says. "But I still have the greatest job in the world. I ride horses every day. I'm out here with eagles, wild turkey, deer -- all this wildlife. I have freedom. It's a great life and a tough business."

The work begins before sunup and stretches to sundown nearly every day. It's physical -- digging fence posts, stretching barbed wire, shoveling horse manure, hauling 125-pound bales of hay. It's also extremely dangerous. Roping and wrestling 300-pound animals to the ground so they can be vaccinated, castrated or dehorned. Chasing down errant cows on horseback in rocky canyons. Separating testosterone-fueled bulls before they kill each other.

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