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A Load of Bull

No, no. It’s not what you probably think.

This is a story told by my father about an experience he had while he was in college at UC Davis in the first half of the 20th Century.

It was 1928 and my grandfather, Carlo Scaramella, a Coast dairyman at the time, had made arrangements with Professor Mead, head of the UC Davis Dairy Industry Department, to participate in an experiment based on Professor Mead’s odd theory that cross-eyed bulls produced cows which produced more milk. The experiment required a fairly controlled environment where the milk production of the female offspring of a cross-eyed bull could be accurately compared to the average cow of an ordinary dairy herd. Professor Mead loaned various specially-bred cross-eyed bulls to as many dairymen in Northern California as he could to enlarge the sample size in an attempt to validate his theory.

The experiment involved shipping a prize cross-eyed bull from the UC Davis herd to my grandfather’s dairy ranch in Manchester. At the time, my father was at the time a UC Davis student, so he was the obvious choice to get the bull from Davis to Manchester. My father’s expenses would be paid by the University and there would be no stud fees. 

The cross-eyed bull was a prize-winning Jersey weighing about 1700 pounds. The next time my father went home for a vacation he would drive their ranch truck, a 1920 vintage Day-Elder flatbed with magneto lights, back to UC Davis and use it to transport the bull. The truck ran good but was starting to show its age. 

The trip began one late fall morning by loading a large crate onto the flatbed along with a several bales of loose hay. Although jersey bulls are known in the dairy trade as comparatively feisty and rambunctious, the seemingly tame and docile bull was herded and prodded up a ramp and into the crate where it was loosely roped to the cage walls to keep the bull near the center of the crate. The crate was roped shut and roped to the flatbed. It was as secure as they could make it.

It was immediately obvious to my father that the big bull made the aging truck somewhat top-heavy. He realized that if the bull got too far over to one side it might tip over the truck, even with the ropes tied to keep the bull in the center of the wooden cage, he’d have to drive very carefully, hoping not to disturb the animal. Herb Sprague, my father’s friend and fellow UC Davis student from the Mendocino Coast, had offered to accompany my father for the trip, so he hopped in and off they went.

The first leg of the trip from Davis to the Coast was more or less uneventful — except for the flat tire. Although, putting on the spare wasn’t much of a problem for the two young men, it took over an hour and a half what with unloading the bull and re-loading him which threw them off their schedule. It also reminded them, if they needed reminding, that the truck was unstable with a live bull in a crate on the flatbed. 

They had hoped to make reach Manchester before nightfall. Now that was in doubt.

The route my father chose was through Napa County and Sonoma County and over to the Coast at Jenner because at that time the roads to the Coast through Mendocino County were, shall we say, “unimproved,” (i.e., dirt or gravel) besides being steep and very twisty. He didn’t think those more direct roads would be stable or flat enough to take a 1700-pound bull on the back of a small flatbed.

The flat tire and the slower speeds they needed to keep from jostling the bull too much delayed their arrival in Jenner however, and it became obvious that they had no chance to get to Manchester in the daytime. 

Anyone familiar with Highway 1 knows that one of the most interesting sections of it is the well known “Jenner Grade,” a series of steep switchbacks that take you from the mouth of the Russian River up to the Coast headlands. They’re tricky now. In 1928 they were… Well, slow-going. 

Miraculously, they made it up the switchbacks, although they had to go much slower than they expected 1. to maintain stability, and 2. because the truck wouldn’t make it up the steep slopes in any gear but first — another major time setback.

It was getting dark. The fog was coming in, thick and patchy. And the truck’s old variable magneto lights, which depended on the truck’s speed to operate, weren’t providing much light.

In the 1920s, Highway 1 along the Coast was much steeper and curvier than it is today. There were a number of bridges to get over the various rivers and creeks that flow into the Pacific, but to keep them easier and cheaper to build, bridges were built further inland where the river channels were narrower. So following the rough coastline required many swings into gulches where there were not only more severe and steep u-turns and s-turns, but whatever little moonlight there was was obstructed by the steep hill walls surrounding the gulch. It also made the distance traveled that much farther.

The combined effect of the various visibility restrictions meant that for several long sections of Highway 1 Herb had to get out of the truck with an old-fashioned box flashlight and guide my father along the road at a walking pace.

Unsurprisingly, the bull seemed to be acting antsy and impatient, making more noise and pulling on his ropes.

Oh, and need I mention that many stretches of the narrow strip of Highway 1 are cut into the steep sheer cliffs of the Coastal headlands? For miles at a time there’s no shoulder and you can stand on the edge of the road and look right down at the rock-and-driftwood-cluttered beach 100-200 feet or more below.

This wasn’t exactly what my father had bargained for when he signed on to Professor Mead’s cock-eyed experiment.

They slowly and carefully made their way north through the remote outposts of Fort Ross, Salt Point, Horseshoe Cove, Rocky Point, Fisherman Bay, Black Point, etc., and finally made it to Gualala a little before midnight where they gassed up and stayed overnight in the famous Gualala Hotel. The bull was assisted out of the crate and into a small corral that a friendly Gualalian kindly offered up for the night. The next morning they re-loaded the bull and finished the trip up to Manchester without further incident.

My father told this story in a matter-of-fact manner, as if it was just one small part of an otherwise uninteresting cross-eyed cow experiment. As far as I could tell, the difficulties they encountered were just routine problems to be solved along the way. He never felt like there was much real danger. Obviously, times were different then. 

But I’m still convinced that the trip was anything but routine. 

As I thought about this story later, I realized that, because they were driving north, they did have the lucky advantage of being able to drive on the inside side of the road, providing a few feet of buffer between their northbound lane and the steep coastal bluffs.

My father didn’t know how the experiment came out and I never got around to asking him how the bull got back to UC Davis.

One Comment

  1. Douglas Coulter March 28, 2022

    Never read such a load of bull

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