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A Load Of Bull

No, no. It's not what you may think.

This is a story told by my father about an experience he had while he was in college at UC Davis.

It was 1928 and my grandfather, a dairyman with a small herd near Manchester on the Mendocino Coast 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 theory that cross-eyed bulls produced cows which produced more milk. The experiment required a fairly controlled environment where the milk production of the offspring of a cross-eyed bull could be accurately compared to the output of an ordinary dairy herd. Professor Mead loaned his few cross-eyed bulls to as many dairymen in Northern California as he could to enlarge and validate the experiment.

The experiment involved shipping a prize cross-eyed bull from the UC Davis herd to my grandfather's Manchester dairy ranch. My father, who was already a UC Davis student, 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 bull was a prize-winning Jersey weighing well above average at almost 2000 pounds. The next time my father went home for a vacation he would drive their ranch truck, a 1920 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 empty crate onto the flatbed. The relatively tame and docile bull (Jersey bulls are known for their unpredictability) was then herded into the crate and the crate was nailed shut and securely roped to the flatbed. Several loose ropes were tied around the bull's neck to keep the bull near the center of the crate.

It was immediately obvious to my father that the big bull made the truck top-heavy. He realized that if the bull got too far over to one side it might tip over the truck, so he'd have to drive very carefully. A friend and fellow UC Davis student from the Mendocino Coast named Herb who would accompany my father for the trip 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, it took over an hour and a half and threw them off their schedule. As they changed the tire with all that extra weight , they were reminded, if they needed reminding, that the truck was unstable with a big live bull in a crate on the flatbed. They had hoped to make it to 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 in Mendocino County were, shall we say, "unimproved," (i.e., dirt or gravel) -- besides being steep and very twisty. He didn't think they'd be stable or flat enough to take a 2000-pound bull on the back of a flatbed. But the route was a long one and they were getting worried about making it in one day.

The flat tire and the slower speeds they needed to keep from jostling the bull too much further delayed their arrival in Jenner however. It became obvious that they would have no chance to get home 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.

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. Following the rough coastline north required many swings into gulches where there were not only some severe and steep u-turns and s-turns, but whatever little moonlight there was was obstructed by the steep walls surrounding the gulches.

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

Unsurprisingly, the bull was becoming antsy and impatient, making more noise and pulling on his ropes.

Oh, and did 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 beaches 100-200 feet or more below.

This wasn't exactly what my father had bargained for when he signed on to Professor Mead's goofy experiment.

They slowly and carefully made their way north through the remote outposts of Fort Ross, Salt Point, Horseshoe Cove, Rocky Point, Fisherman Bay, Smuggler's Cove, 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 an uninteresting part of a routine cross-eyed cow experiment, and as if he never felt like there was much real danger.

Times were different then.

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

One Comment

  1. Judy Bryan Mello July 19, 2010

    As a relative newcomer to the area and just down the road from the dairy, I found this a very entertaining piece. Very familiar with hauling animals across the Jenner Grade and will never complain again!

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