Bay Nature magazineSpring 2005


The Lost Trails of Santa Clara

April 1, 2005

According to the ranchers and cowboys who ran cattle in the rugged Diablo Range southeast of San Jose, Sada Sutcliffe Coe (1910-1979) could ride a horse as well, if not better, than any of them. Several years of “proper” education at eastern boarding schools failed to breed out of her a fierce love for this wild country. But that schooling did give her an ability to express herself well in writing. Her stories and poems give us a unique insight into this land and make clear how her passion for it led her to protect her family’s ranch forever by donating it to the people of California, as Henry W. Coe State Park, named in honor of her father. Members of the Pine Ridge Association, which interprets the park for the public, are preparing an anthology of Sada Coe’s work for publication in late 2005. Following is a short excerpt from the writings of this extraordinary woman.

The year 1910 does not seem to be such a very long time ago, but in the cold dark month of December, I suddenly came howling into the world. It was a peaceful world then, except for my tiny voice, and everyone was happy.

The world I grew to know was mountains and ranges! Wilderness and long-horned cattle! My cradle was my father’s strong arms and a blanket across the front of his saddle. Thus I lived until I was four years old, and by then I was able to ride a horse of my own.

The trail between my father’s two ranches was close to twenty miles. The trip with a pack horse took nearly all day, and these trips usually occurred about once or twice a week. There were hundreds of head of cattle on both ranches, and the work was strenuous. Beans and raw jerky was the usual meal along the trail, and once in a while a short nap could be enjoyed as the horses climbed the steep ridges.

The years passed swiftly, and then World War I broke out. Food was scarce, and the ranchers were asked to raise more food for the army, so in a short time our lower ranch became stocked with six hundred head of razorback hogs, and a fifty-acre hay field was planted into potatoes and corn.

In the summer months, the harvesting crews pulled in with ten-horse teams of great large Perchons [Percheron] to harvest our fields of grain. Day and night they worked at eight-hour shifts, and the ranch was humming with activity. General Naglee’s old bell hung outside our kitchen door, and every four hours its clear tone would ring out across the hills, calling the men in from the fields for breakfast and lunch and dinner.

The great Miller & Lux Outfit moved in and rented the large land grant that ran next door to us. They brought in thousands of long-horned Texas steers, and of course we were asked to help with their cattle drives. The early morning hours found us on the trail to what was known as the Isabel Valley. Clouds of dust rose behind the long line of Texas longhorns and they slowly climbed the steep ridges to the far-spreading valley ahead of them. All of us wore handkerchiefs across our noses to keep from swallowing the thick dust, while our horses toiled and sweated to keep the steers on the trail.

After a big dinner in the old cabin at the Isabel and a quiet nap for an hour, we then rode home as the sun, setting in the west, painted the hills a blushing pink in the twilight. In the dim starlight, we unsaddled our horses, fed them, and soon we were fast asleep in our own beds at home.

In the late Spring we would again help gather the longhorns until there was a thousand in a bunch, then the drive to the railroad began. In the early dawn the road in front of our home thundered with pounding hoofs. Bandanas, or handkerchiefs, across our noses, we guided the herd on down the road to a little town known as Coyote on the U.S. 101 highway. There were large cattle corrals by the tracks where we held the steers until the train made ready for them. Crossing the 101 highway gave us a small problem, as the automobile, now coming into popularity, would refuse to stop as we drove the herd across, so it was necessary to notify the police to halt traffic while we loaded the steers.

After the last longhorn was safely loaded, we went to the small hotel which stood beside the corrals, and there we indulged in an enormous dinner of steaks, potatoes, beans, soup, salad, and dessert presented to us by the courtesy of Miller & Lux Outfit. It was a great day for all of us, and in the bright starlight of a spring evening we rode our tired horses homeward.

Suddenly the war ended, and most of the ranchers found themselves broke. There was no market for their livestock. The government no longer needed surplus food, so most of the livestock was consumed by the families at home, or left to run wild in the hills. Cattle were given away at fifteen dollars a head for all sizes.

The age of machinery was suddenly born, and people in the cities looked at a new life opening up for them, but in the hills, life was slower to change and everything went on for twenty years in much the same way.

Sada's Pine Ridge Home
Sada on the porch of her home on Pine Ridge, now part ofNorthern California’s largest state park. Photo by Dick Fox, Henry W.Coe State Park Photo Archives.

As I grew into my early “teens,” a wealthy aunt sent me to a fashionable boarding school, and sponsored various trips throughout the United States. However, I was not happy with such an education. My heart was in the hills and on the lonely trails I knew so well. In 1929 my graduation day finally arrived and at last I could return to my beloved mountains.

The machine age was slowly creeping into the hills. Mother had ventured to buy an automobile, but Dad still clung to his horses and the spring wagon when he had to go to town. San Jose was his place of business and it was a drive of some twenty miles. It was an all-day trip with the wagon, but the little home they owned on Eleventh Street in San Jose was always waiting. There would be a week of shopping in town, and when the wagon was loaded the wheels groaned with the load, but the horses knew it was time to go home and they made the trip back in about seven hours.

Soon it was shipping time in the late spring. Breakfast at three in the morning! Horses saddled and ready, at the first streak of dawn the gates of the big corrals were opened, and a milling herd of long-horned beef was on the road to the railroad. Again the little town of Coyote seethed with activity. The cattle corrals were filled with swaying horns, the freight was ready, and the hazardous task of crossing the 101 highway and stopping the oncoming traffic began. The ever-growing popularity of the automobile was increasing, and to call a halt to their passing on the highway while we loaded our beef was a task for the entire police force of San Jose. The year 1931 was our last drive to the railroad. From then on the trucks took over, and the big cattle drives to the railroads came to an end.

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