Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - September 3, 2010

Our rural past

Ranchers provide glimpse of Pleasanton's agricultural yesteryear

by Jerri Pantages Long

If one floated over the Tri-Valley a century ago in a hot air balloon, the view below would have been a patchwork of grazing land and crops, including sugar beets, alfalfa, grapes and hay, plus walnut orchards.

Tractors did not replace horses until the late teens or 1920s, according to cattleman Howard Bettencourt.

He was one of five ranchers on a panel at the Ed Kinney Lecture Series sponsored by Pleasanton's Museum On Main, and the audience was rapt as the men described a lifestyle that most could barely imagine.

Four of the five panel members were descendents of pioneers who settled in the area in the mid to late 1800s; the fifth arrived nearly a century later, when his parents moved to a dairy farm on Foothill Road.

The panel, organized by museum board member Chuck Deckert, included cattlemen Bettencourt, whose family ranch was in Livermore; Tim Koopmann, Sunol; George Rasmussen, Dublin and San Ramon; and Al Spotorno, Pleasanton. The "newcomer" was Bruce Takens, now best known as the owner of the drive-through Meadowlark Dairy.

Joining Deckert as moderator was Donna (Kamp) McMillion, who also grew up on a local farm, later the last pumpkin patch in Pleasanton.

The panelists gave a vivid account of the region as they knew it growing up. Rasmussen noted that what began their collective history was an 1826 land grant which gave 16,000 acres to Don Jose Maria Amador. He later sold 10,000 acres to the Dougherty family, who allowed parcels to be used by tenant farmers.

Rasmussen's mother's family arrived in the area in 1871, his father's in 1885, both of the families from Denmark.

"All the families out on Tassajara Road were either Danish or Portuguese," said Rasmussen.

When they went to the local schoolhouse, each ethnic group coveted the other's lunch from home so swaps were made and friendships formed.

Tim Koopmann recalled that land could be purchased for $35 an acre when he went into partnership with his great-uncle. There were only 5,000 residents in Pleasanton when Koopmann attended high school (Amador Valley class of 1970), and neighbors would wave at one another when they passed on the road. His family, originally from Germany, homesteaded in 1878 on what is now Shannon Park in Dublin. Cattle could be herded along roads to be loaded aboard trains at a Pleasanton depot.

Most ranches were self-sufficient, Al Spotorno explained, raising their own vegetables and keeping chickens, sheep and pigs in addition to their cattle. His grandfather and great-uncle, who emigrated from France in 1867, would take horse-drawn wagons of poultry and other game to sell to the restaurants in San Francisco. Fast-forward two generations, and the Spotornos provided some of the food that was served on airplanes, and then aboard the Apollo trip to the moon!

Spotorno, 84, is proud to be the third generation running Pleasanton's oldest business, Spotorno Land & Livestock. He recalled an era when "there were no stoplights in Pleasanton, and we had just one constable on loan from the sheriff's department" for law enforcement. Not that there was much local crime in those days. "It was mostly stuff like kids putting a wagon on someone's roof as a prank," he said.

One of the biggest businesses in town was Perkins & Jenkins.

"They had 600 acres of roses," said Spotorno, "and when they were all in bloom, it was a beautiful sight."

The company exported roses throughout the country. Herds of sheep would be used to strip off the leaves of the rose bushes to make them easier to ship, according to Spotorno. Some may remember when donated rose bushes graced the front of Amador Valley High School and also Wayside and Delucchi parks.

As the region changed, so did ranching, facing increasing challenges to co-exist with newcomers.

"A more lucrative crop sprouted: Houses," Koopmann drily noted.

He explained that most ranches had a core of acreage but depended on renting other land for grazing. "Most of us would have been out of business otherwise," he said.

Some of the grazing rights were on public land, such as 60,000 acres of the East Bay Regional Park system, and others were on watershed lands of East Bay Municipal Utility District and the San Francisco Water Co.

Bruce Takens said that after crops were harvested, ranchers would rent the land first for cattle to graze, then for sheep to finish off the stubble of what was left, before the next planting cycle.

Life on a dairy farm was centered around the cows' schedule. His family had 200 cows that had to be milked twice each day. His shift started at 4 a.m., but his parents, Jannes and Janna Takens, arose to milk cows at 1 a.m. and then again at 1 p.m. Those cows produced about 800 gallons of milk daily, which then had to be processed and distributed.

Jannes and Janna Takens came to Pleasanton from Holland in 1950 to manage the Meadowlark Dairy that had been established by owner Walter Briggs Sr.

"It was the first certified dairy in the state of California," Bruce Takens said, meaning that it passed rigorous health inspections for cleanliness and maintained a low bacteria level in raw milk -- "at that time unheard of." Briggs helped establish the dairy standards we now take for granted.

"(Meadowlark Dairy) was built on the original spot of the Ohlone Indians and the (site) of the first adobe building in the tri-valley, built in 1946. Francisco Solano Alviso Adobe now is a (city) park that is a representation from the Indian era to the Spanish period to the Dairy period of California," said Takens in follow-up correspondence. He credited the original owner, Walter Briggs Sr., for preventing the adobe from being demolished and for getting it listed as State Historic Landmark No. 510.

Meadowlark Dairy was purchased by Jannes and Janna in 1968. They moved their dairy cows to pasture land in Tracy, shipping the milk to the processing plant still located at 57 W. Neal St. Bruce graduated from Amador Valley High School in 1964, one year ahead of the girl he would marry. He and his wife Patti bought the dairy in 1985, turning it into the drive-through business that many local residents find so convenient today.

"Two decades ago, drive-through dairies flourished in the Bay Area," Takens wrote. "Today there are just a few left in all of California, and one is right here in downtown Pleasanton. Meadowlark Dairy is Pleasanton's link with yesteryear, a throwback to a kinder, gentler era when personal service was paramount." He was proud to note that his son Jesse (Amador Valley High class of 2006) now is manager of the dairy, continuing the family business.

All of the panelists agreed that ranch and farm work is very hard, but rewarding. Bettencourt, 82, whose ancestors came from the Azores in 1858, said he began milking cows at age 6 or 7.

If a ranch had more milk than needed to feed the family and ranch hands, it was put into 10-gallon cans and set out to be picked up by Bob Casterson (now deceased), who took it to the local cheese factories, said Spotorno -- another way ranchers earned money to supplement their cattle business.

"It is physical," said Rasmussen of ranching. "There's nothing about it that is easy. The thing is, you gotta love it."

Rasmussen, 75, is proud that his son and grandson are the fourth and fifth generations to live in the original family ranch house. "I'm tired, but not retired," he said with a laugh.

Much of Rasmussen's farming has been moved to Dixon, and Bettencourt's has gone to Linden, where it is cheaper to graze cattle and to grow crops such as kidney beans, wheat, oats, safflowers and sunflowers.

Besides tending livestock and crops, Bettencourt noted, ranchers are always fixing equipment, working the ground, or harvesting grain. Bettencourt officially retired 19 years ago, but said, "I have a tractor with a bulldozer now, to play with."

Spotorno's ancestors imported grapevines from France when they immigrated to this region, but those were pulled out during Prohibition, although some already had been given to local wineries. The Spotorno brothers planted olive trees along the borders of their land, and in some years those olives paid their property taxes.

"All of us have been forced to subsidize ranching with other endeavors," Spotorno said.

Walnuts were another source of income. The Spotornos were the first in the area to mechanize the drying and hulling part of the operation. Koopman and Rasmussen both recalled the wild ride of being up in the walnut trees when they were shaken to harvest the nuts. The youngsters had to scramble from branch to branch to attach the band from the tractor, then hang on tightly.

"I finally got a tin hat," Koopmann said, to protect himself from the falling walnuts.

"We told our kids, 'The family that picks together sticks together,'" recalled Rasmussen with a laugh. "The best part about (our 30 acres of walnuts) was in 1986, when we bulldozed that whole orchard out. That was the year my wife and I went to Hawaii."

Besides encroaching housing developments and increasing legal restrictions, today's ranchers face problems with new neighbors who do not understand their business. These are people who refuse to believe that the family pet dogs they let run loose at night are the same ones that chase and kill livestock. Or the people who feel free to picnic -- and litter -- on private land, after cutting through fences for easier access. Or those who move to rural areas and then complain about the sounds and smells of ranching that has been going on since the 1860s.

"We have lovingly cared for and provided quality stewardship of the land," said Koopmann, adding that it would be nice if neighbors and governmental agencies appreciated what generations of these families have done for the area we now call home.

Koopmann has joined the California Rangeland Trust, which he describes as being "perpetual conservation easements to offset other projects." In this way, the endangered species of tiger salamander, red-legged frog and callippe butterfly may all survive, even though the area's ranchers may become extinct.

Local history lecture series

Museum On Main sponsors the Ed Kinney Lecture series, offering interesting and entertaining glimpses of the past, at 7 p.m. some Thursday evenings at Lynnewood Methodist Church, 4444 Black Ave. Cost is $5 for museum members and seniors, $10 for non-members, and a special rate of $3 for students and teachers (with ID). Upcoming talks include:

* Sept. 16: Ernie Manzo Presents: An American Soldier of 1846

* Oct. 14: Spirit Talk with Terri Carlson

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