IV

 

Ranch life had its changes as everything else has. Away back in the early seventies, I think it was 1874, Uncle Robert decided to go out of the cattle business, as the country was settling up, and stockmen could no longer let their cattle run at large as they did in the early days. In the real early days, that is previous to about 1870, if anyone planted crops he must protect them from the cattle and horses of the ranchers by fencing them. The stock raisers had the right to let their stock run at large and if they destroyed the farmer’s crops, he was considered to be to blame, for not having fenced them. The country was not supposed to be good for anything but stock raising, and anyone foolish enough to attempt to engage in agricultural pursuits was considered an enemy to the cattlemen. But in the early seventies I think it was about 1871 – a bill was passed called the “No Fence Law.” That is, it exempted farmers from the necessity of fencing their crops. And it gave them the right to collect damages if the ranchers’ cattle or horses trespassed on what was planted.

 

The cattlemen, of course, put up a perfect wail about the injustices of such a law. Were they not here first? They would have the “No Fence Law” repealed. But the “No Fence Law” was not repealed, and of course the stockmen were beaten. That was before the days of “barbed wire” and the only fencing that could be used was lumber. That was too expensive, and so the only thing to do was to sell off their stock.

 

As a small boy I used to hear Uncle Robert and the other cattlemen talking of how unjust the “No Fence Law” was, and of course, we thought it was an awfully bad law. Uncle Robert had been very good to us, and was not the law causing him great expense? How could it be a good law? We never seemed to think how hard it must be for the poor settlers to have their crops trampled or eaten up in a single night, with no recourse but to fence them so well that no stock could get in. I can see now that what we considered a very unjust law was in reality a very good one.

 

Of course, there were some unprincipled men who planted out an acre or so of barley or some other kind of crop in places where they knew very well it would never grow and make a crop, but where they knew they would have an independent income from collecting damages from stockmen. There were even cases where these unprincipled wretches would go out and gather up a band of cattle and drive them on to their crop, and herd them there for a while, and then put them into their corral, and send word to the owner to come over and settle the damage. All the stock-in-trade necessary to put over this sort of a game was a small piece of crop planted, and a corral built. They even went in together, and made one corral do for several pieces of farming. That is, they would drive the stock from a piece of crop that they claimed had been damaged over to some other fellow’s place, who perhaps had no crop, but who had a corral and when the cattlemen paid for the damage done, the fellow who had the crop and the fellow who had the corral would divide the proceeds.

 

There was another class still worse than any of these. They would shoot cattle or horses down whenever they found them trespassing on their land. I have seen both cattle and horses going about terribly wounded, perhaps shot in the stomach, where they would live for days perhaps, in terrible agony, only to die in the end. And I have seen horses going around dragging a broken leg, where they had been shot by one of these miserable wretches. Well, the war between the stockmen and the squatters was a very bitter one, but it could have only one ending. The stockmen must get rid of their stock – and they did.

 

In the spring of 1874 Uncle Robert, who had sold off several droves of cattle previous to this, determined to gather up all his remaining cattle and sell them at the first opportunity. Those that he still owned were mostly wild “outlaws” who hid in the brushy hills, and came out only at night to water and feed. Getting them out of their wild haunts was a very hard job, but he hired good vaqueros and went at the job, determined to succeed at whatever cost.

 

I know from experience that to go into rough country, where the brush is big and lasso a wild cow or steer and bring it out, is a very exciting as well as very dangerous pastime.

 

Many of them were so wild and vicious from their wild haunts that they would be very hard to keep in the herd after they were brought in. All those that were exceptionally wild, and, as a matter of course, on the fight all the time, were immediately thrown, tied, and their horns sawed off within a few inches of their heads. It is remarkable how quickly a wild steer or cow will respond to this treatment, and become quiet and gentle. This may seem cruel, but it is no more so than to take the chance of one of those vicious animals goring a horse, and perhaps his rider also.

 

My brother Charley, who was then only about twelve years of age, was sent over to Uncle Robert’s place to help herd the band, which increased in number every day, as the vaqueros brought in more cattle. Later on Father built a large corral, and the band of cattle was brought over to our place and herded about the hills during the day and put in this new corral at night. Charley put in a year or more herding them, and thus missed that much time that he should have had in school. But Uncle Robert had done so much to help our folks during the hard times we had gone through that Father did all that he could to help him in return for what he had done for us.

 

I am not sure whether it was in the year 1875 or 1876 that the last of this herd was sold, and Uncle was out of the cattle business.

 

From that time on for a number of years, he rented the ranch out to sheep men. Sheep had to be herded, and could be kept out of the crops of the settlers. From about the year 1874 up to probably about 1882 sheep were about the only kind of stock that were raised to any extent in Southern California.

In the very early eighties, barbed wire began to be used in this part of the world for fencing. It was pretty expensive at first, costing about fifteen cents per pound. But even then it was much cheaper than lumber for fencing, and was not so apt to be injured by fires. In the spring of 1883 Uncle decided to fence the ranch with barbed wire and go into the cattle business again. By sending to Chicago, and buying a carload, he could get the wire at eleven and three-fourths cents per pound. The kind of wire that he intended to use would run a rod to the pound.

 

Uncle Robert had been living at a hotel in San Diego for some time, and I well remember how father came home from San Diego one evening and told us that Uncle had ordered a carload of wire, and several thousand redwood posts, and that we should all help in every way possible in building the fifteen or sixteen miles of fence that would be necessary to enclose the ranch. We boys all agreed to do all we could to help with the job.

 

The ranch line must be flagged out – that is a line of flags composed of small strips of white cloth tacked to lath, were first set on as nearly a straight line as possible from corner to corner of the ranch. My brother Charley, with the aid of an old surveying instrument that he borrowed from a friend who had been a surveyor in earlier days, flagged out the lines, with the aid of us younger boys to set out the flags. The country was very brushy, and very hilly. There were many deep brushy canyons to be crossed, and many high hills.

 

After the lines were flagged out, so that they could be easily traced, Uncle put Indians and Mexicans to work cutting away the brush along this line. This cleared strip was generally about a rod in width.

Then we boys made several thousand small wooden pegs, about eight inches long each, and sharpened at one end. These were to mark the places where the postholes were to be dug. The posts were to be set two rods apart, so we took a line about eight rods long and marked it every two rods by tying a piece of red calico securely to it at each of these places. We then measured off the line with this, driving one of the little pegs at each of the two-rod marks.

 

Then the men who were to dig the postholes came along with their digging tools, and dug a hole two feet deep at each place.

 

My brother Matthew, with a big wagon and four horses, hauled the posts and bales of wire up from the railroad station and distributed them along the line. When the postholes were finished along a mile or two of line, we boys came along, armed with shovels and heavy steel tamping bars, and set the posts. The posts were of split redwood, about four by five inches, and seven feet long.

Uncle Robert was very particular that the fence, when finished should be a substantial one, and he insisted that all the earth that had been taken out in digging the postholes must be put back in the hole when we set the posts. Of course, as the post took up quite a lot of the space in the hole, it required a lot of tamping to get all of the dirt back in, but it had to be done.

 

After we got the posts securely set for a distance of a couple of miles along the line, we would start putting on the wire. Whenever the ground was such that we could drive a wagon along the line we strung the wire out by putting the spool of wire in the back end of the wagon, running an iron bar down through it and through a hole in the floor of the wagon. Then, taking the end of the wire back and fastening it to the corner-post, which post we securely braced so that it would not pull out of the ground when the strain came on the wire.

 

Then with one man driving the wagon, and another standing up in the rear end of it with one hand on the top of the iron bar that was run through the spool of wire we would drive along the fence line, with the spool of wire whirling around and around in the back part of the wagon. The wire would in this way be strung out along the line. As none of us had ever made any wire fence before, we had a lot to learn about this business.

 

At first we only tried to make short stretches, of three or four hundred feet at a time. But we gradually got to making longer pulls, and before long we found that a whole spool, which was usually a quarter of a mile long, was as easy to stretch as a shorter pull and saved lots of time. When the required amount of wire was strung out along the line, we would make it fast to the back end of the wagon. Then, when everything was ready and everybody was clear of the wire, the driver would start up his team and draw the wire tight as a fiddle string. By using a tolerably heavy wagon, and setting the break tightly, the tension of the wire could be maintained; especially if the wagon was at a point where the pull was slightly down-grade. A couple of us would then go back to staple the wire to the posts. On reasonably even ground, this was an easy matter, as one of us would hold the wire against the post at the proper height (which height was determined by means of a strip of wood with notches in one edge of it the proper distance apart for each of the four wires.) The other man carried a hammer and a supply of wire staples, and quickly stapled the wire fast to the posts.

 

Building wire fence across canyons, and over very rough ground, however was a different matter. In the first place, on this kind of ground, the wire must be carried between two men by means of a bar thrust through it. This in itself is no easy job where the hills are steep and rough. Sometimes the spool will get to unwinding too fast, and a number of turns will fly off at once and become badly tangled. Sometimes one or more coils of the wire will fly around the neck of the men carrying one end of the bar. At such times, if you were nearby, you would probably hear some remarks by the entangled party that would not look well in print. Then when the wire is drawn tight, by the team, or any other means that may be used for stretching, it will only touch the ground on the ridges. Crossing the canyons, it may be a hundred feet in the air. Under these conditions it must be drawn down at each post as you descend the hill. The man at the wagon must back a little by slacking the brake, as the men who are stapling the wire pull down on it. It is dangerous to pull on the wire, at such times, with your hands. It may break at any minute. And if it does, while under such a high tension, the ends fly back, and hands may be terribly lacerated. The pulling down should be done either by hooking the claws of a carpenter’s hammer over the wire, or by putting a bar across the wire., and one man at each end of the bar putting their weight on it until it is down to the required position, where it is to be stapled fast to the post. During the summer of 1883 we built some sixteen miles of fence, much of it over very rough ground, and none of it less than four wires and some of it five wires.

 

As I said in the beginning, we started with the idea of having the posts two rods apart, but after we had several miles of it built under that plan, Uncle Robert decided that the posts were too far apart, and had another posthole dug between each of the posts, and another post was set. This post was placed on the opposite side of the wires from where the other two were, so that the wires could not be easily knocked off the posts., in case of an animal running into the fence. We carried this plan out throughout the entire job, first setting every other post along the line, then putting the wire on, and afterwards putting in the middle posts on the opposite side of the wires.

 

This fence building was a long hard job, but it surely was well done, and practically all of it is still standing, after thirty-eight years.