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Old Town Newhall
March-April 2006 • Year 12, Number 2.
Evolution Of The Local Rancho.
Gazette Correspondent.

    Not that long ago, thousands of cattle roamed the Santa Clarita Valley. Along with oil, agriculture was a major commercial enterprise.
    Dairy farms and beef cattle ranches were just part of the everyday landscape. For many years there were ten to twenty — or more — cows for each man, woman and child in the whole of the Santa Clarita Valley.
    In 1769. when Gaspar de Portolá and his expedition came through the area, he noted the abundant water and pasture lands in the valley. Later, when the Mission San Fernando was established in 1797, the Santa Clarita Valley was seen as a possible extension of mission lands. In 1804, an estáncia, or outpost, of the Mission San Fernando was founded at what is now Castaic Junction. This marked the beginning of cattle ranching in the Santa Clarita Valley.
    Cattle were raised not for meat, but for their hides. Leather goods were the "plastics" of that era. Leather was used for clothing, saddles, carriage springs and even buckets. Leather was a vital part of the transportation systems of the day; it was used to connect the horses, oxen and mules to carts, wagons and carriages. As such, it became a major export from Alta California.
    The export of hides is what first brought those pesky Yankee traders and their ships to California. Many of them liked what they saw and decided to stay. Most were welcomed with open arms — something Mexico would one day regret.
    By 1813, so many cattle inhabited the Santa Clarita Valley that a fence (a bar) was placed across the Newhall Pass in Elsmere Canyon to keep them from wandering into the San Fernando Valley. For those of you who complain about the commute from that valley to Santa Clarita every day, remember that it used to be a very long day's journey from the Mission San Fernando to the estáncia at Castaic Junction. Most of the time, the "commuters" made the trip on horseback or by wagon. Many had to do it on foot.
    The Mexican revolution that started in 1821 eventually gained Mexico its independence from Spain. California became a territory of Mexico. The missions continued to operate the various ranches they owned until 1833, when the Mexican Congress took over all of the former mission lands.
    Thirteen months later, Lieutenant Antonio del Valle arrived at Mission San Fernando to dismantle the church holdings. Of course, he took a large part of the land in the Santa Clarita Valley for himself.
    This was the era of the Mexican land grant. Many ranchos were parceled out of mission lands in the Santa Clarita Valley. Cattle were still being raised — by the thousands. There were also large herds of sheep in the valley.
    Following the war of 1846-48 between Mexico and the United States, most of the land grants remained in effect. The former Mexican landowners now became United States citizens and essentially continued to use the land of the Santa Clarita Valley as they had in the past — although the new regime required landowners to prove their claims to real estate that had been poorly plotted during the periods of Mexican and Spanish rule. In this manner, the United States government seized disputed lands and opened them to homesteading by American settlers from the East — such as the Pico Canyon area, between the Rancho San Fernando on the south and the Del Valles' Rancho San Francisco (the Santa Clarita Valley) on the north.
    Cattle and sheep ranching remained the major commercial enterprise on the Del Valles' rancho until 1862 when, after three years of drought, most of the ranchers went broke. By the 1870s, the land was being sold off for back taxes. The remaining ranches still had cattle — but oil was starting to take over as the major industry, along with mining and the railroad.
    In 1883, the heirs of Newhall's founder and namesake, Henry Mayo Newhall, incorporated The Newhall Land and Farming Company. Ranching and farming were the company's primary businesses; orange trees, walnut orchards and fields of alfalfa, onions, carrots and other crops joined cattle operations. A large feed lot was eventually built near the site of what today is the Magic Mountain amusement park.
    Cattle remained a large part of ranching operations throughout the valley until about 1960. The ranches were divided and developed into the housing tracts we know today. People, homes and cars replaced the cattle, sheep and orchards. Some call it "progress," while others call it "sprawl."
    One thing is for sure: Today, the cars outnumber the cattle. That simple, little bar across the Newhall Pass couldn't keep them out — and some days, the commute from the San Fernando Valley seems to take as long as it did in 1821.
    Funny. You're often sitting on leather seats, holding a leather-wrapped steering wheel, wearing your leather shoes. Wonder where the cattle are being raised today?
    Darryl Manzer grew up in the Pico Canyon oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s. Today he lives in Virginia.

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