Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Johnson Ranch

Late last month, I spent an afternoon at the Johnson home in Boonville with Gary, Wanda and Gary’s mother Eva, age 89, exploring the history of the Floyd Johnson Ranch, once 4,000 acres at the junction of Highway 128 and County Road 253 south of Boonville. 

We met in the backyard of Eva’s home, the headquarters house for the ranch, the one-story wood frame rural-style Arts and Crafts designed home on the right just after you turn onto the Ukiah Road 253 at Kendall’s Corners. It was a perfect Boonville story-telling summer day, and for reminiscing about the ranch and ancestors and friends who had been part of its history. We were sitting around a backyard picnic table under the shade of an alder, no wind, a little smoke in the air from the fires further north, temperature about 80°F.

All three Johnson family members are good story-tellers. Eva and Gary deeply conversant with the history of the ranch’s acquisition and development over 100 years, Wanda about the details of the sheep management craft over the course of each year, breeding, winter lambing, medication, predator control, shearing and spring lambs to market. 

Born a Beebe, Wanda is also knowledgeable about previous generations of the ranch’s affairs, as well as about sheep herding ranching as her father, Curt, was a head shepherd of the place, and a holder of various kinds of sheep management jobs on the Yorkville Ranch, Herb Singley Ranch up Anderson Creek, Hot Springs Ranch near Cloverdale, as well as other places.

Gary, now 64 years old, was born in Ukiah, and grew up on Bluejay Ranch, a name which celebrated the blue “J” Floyd marked all his ewes’ flanks with right after they were sheared each May. Gary graduated from Anderson Valley High School in 1976, and went on to Dawson Community College in Glendive Montana, northeast of Billings in dry high plains cattle country, along with Donny Summit, who had won a basketball scholarship there. Gary wanted to play on the college baseball team, but it turned out there was no actual baseball program at Dawson, just basketball, track and rodeo. 

If one thinks Boonville was a pretty quiet place in 1977, consider Glendive, pop. about 6,000 back then, the county seat for Dawson County, almost back in central North Dakota on the Yellowstone branch of the Missouri River, closest two villages each about 30 miles away. Any of us ever been there? Gary lasted half a semester, then moved back to Boonville and spent a semester at Mendocino Community College in the early days of its existence. Coming back to the ranch fulltime now, Gary became its lead trapper — coyote, bobcat, later bear. Once he developed his skills, he also turned it into a local business, trapping on Marvin Herreid, Guido Pronsolino, Herb Singley and Sam Prather’s ranch.

Wanda and Gary’s Wedding Day, 1983

Wanda, 62, was born in Eureka, near where her dad was working on a ranch while also doing part-time trapping, first privately, then for the USDA predator control program. She graduated from AV High in 1978 and married Gary in 1983. Gary has a sister, Janese, who also graduated from AV High and lived with her husband David Summit, on the ranch in a cottage up Anderson Creek and under the Bald Hills. The two have two children, JR, a building contractor, and Nichole who works for Mendocino County. Both JR and Nicole live in Anderson Valley and in fact run cattle on the Guido Pronsolino, Marvin Herreid, Prather and Day ranches. Wanda has four sisters, all living outside of Anderson Valley.

Eva, Floyd’s wife and Gary’s mother, was born in 1934 to Fred and Emma Etta (Rose) Abreu. Fred was a logger working in the redwood forests locally. Eva graduated from AV High School in 1952 and married Floyd in 1955. She and her family have had a rich life in the community that we will address in later articles.

Gary’s great-great uncle George Johnson, a Philo sheep rancher bought the first piece of the current Johnson Ranch around World War I from George Burger’s (The Burger’s Rock south of Boonville Burgers) daughter, first name Gary can’t recollect, Dillingham. George Johnson was related by marriage to the Valley settler Guntly family I have previously written about. He also was the founding owner of Johnson’s Market in downtown Philo, the predecessor of today’s Lemons’ Philo Market. More on that in later story.

Gary and Wanda at son Jr’s marriage to Kate Christopherson, 2007

The Bluejay Ranch first purchased parcel included Eva’s home today and ran along Highway 253 about a quarter of a mile up the hill past Anderson Creek. The ranch’s line fence runs east from the highway, criss-crossing Anderson Creek up almost to the top of the Bald Hills, then south to Robinson Creek headwaters, and back west to Highway 128 at the Boonville CDF fire station.

A local carpenter built the ranch main house for Floyd’s father Jimmy during World War I. A type-face style inscription in the cement walkway at the front yard highway gate declares 1928, the date the walk to the highway, likely the last piece of construction. The one story, what I call “rural sticks and shingles” yellow clapboarded home has a small roofed porch framing the front door. The interior layout includes a living room, dining room, kitchen and in the back two bedrooms and a small roofed back yard porch. Floyd was born in the Johnson home on 22 November, 1930. 

To the east of the house and along Highway 253 are a large haybarn and equipment shed and the largest and most elegant set of sheep corrals, shearing shed, and stock loading ramps I have ever seen in Anderson Valley. Each of these structures had to be large enough to support the Blue Jay’s huge sheep band, at its largest in the 1960s about 4,000 head. And to this day all buildings and corrals are kept in excellent repair and working condition.

I was lucky enough to spend a day or so each spring in those working spaces. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the National Farm Organization included a livestock union which bargained collectively on behalf of its livestock ranching members with the stockyard and slaughter industry, companies like Armour, Hormel, etc., and negotiated contracts with these companies for the price of lambs, cattle and pigs. The geographical region included in our local contract included Anderson Valley, the Mendocino Coast from Point Arena to Fort Bragg or so, and the Ukiah area. The agreement designated delivery of lambs to be during a single week in late May or early June. The slaughter houses were to provide and pay for transportation to the stock yards. 

And because Floyd’s corrals and loading ramps were the largest facility of this kind in The Valley, he very kindly let all the local contract participants use the facility to execute their lamb sales and delivery. Overseeing the transaction was a carefully planned weeklong schedule for daily lamb deliveries we all adhered to in order assure the process was done efficiently. Not a good idea to have too many pick up trucks full of sheep milling around in the dusty ramp areas the 18 wheeler livestock trucks the meat packers used to load out stock headed for their feedlots and factories.

During the 1970s and until the year 2000 I ran a small band of sheep on my farm in Navarro, never more than 100 head or so. And I joined the NFO and was part of the product purchase agreement. With help from Sammy Prather and his pick-up, I moved my lambs to Floyd’s and often spent the whole day there helping out with moving lambs around from pickups to corral, to loading chutes and onto the giant stock trucks from Dixon or Kettleman City down the San Joaquin Valley. Even on the warmest late spring days, say over 90°F, the green canopy of local live oaks and eastern hardwoods, sycamore, locust, hickory, ash and mulberry trees, around the corrals and shearing shed Floyd had planted years ago, kept the temperature comfortable for the sheep management work. I loved the smell of wool and the feel of lanolin embedded in my hands after a few minutes work wrestling lambs from pen to pen.

Floyd purchased the rest of the Johnson Ranch during the 1950s and 60s, sometimes in partnership with Boonville sheep rancher/land speculator Russell Tolman who also partnered with Floyd running the stock. Floyd also bought from the US Bureau of Land Management some 600 acres, the rest of the Bald Hills up to the top flat that looked down on Feliz Creek north of Hopland and the McNab ranch that ran from Highway 101 all the way to the deep canyon at the divide between Feliz and Beebe Creek at the headwaters of Rancheria Creek at Yorkville’s Y Ranch. 

I went up there several times with “Shine” Tuttle and John Burroughs to do building repair and fire suppression brush work around Bob Glover’s Glovervision repeater signal that brought network TV to Anderson Valley. The View up there at 2500 feet was dramatic, down into The Russian and Navarro River basins, all the way over the Mayacamas mountains to Mt. St. Helena east of Calistoga.

Other smaller parcels Floyd bought, sometimes with Russell Tolman, included from Retta Kerr, Pat Mehtonen’s aunt, 160 acres, Sulfur Mountain east of Grizzly Peak and at Feliz Creek’s headwaters, and from Jeff Ledger another 160 acres. Total ranch size in 1968 was 4,000 acres.

Next Week: How Floyd and Gary Johnson ran the sheep operation at Bluejay Ranch.

One Comment

  1. Chris Nelson September 26, 2023

    Fascinating read! Historically and educationally refreshing! Looking forward to next week!

    Chris N.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *