Neil Young’s song “After the Gold Rush” imagined a world where drifters tamed the West under silver moons and scorched sunsets that never faded. Its lyrics were a meditation: Could the western dream survive into the future?
In the heart of America’s greatest bullion strike, that question was answered by a landscape of hoofs and horns. What followed the mines was an existence of weathered saddles and muddy slopes, of blistered hands and open ranges. It was a legacy of homesteading that defined the territory’s undying will to carry on.
Today, ranchers are the Gold Country’s main culture-bearers. Their black-eyed, roaming herds offer a living line of defense that preserves the scenes people hold dearest. The chipped paint on barns on lush hillsides, the nighttime owl echoes through shadowed oaks and winding brooks that ripple through grass are all safeguarded by the men and women who keep steers wandering like clouds against the sky.
Yet shifting markets and changes around commodities mean these hardscrabble operators have plenty of challenges. And so, as small, family-run businesses in Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties continue to survive, their owners keep strapping on their boots with one suggestion: “Support your local ranchers.”
Big drives and iron bells
From the soft slopes of Mokelumne Hill to the stony trails of the high Sierra, J.W. Dell’Orto drives his herds in ways that go back generations in the Mother Lode. He and his wife Anne are among Calaveras County’s youngest full-time ranchers, and they have as much zeal for the profession as any cow boss you’re likely to meet. While J.W. loves talking about the lessons of the old breed, he’s also aware of his status as a pathfinder for the next crop of local ranchers. The world is changing; he has to be on top of it.
There’s nothing nostalgic about getting a phone call in the middle of the night to hear that a cow has escaped onto a nearby road. That’s the kind of evening Dell’Orto had in April, when he headed out into the darkness.
“Luckily, it was only on an old dirt backroad, so I didn’t have to rush too much,” Dell’Orto recalls. “But if it had been out on a highway, I’d have had to grab it that instant. Either way, you’re patching the fence the same night.”
Ranchers are prepared to take action at any hour. Guaranteed breaks don’t figure into the life. J.W.’s ancestors knew that. The Dell’Ortos arrived in Mokelumne Hill in the late 1880s, Italian-Swiss stock who followed business opportunities that came with the rise of industrial mines like the Kennedy and the Gwin. These merchants quickly found a family calling in the open-range freedom of cattle ranches. For J.W., the sound of cow bells on the hillsides and the feel of riding alongside calves are part of his earliest memories. His father, Stan, is a lifelong rancher, as was grandfather, Robert Glen Dell’Orto. His brother, Mattley, raises cattle and works full-time with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Though J.W. has always known ranching is no way to get rich, he never had a second thought about keeping the tradition alive.
“Growing up with it, it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “My wife grew up with it, too. She’s a fourth-generation rancher from Copperopolis.”
J.W. and Anne’s herd of 200-plus cattle spend the fall giving birth in the low country before getting hauled to the mountains above Arnold in late May. There they graze on high slopes and ridges during the hot months. By October, they’re rounded up and taken to their final destination, the Cattlemen’s Livestock Market in Galt.
Sounds easy, right? Think again. J.W.’s life is year-round work. May arrives with a trip to the mountains as he erects 35-miles of drift fences – the barriers would otherwise be destroyed by snow each year. That job takes the better part of a month. Summers in the Sierra mean J.W. is spending time at the cow camp, keeping track of the herd. Calves are birthed in the fall while parts of the herd are transported, eight or nine cows at a time, to Galt. Add to that making sure the ranch’s fences hold up against winter storms, and J.W. can only look forward to the gorgeous spring weather as a moment to catch up on countless jobs around the homestead. He spends weeks during April again welding massive bell harnesses used to locate his cows in the mountains.
Even what might sound like the simplest part of the job to a layman, driving his livestock to the auction takes forethought and hard-won experience.
“If you’re going to sell some older bulls, then you can only hold two in your trailer at a time, and they have to be separated,” J.W. notes. “Otherwise, they’ll really bust your trailer apart.”
There are also breeding decisions to think about. The Dell’Ortos run angus-cross steers with pedigrees carefully designed to thrive at elevation and altitude.
“Getting in the high country, they need to be able to travel and not just sit there,” he explains. “The breeding helps them in that environment.”
How do ranchers manage all these responsibilities? Two words: Mutual support. Many Calaveras cattle families help each other out, especially when it comes to branding and various families’ big drives. A typical big drive takes 15 riders to push a heard, while another four or five people operate trucks. That’s actually how J.W. and Anne first did it when they were kids; the Dell’Orto and Wooster clans backed each other up on rougher days.
“When you get a bunch of families together like that, it becomes a lot more fun, and a lot more of a social event,” J.W. observed. “It gives the work a whole different dimension.”
The campfire camaraderie that has existed for generations is alive and well, but the economic world of the cowboy is quickly changing. Today, small ranchers are part of a broader, dynamic global beef economy. They pay close attention to international markets. Whenever the value of the U.S. dollar goes up in Europe and Asia, the value of U.S. commodities – in particular, beef – tends to drop on the domestic side. That’s important, since most Gold Country ranchers sell their cattle to feedlots in the Midwest. And any element of volatility can impact their bottom lines, from ongoing drought in one state to severe flooding in another. If supplies of feed-grade corn for animals is hurt by a natural disaster, the interruption in the food chain can quickly drive beef prices up.
“It’s kind of like watching futures,” J.W. notes. “Because when the market is hot, that’s when you’re going try to make it work for sales.”
The distance between California’s sunshine and the beef industry’s far-off hubs is another reality that area ranchers deal with. When outfits in Nebraska, Texas and Idaho buy steers from the Mother Lode, they know transportation costs alone will be 10 cents for every 100 pounds that’s hauled. It’s an expense that Midwestern feedlots cannot afford. The ranching families in Calaveras have also dealt with gradual inflation. Twenty years ago, when J.W. first started, the cost for a diesel three-quarter ton pickup was about $25,000. Today, the same essential work vehicle can set a rancher back as much as $60,000. Profits on beef haven’t risen at anywhere near that rate.
But the future is not all financial pain. New advances in video conferencing allow J.W. and Anne to showcase their cattle as early as July – if the market’s peaking – to potential buyers all over the country. So far, this technological advantage has helped Dell’Orto Ranch to expand sales as far east as Michigan. On a more fundamental level, the real edge ranchers like J.W. and Anne have for the future is their deep-seeded embrace of a bareknuckle independence that gave their ancestors purpose.
“Sure, it’s hard in the sense that you don’t get to retire anymore, and you just work into your 80s, until you absolutely can’t do it anymore,” J.W. says. “But you do have that freedom to handle your work the way you want to handle it. What I do, it’s not a job; it’s a lifestyle.”
From hoofs to plates
It was a culinary movement that started in the 1970s. Food lovers in California sought chefs to do magic with locally sourced ingredients. Jeremiah Tower at Chez Panisse in Berkeley showed the way and the Golden State’s other kitchen virtuosos saw the light. Over time there has been a growing demand for meat from alternative sources, especially hormone- and antibiotic-free cuts from animals raised in the old, open-space tradition.
Gold Country ranchers are experts on free-range, grass-fed, naturally handled cattle. However, getting their superior beef into the hands of cooks and consumers is a huge challenge. That’s because federal regulations mandate that all meats destined for consumers be processed through United States Department of Agriculture-certified facilities. Since there are only a handful of USDA operations scattered across California, the transportation and storage costs make it difficult for ranchers to give conscientious meat-lovers in the region what they want. At the moment, area residents who want to buy beef from most Sierra foothill ranges have to pay a mobile USDA butcher to travel to a ranch to oversee the harvesting and transportation of each steer. It’s not uncommon for families to team up to cover that cost while splitting the meat, but most Mother Lode ranchers sell less than a handful of animals that way each year.
However, in 2006, five ranching families in Tuolumne County launched a local farm-to-fork revolution.
One of them was Jack Gardella, a fourth-generation rancher from Jamestown. Along with his wife Trish, Jack owns Montezuma Ranch, a spring-green, sprawling patch of open fields under the shadow of rising hills.
“I’ve been ranching all my life,” Gardella said. “I started helping my dad and uncle when I was in grammar school. It’s not as romantic as it looks in the movies. It’s a lot of work; but I really love it.”
Gardella has turned Montezuma Ranch into one of the most natural, self-sustaining cattle operations in the region. He uses goats and sheep for weed abatement. He relies on the soil-diving snouts of hogs as “rototillers.” Pecking chickens have taken the place of pesticides.
Relying on wisdom of the past, Gardella and his son John run 300-head of cattle through a setting almost as idealistic as the one the Gardella family knew in the 1800s.
“We don’t use any chemicals anymore,” Gardella notes. “And I think that’s important.”
A one-on-one connection with healthy, unstressed cattle is second nature to ranchers like Gardella, so when he learned about a demand for beef products that didn’t come from gigantic feedlots stacked 700-animals thick, he knew that his own homestead filled the bill. The same is true of some other ranchers in Tuolumne, where the humane, rustic legacies of old are still the norm.
Meanwhile, anger kept rising about the state of the industrial feedlots. Matthew Scully’s 2003 book “Dominion” exposed staggering cases of cruelty and environmental damage associated with “Big Ag.” Investigative reporters told stories of cattle being injected with antibiotics to keep them alive through digesting the huge amounts of corn they were fed. This process passed some of those chemical agents into the steaks and tri-tips that were harvested. Additionally, CQ Researcher reports that as much as 35,000 miles of American rivers have been polluted by hog, chicken and cattle waste from commercial meat operations.
A number of Gold Country ranchers began to see a market for their grass-fed and finished beef, as well as pork and chickens raised in traditional settings. They just needed a realistic avenue to get their products to local customers. That opportunity presented itself in 2006, when the Rawhide Meat processing plant in Jamestown came up for sale. The Gardellas teamed up with the Macho, Gaiser, Hurst and Beeman families to buy the place, an acquisition that started the gradual process of opening a Rawhide Meat retail outlet at 18256 Highway 108, Jamestown, in April of 2015.
Between Rawhide’s five ranching clans, the store is now a carnivore’s dreamscape. Its refrigerators are stacked with Tuolumne-grown tri-tips, steaks, ribs, bacon strips, monster sausages, organic chicken, lamb chops and even rabbit. These products come doused in six different homemade marinades. Rawhide’s spicy tropical pork sausage bristles with flavor, a sizzling mouthful of sweet bites and citrus, all tamed by bits of red bell pepper that put a cloying coolness into each bite. Its chicken artichoke sausage, on the other hand, is beautifully warmed by salty flavors and balanced herbs, especially flavor-filled when bronzed on a grill.
There is also the main event: Rawhide’s crescent tri-tips soaked in a signature garlic and wine marinade. If dropped over the grill correctly, this pleasure has a butternut-like glaze and faint pings of sweetness that drip through the flame-licked fat of its surface. Cooking one of these tri-tips to a ruby red center also brings out the garlic heat of the marinade, keeping those phantom herb notes running through the beef.
All products at Rawhide Meats come directly from local ranchers, but that doesn’t mean that the process is easy for the families involved. The owners are only allowed to prepare and sell their meats after the animals are slaughtered by a USDA butcher. That means transporting their cattle to Los Banos, their hogs to Turlock and the goats and sheep to Dixon.
“Yeah, it’s a pain,” Gardella admits with a smile. “But we cut them up, wrap them and dress them ourselves. All of that – and the marinades – come directly from us.”
One look at the customers flocking into Rawhide Meats on a Saturday afternoon suggests the effort is highly appreciated across the Mother Lode. Rawhide’s co-owners, the Hursts, have even taken the mission to connect with locals a step further by hosting summertime events on their ranch, where customers can also taste their locally made wines and olive oils, ride a miniature train and see landmarks from famous Western movies. For Jamestown residents like Janis and Randy Jones, such parities create strong bridge between Hurst Ranch and the wider community.
“They really are lovely events,” Janis says. “There’s the wine, which is excellent, and the train. And Leslie Hurst is such a delight to speak with and she’s a really great artist, too.”
But while foodies have a field day at Hurst Ranch and Rawhide Meats, there’s still a challenge for its owners when it comes to getting their products to farm-to-fork restaurants. The distance between USDA slaughterhouses has created a situation in which only chefs who can use previously frozen meats to full effect will buy from Rawhide. The politics of the culinary world currently argue against kitchen masters doing that. Given California’s regulatory environment, Gardella doesn’t see the situation changing any time soon.
“The rules and regulations for a USDA plant, whether you kill one animal or a thousand in a day, are the same,” Gardella offered. “That means to have one around here, well, it’s just too cost-prohibitive.”
In the meantime, Rawhide Meats continues to provide great-tasting, guilt-free products for legions of barbecue fans. Gardella likes working the counter and getting to know customers, though he also enjoys working the herds from time to time. The earthy, open-air atmosphere of the hills continues to speak to him.
“There are too many people who don’t truly love what they do for a living,” Gardella reflects. “This is such good place to raise kids and grandkids. And while ranching isn’t easy, if you enjoy it, the work doesn’t feel like work. I haven’t regretted a single day of my life doing it.”
Col. Fraser West wasn’t afraid to rush headlong into a hail of artillery fire when he stormed an island in the South Pacific in 1944, so he certainly wasn’t afraid – even at the age of 94 – to go head-to-head with a Bay Area corporation he believed would hurt the way of life in Amador County. West soon taught a group of executives a lesson the Imperial Japanese Marines had already learned: Even wounded, this rancher had some hard bark on him.
Now that West has passed away, his daughter, Sondra West-Moore, is determined to keep his memory alive, both through his beloved ranch and his creed of conservation.
West was known for decades as “the Marine cowboy.” During World War II, he was a captain in the 3rd Battalion 7th Marines, commanding troops during the grizzly assault on Guadalcanal. When the smoke cleared, West’s superiors wanted to reward him with a safe post back in the U.S., but he refused to leave his men. That meant West was soon on the front lines again, this time on the island of Guam. West and his Marines ended up on the bloody fields on Fonte Hill heavily outnumbered. They fought through a cacophony of deadly shelling and held out until U.S. tanks broke the battleground open. West shot his way to cover when his left femur was shattered by a Japanese bullet. Even then he stayed in the fight.
During the 41 years that West lived in Ione, he carried the scars of Fonte Hill with him, one leg shorter than the other. Few would have guessed the handicap. West was an avid downhill skier, a world champion team roper and an award-winning breeder of Texas longhorn cattle. He was still cutting the ski slopes to white dust when he was 88. He was still team-roping at rodeos when he was 94. Just days before he passed at age 97, he was driving his tractor through the sprawling fields of his Westhaven Ranch.
This was the man who Farallon Capital Management LLC and its partners took on when they proposed to build a massive quarry and asphalt plant across 400-acres of virgin land in the Ione Valley. A number of residents were worried about the impacts of air and sound pollution on the 24 family-owned, legacy cattle ranches that surrounded the project. Yet it was West, a battle-hardened warrior who’d worked with horses since grade school, who stepped up to publicly take them on.
West had met challenges like this since he was old enough to strap boots on in the dusty ranges of Elko, Nev.
“He was a cowboy from the beginning,” remembers Teddy West, the colonel’s wife of nearly 70 years. “He bought two horses for $25 from my mother when he was 12.”
Laughing, Teddy adds, “Later, every time we’d move in the Marine Corps, there was a horse that had to go first.”
West brought his family to the Ione Valley in 1973. He built his own roping arena and started breeding steers, at first just for lasso practice. Over time, West learned more and more about purebred Texas longhorns, which he was convinced could be genetic saviors for large-scale commercial cattle herds. Texas longhorns are an ancient breed of bovine that evolved in Africa and thrived for centuries in Spain. If their genes aren’t tampered with, their strong survival instincts allow them to easily live off of grass, walnuts and acorns. With very sturdy immune systems, purebred longhorns also don’t need to be vaccinated or fed antibiotics. Since they don’t eat corn, they don’t need to be pumped with allergy medications either. West pondered what part he could play in preserving the best of Texas longhorns.
“I really worry about commercial herds getting so inbred and corn-based,” Sondra said. “And that was something that interested my dad, too. To start with, everyone is so dependent on corn feed now. What if something happens to the corn supply? Beyond that, it’s not good for the cattle and it’s not good for the people.”
The cattle-breeding program West designed took off. In the coming decades, West was honored as a lifetime achievement breeder, as well as recipient of the Elmer Parker Lifetime Award, presented to him by the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America in recognition of a lifetime of devotion to the Texas longhorn breed and its breeders.
He also became a minor ranching celebrity for walking a 1,850-pound bull named John C. Freemont, whose horns were 84-inches across, down the streets of Sacramento. West wanted city kids to have the chance to see agriculture up close. Sondra says that, while her father was a man of many interests, he was never happier than when riding a horse around his bulls and calves.
“Ranching meant the most to him,” she recalls, tearing up. “Daddy liked being outside. He liked communing with nature. He found peace in the outdoors … After everything he’d seen in the war, and later helping with the prisoner exchange in Korea, he could appreciate those things.”
But in early 2012, West encountered something that he considered a threat to the calm, ranching rhythms of Ione. That’s when representatives with Farallon sought to build the quarry and asphalt plant on the edge of his property. According to West’s family, a spokesman for the corporation told the colonel on his doorstep that all of his neighbors were in favor of the project. West reportedly looked that man eye-to-eye and said, “I don’t believe you.”
In the coming weeks, Sondra visited her father and immediately noticed he’d lost 25 pounds and seemed uncharacteristically distressed. West finally told her about what had happened. The West family eventually started the Ione Valley Land, Air & Water Defense Alliance, a nonprofit comprised of Amador residents and ranchers who didn’t want to see the Ione Valley’s open space decimated. In just 17 days, the group collected 2,200 signatures from residents who were against the project.
On Jan. 2, 2015, the Marine Cowboy drifted off for good in his armchair, seated next to a window where he could stare out at his herd.
“I really miss him, but he had a brilliant life,” Sondra says. “Everyone who knew him understood he was one of a kind.”
Sondra is continuing her father’s opposition to the quarry and asphalt plant through a federal lawsuit that’s waiting to be heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
While Sondra keeps her father’s conservation flame burning, she’s also making a name for herself as a cattle breeder. She was recently elected president of the California Texas Longhorn Association, a group that often chats about her reputation as a natural “bull whisperer.” It’s something to see a 2,000-pound bull with 100-inch horns nuzzle its head under Sondra’s palm.
“They chose if you can touch them, and they let you know through body language,” Sondra explained. “They are very present. Bulls are more social than cows, which are suspicious by nature. But God forbid you approach a longhorn bull without his permission.”
Even one of Westhaven’s dominant herd sires, a bull named Tuff Test, allows Sondra to stroke his neck, which resembles a muscular tree trunk. Tuff Test is a son of Cowboy Tuff Chex, currently rated the No. 1 longhorn breeding male in the world. Right now, Tuff Test is a solid 1,800 pounds of muscle and bone, with still another 400 pounds to come before the animal reaches maturity. Sondra has a closer relationship with the runts of the herd, like the baby bull she named Captain. Not long after Captain was born, he came down with a nearly fatal case of pneumonia. Sondra nursed him back to health, even massaging him through an entire night until the fever broke. Today, the sight of Sondra in the pasture brings Captain moseying over, often trying to lick her hand and even her face.
“They’re emotional and they don’t forget anything,” she notes. “They’re affectionate. They evaluate you and judge you; it’s a relationship. You can see them actively make decisions. The closest thing I can equate them to is elephants. If the mothers lose a calf, they mourn for weeks.”
Sondra is sure the public would never guess how much personality longhorns actually have. So why do perceptions of bulls being rage-driven or brain-dead continue? Sondra thinks it’s because industrial cattle lots have bred the spirit out of commercial herds.
“Domesticated cattle are sort of like, at this point, chickens,” she noted. “They lack survival instincts. They stay together. They’re flighty. But these longhorns are individuals. They retain their personality. They’re sensitive.”
Before the corporations moved in, keeping those traits alive in cattle was her father’s initial conservation mission. And there are other ranchers who have worked to protect the Ione Valley’s importance in the livestock world, as well as the pristine elements of its beauty.
Just down the road from Westhaven Ranch is Winterport Farm, which harvests everything from pumpkins and melons to grass-fed beef. The homestead traces its origins to 1865, when the Winter family arrived from Germany. The Winters’ land slowly evolved into a family ranch. By World War II, George Winter ran a sizable dairy on the property. By 1970, he’d expanded into a cattle outfit. The ranch was inherited by George’s daughter, Susan, and her husband, Dan Port.
Over the past decade, the Ports have worked closely with Amador County leaders to try to find strategies for bringing a USDA slaughter facility to Ione. While accomplishing that task has remained elusive, the Ports do sell their own beef directly to consumers through various farmers markets in the region.
The Ports’ affection for the golden sunsets in Ione was clear in 2008, when they sold the development rights on their 180-acres to the Sacramento Valley Conservancy, a move that would permanently protect the raw, unbroken nature of the land. At the time, Dan was a board member of the Amador Land Trust, so to avoid any conflicts, he turned to the larger nearby SVC. Selling to a nonprofit meant the Ports got 15 percent under the market value of their property. Essentially, the family donated $120,750 toward keeping the Ione Valley a rancher’s valley into the future.
Dan explained the move at the time in straightforward terms, saying the idea of anyone building on Winterport’s range would be “almost sinful.”
Sondra, a close friend of the Ports, believes it’s those shared sensibilities that bind Ione’s ranching families together.
“The people who do this, we’re all in this together,” Sondra says. “When the recent storms made it seem like the creek would flood our house, all our neighbors were here in a heartbeat, armed with sandbags, ready to help.”
That’s a sentiment Dell’Orto and his fellow ranchers in Moke Hill also embrace. J.W. stopped his own evacuation from the Butte Fire to save a neighbor’s horses as the flames drew closer.
“We look out for each other here,” J.W. recalls.
Even something as simple as five families sharing a business like Rawhide Meat for the benefit of their community exemplifies the ranching mindset.
“This place is run by a team effort,” Jack Gardella emphasized.
Rural communities in America may be struggling to survive, but in the Mother Lode, it’s cattle wranglers that continue to prove a timeless lesson – the stalwart stay strong when there’s a herd of goodwill behind them. That’s a way of life the Gold Country’s ranchers continue to preserve.