The Story of Deer Flat Ranch

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A map of the California coastline pasted by Pauling into one of his research notebooks and annotated to show his property and that of his neighbors.

[Part 1 of 3]

In 1955, Linus Pauling and his wife Ava Helen headed to Berkeley, California from their home in Pasadena to attend a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation. On the drive back from this event, the couple decided to take the scenic route along Highway 1 down the California coast. Passing through the Big Sur area, Pauling noted a point of land projecting into the ocean with a cabin and barn and a herd of grazing cattle. He suggested to his wife that such a location would be ideal as a country home for rest and relaxation. Ava Helen smiled and directed his attention to a For Sale sign on the side of the road.

At the time, Pauling was working at Caltech, and his busy lifestyle had fostered a growing desire for a place to think without distraction. The Big Sur property, called Deer Flat Ranch, seemed the perfect location. A 163-acre cattle ranch spanning a half mile stretch of rugged coastline between Soda Spring Creek and Salmon Creek – about twenty miles north of San Simeon, and just north of Salmon Cone at Piedras Blancas – the property was surrounded by National Forest land.

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A pasture map of the Deer Flat Ranch property.

Captivated, the Paulings wanted to visit the ranch for a closer look, but the owner of the land— a homesteader by the name of Walter Ray Evans—was in the hospital and was not able to arrange a personal tour. However, Mrs. Evans granted the Paulings permission to return to the property for an evening, and so in 1956 the pair drove back to Salmon Creek and stayed the night, setting up camp near the barn and sharing a sleeping bag underneath the stars. This visit must have made a positive impression, because the Paulings purchased Deer Flat Ranch shortly afterward, in August 1956. Escrow documents that Pauling filed into his personal safe indicate that the couple paid a total of $29,000 for the property.


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The kitchen at the Paulings’ original Deer Flat Ranch cabin, 1958.

The ranch that the Paulings had purchased did not feature much in the way of infrastructure: just a small cabin and a weather-beaten barn for horses and equipment. Walter Ray Evans had built the cabin in 1906 out of lumber that was floated in from offshore to a beach on the property called China Camp. Six years after building the structure, Evans moved the “Old Cabin” up the hill in 1912, so that the residence would be nearer to the barn and also less susceptible to pack rats and water problems that had plagued the space at its beachside location.

Other than the barn, the Old Cabin remained the only habitable structure on the property until 1964. It was very small, consisting of just a single room, and housed a butane tank, a hot water heater, a miniature refrigerator, and a sparse assortment of well-used furniture. The nearest bathroom was located outside under a shaky lean-to. Electricity was usually available, but there was no phone service. After the Paulings purchased the property, they moved in an antique, wood-fired, cast iron stove that was forged in Oslo, Norway in 1825. This centerpiece of the humble home quickly became very popular with visitors.


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The Paulings’ registered cattle brand.

While mostly a sanctuary from an extremely busy calendar, Deer Flat Ranch also represented an entirely different lifestyle in which the Paulings could challenge themselves to excel. With the ranch came a herd of cattle, and within a year of buying the property, Pauling began pursuing an expansion and reorganization of his land in coordination with acreage held by nearby private, state, and federal owners. Pauling’s aim in doing so mostly revolved around his desire to extend the grazing area available to his animals. From the time that the ranch was purchased, Pauling paid twenty-six dollars a year for grazing rights on adjacent Santa Lucia National Forest land, and also paid a nearby landowner named Patrick Boyd for additional grazing rights on his property.

In 1958, Pauling approached the local head ranger, Alexander Campbell, about the possibility of trading forestland to the north of Deer Flat Ranch for land northwest of the Salmon Creek Ranger Station. Specifically, Pauling wanted to trade forty acres of his own property for forty-two acres of forestland, the end result being a new northern boundary – Soda Spring Creek – for the ranch. These negotiations were conducted largely through Dale Haskin, who was the ranger working directly underneath Campbell at the nearby station.

Haskin had become close with the Paulings, at one point teaching Linus and Ava Helen’s oldest son, Linus Jr., to wrangle, castrate and brand calves. By 1960, Pauling had hired Haskin as a ranch manager, a job that also involved supervising the property’s itinerant, Phil Collum. A self-described colleague of author John Steinbeck – who himself was a native of nearby Salinas, California – Collum claimed to have traveled with Steinbeck up and down the West Coast during their younger years.

When the Paulings arrived at Deer Flat Ranch, Collum was found to be living on the property. Rather than evict him, the couple chose to furnish their newfound neighbor with a tent, and also offered a campsite that was suitably far away from the Old Cabin. Enabled by this offer of space and a $120 monthly paycheck, Collum continued to live at Deer Flat Ranch for many years, subsisting largely on local abalone (which he gathered from the beach) and red wine. He earned his monthly wages by working on the ranch, caring for cattle, making repairs, and cutting wood.


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Ava Helen Pauling and her daughter Linda, sitting outside of the Old Cabin, 1956.

Although Linus and Ava Helen didn’t often work directly with the cattle, Pauling acted as a head manager of sorts for the entire operation, keeping detailed employment records as well as notes on the current stock. Soon the Paulings were sending their cattle to market in addition to keeping them on hand as a natural mechanism for mowing their grass. Each year, Linus Jr. and Ralph Haskin branded and castrated the new calves, with Collum and sometimes Pauling himself assisting with the wrangling. They then shipped the calves by truck to an auction house in Santa Rosa where, after they were purchased, area ranchers would fatten them up for market.

Pauling’s experience of the life of a cattle rancher was nothing if not dramatic. In 1959, Pauling noted that cattle rustlers were on the move in Big Sur, driving a white Ford sedan that was pulling a horse trailer into the mountains, then shooting cattle with a tranquilizer gun, dressing the meat, and packing it out. In 1961, a very arid summer ushered in soaring temperatures, and with it the grass and nearby fresh water sources dried up. That year, only three steers were sold from Deer Flat Ranch, while twenty-two were found dead, including six young calves. Other “excitement” included a 1972 brush fire at the property.

In 1976, a neighboring rancher based in King City, California began grazing his cattle illegally at Salmon Creek. When the rancher “played dumb” in response to local investigations into the issue, Pauling contacted the offender directly and ordered him to personally fund and build a fence to keep his cattle contained. The strategy worked, perhaps due to Pauling’s implied threat of a lawsuit.


The ranch also afforded other business opportunities for the Paulings. Most notably, Pauling purchased an additional five acres at Piedras Blancas – about twenty miles south of the main property – in 1957. The land was right on the beach, just off the highway, and came equipped with a small house and a gas service station. Linus and Ava Helen paid $14,000 for the parcel, which was purchased, once again, from Walter Ray Evans and his wife.

The service station was subsequently leased to Luther Williams, whom the Paulings also hired as a part-time ranch manager. Later on, the station was rented out to a Mr. Mel Valois and his wife, who sold the gas to Chevron. By early 1958, Pauling was leasing the property to the couple for two cents per gallon of gasoline sold monthly, plus $338 in rent. The Valoises left the service station in 1962, but were quickly replaced new tenants.

Between managing the cattle at the ranch and operating the filling station, the Paulings continued to employ multiple part-time ranch managers and groundskeepers, with new employees cycling in and out every few years. Anywhere between three to five workers remained on the payroll until the late 1980s: by then, Ava Helen had passed away, Linus was well into old age, and the number of Pauling-branded cattle sold at the Templeton livestock market had dropped precipitously.

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