Kentucky Ranch, March 5, 1996
The Wine History Project – Researching Historic Acreage
In the early years of the Wine History Project, I consulted old maps, deeds, and documents to learn about the ranches, farms, orchards, and vineyards that contribute to the agricultural history of San Luis Obispo County. I also hiked on many properties and walked among the vineyards while examining the soil and experiencing the many microclimates, ocean breezes, and foggy mornings that contribute to the terroir. I felt like an archaeologist digging through layers of history when asking what crops grew here 100 years ago, 50 years ago, ten years ago? Who farmed these lands? What do you know about them?
The Old Kentucky Ranch
This article focuses on the history of the former Kentucky Ranch from 1850 when San Luis Obispo County was established to the year 2004 when Sherman Thacher purchased a portion of the Kentucky Ranch and founded Thacher Winery. The property still maintained a historic barn, with Bar KY identifying it. The Kentucky Ranch has been home to cattle, racehorses, orchards of fruits and nuts, vegetable gardens, and vineyards since 1869. The ownership has passed through the hands of farmers, dairymen, cattlemen, mine owners, horseman, land speculators, movie directors, racehorse breeders, and now to a grape grower and winemaker.
Sherman has carefully studied the land and the existing structures. He built the first winery on the property and planted grape varieties to produce wines that reflect the terroir. He has restored the agricultural heritage of land by planting apples and heirloom vegetables. The animals are pets or wildlife that live on the land enjoying the ecosystem; there are no cattle or horses in the old stables or barn. The dirt road lined by apple trees leads to the tasting room, the winery, and the iconic old “Kentucky Ranch” barn built around 1900, Since purchasing the property, Sherman has planted his own vineyards, twenty varieties of heirloom apple trees, and a new vegetable garden in 2021.
Sherman Thacher’s Garden
The Sense of Place – Las Tablas in the Adelaida District
Recently I started to study the records and history of the Kentucky Ranch, which has a recorded history beginning in 1869. Prior to that, the land was described as public land owned by the State of California as of 1850. It was not part of the land tracts known as Ranchos which were prevalent in north San Luis Obispo County.
The old Kentucky Ranch properties are located between Adelaida Road on the north and Highway 46 West on the south where the 4,428 original acres spread across the hills on both sides of Vineyard Drive. It is located just east of the Santa Lucia Mountain range in rolling hills with elevations ranging from 1200 to 1909 feet. From the highest mountain on the ranch, one could see all the way to Cayucos on the Pacific Ocean. The soils were described as “clayey upland soil formed on shale or igneous bedrock” (Group XI according to the U.S. Soil Conservation Service).
The greater landscape was known as the Las Tablas in the Adelaida region, as mentioned above, an area not included in the recorded Mexican or Spanish land grants. The Las Tablas area was considered to be “the frontier of Cambria”. Those settlers on the Cambria coast began seeking new business opportunities inland such as mining, raising stock, farming, and harvesting lumber. In general, after California became a state in 1850, large holdings were purchased directly from early settlers, the U.S Government or from the State of California by acquiring a patent. The General Land Office was established to transfer land to individuals; land purchases from the U.S. Government were made through the Land Office in San Francisco for the price of $1.25 an acre. The purchaser received a Certificate bearing the legal description of the patent for the lot described. The patent was later recorded in the county which initiated the chain of titles of ownership in local records.
This article focuses on the history of the Kentucky Ranch from 1850 when San Luis Obispo County was established to the year 2004 when Sherman Thacher purchased a portion of the old Kentucky Ranch with the KY historic barn and founded Thacher Winery. Sherman built the first winery on the property and planted grape varieties to produce wines that reflect the terroir and sense of place.
I am curious about the origin of the name Kentucky Ranch dating back almost 150 years. Here is the history I have collected to date.
The First Owner of the Kentucky Ranch Acquires a Patent
J. W. Hendrie acquired the patent for 4,428 acres on July 10, 1869. His name is found on the land documents but not on the local census or voter registration lists so he may have been an absentee owner. The land he acquired by patent included parcels that later became known as the Kentucky Ranch, Fair Oaks Ranch, Hilltop Ranch, Chimney Rock Ranch, and MacGillivray Ranch as they were sold to individual owners beginning around 1913. Prior to that time, the parcels were collectively referred to as “the Old Kentucky Ranch.”
In 1871 two early settlers from Kentucky, John Chesney, and Frederick Huffaker acquired title to several parcels of Hendrie’s land. Some parcels were purchased separately by each individual and some were jointly owned. Mr. Huffaker ran cattle on his land and his brand was “KY” according to records dating back to 1869. I can only speculate that the name Kentucky Ranch came from one of these two men. However there were two other Huffaker family members, Henry C. Huffaker and Rubecaf Huffaker, also acquiring land in the area who may have suggested the name.
Frank MacGillivray, the author of the History of Adelaida California, describes the area as similar to areas in Kentucky, “The Ranch area may have seemed like Kentucky to Chesney and Huffaker. In much of the Adelaida area, lime water flows from springs and the lime soils produce grass and feed that gives solid, heavy bones to young, growing horses just as it does in Kentucky.” A road survey dating back to 1895 mentions the name, Kentucky Ranch bridge, on its map so the name was well known by then.
Hendrie sold his remaining property in 1882 to Morgan Brians, Sr., a dairy farmer from Sonoma who had emigrated to the Cambria – Cayucos area with a herd of 165 cows. Morgan Brians’ dairy became the largest in the area and has left a legacy of rich history. The Brians lived on the Kentucky Ranch and were famous for their hospitality. I have not yet located the documents of sale; however, I have determined that some part of the property known as The Kentucky Ranch ended up in the possession of the San Francisco Savings Union who in turn sold 664.80 acres to George F. Bell in 1899.
The Morgan Brians family sold their land to George Bell in the 1890s. The exact date has not yet been verified. According to The Great Register of Voters of the Las Tablas District, Morgan Brians, Sr. was 83 years old in 1890, His son Morgan Brians, Jr. was 43 years old. George Bell is not listed which means his property investments in the area did not include his residence. He owned a store in Paso Robles and most likely lived in Paso Robles.
Zahn and Baldwin Company – a Mining Operation Throughout the West
The Zahn and Baldwin Company purchased the Kentucky Ranch from George Bell in 1902. They owned it until 1913. This company was a general mining business incorporated in San Francisco. Among the stockholders of this company were Hector N. Zahn and James P. Baldwin who paid $11,000 for 1,150 acres located in sections 36-26-10, 1-27-10, and portions of 12-27-19 and 31-26-11 according to the June 4, 1902 (Volume XXXI, Number 14) edition of the Morning Tribune. Ten days later the Tribune reported the two men were hauling 200,000 feet of lumber to the ranch for extensive improvements to the property.
It was also reported on June 14, 1902, that Zahn and Baldwin had previously purchased the Frank Ranch, adjoining the Kentucky Ranch, of 2,880 acres including land in sections 19, 29, 31, 32, 33, and 31-26-11 for $18,000. Documents show the transfer to Hector N. Zahn and James P. Baldwin in November 1901. Zahn and Baldwin planned to develop an extensive stock farm on both ranches. The two men, both residents of Los Angeles, purchased the land to raise and train racehorses. The Chicago Tribune noted on Saturday, January 24, 1903, that a horse owned by Zahn and Baldwin Co. had won the third race with a purse of $400.
There have been many myths about “Mr. Baldwin” which I would like to set straight – the famous Lucky Baldwin, pioneer of California business, investor and real estate speculator from Los Angeles, did not own this property nor was he related to James P. Baldwin. Therefore Lucky did not name the Kentucky Ranch as is often reported in the press.
The Los Angeles Capitalists
Hector N. Zahn sold both the Kentucky and Frankl ranches (4,500 acres) for $125,000 on March 14, 1913, to new owners described as Los Angeles capitalists according to the Paso Robles Record on page 1, dated March 15, 1913. The new owners purchased the property because it had been described as the most desirable fruit land in the county, famous for producing first-class fruits of all kinds. The new owners planned to divide the land into small parcels and plant orchards. Other parcels were sold to individuals who established their own ranches and agricultural pursuits.
It was at this time, around 1913, that the names of particular parcels that were purchased by new owners, such as the Fair Oaks Ranch, became part of the Old Kentucky Ranch land history.
Francis Zahn, Hector’s mother, transferred title to her ranch acreage to J. Harvey Foster, of the Fair Oaks Ranch. formerly a part of the Kentucky Ranch. Foster planted 100 acres of pears and almonds on his newly acquired land after clearing the timber. Within a decade, the Paso Robles area became known as the almond capital of the world; the Hershey Company was the most famous customer.
Apples were also a very successful crop. The Paso Robles Record reported on page I, March 21, 1914, that George F. Bell, the popular owner of Bell’s store in Paso Robles, planted 1,100 apple trees, doubling the size of his apple orchard on his property near the Kentucky Ranch. Apples must have been planted on the Kentucky Ranch also. There is at least one apple tree over 100 years old on Sherman’s property.
Hollywood Director Buys the Ranch
In 1941 the Kentucky Ranch was purchased by movie director William Taylor (Tay) Garnett and his wife, Mari. They were a part of the Hollywood film community and were visited by friends and celebrities. The Kentucky Ranch once again became home to raising cattle. They encouraged King Vidor to invest in the adjoining land and were friendly with the Hearst family. They ranched until 1955 and then sold it to a dentist who unsuccessfully attempted to farm the land.
Recreational Properties: Quarter Horses and Land Development
After both the dentist and his wife passed away, the property was purchased in 1970 by Recreational Properties, a corporation that invested significant funds in the property. The stockholders and officers of the corporation have not yet been identified. In addition to the Kentucky Ranch the corporation purchased 50 acres with frontage on Lake Nacimiento. There are questions in my mind about whether the new owners bought the property to establish the finest Quarter Horse operation possible or whether they were real estate developers who needed to establish a legitimate business before raising funds and developing a proposal for homes to be built on small acreage plots.
The Recreational Properties Corporation did establish the finest Quarter Horse operation in the area at the time. The ranch manager was Mal Breshears. The staff included the official ranch veterinarian, trainers and exercise boys. Fencing was designed with posts and rails to protect the quarter horses from injury. Broodmares and foals grazed in the pastures. The huge barn bearing the Bar KR brand was featured in photos and newspaper articles with famous horses standing in at the barn door. The architecture and shape of the barn is unusual. The roof is shaped by curved laminated roof beams – unique to the Kentucky Ranch.
There were a series of owners and proposals to develop some parts of the ranch with homes on small parcels of land but none of the proposals came to fruition in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1995 Bruce and Sandra Ebelherr purchased 312 acres of the Kentucky Ranch from H. F. Boeckmann II and Jane Boeckmann on October 6. They continue to care for the ranch and honor its heritage. In 2004 they sold 52 acres with the iconic Bar KR Barn to Sherman Thacher.
Kentucky Ranch Apple-Grape Wine
This is the first of a series of articles on Thacher Winery and the Kentucky Ranch, Homestead Hill Vineyard, and Thacher wines and ciders. I include an aerial photo of the Homestead Hill Vineyard planted by Sherman with the following grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Grenache, Heirloom Blend, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Zinfandel.
The heirloom apple varieties include Nehou, Golden Russet, Ashmead’s Kernel, Wickson, Grimes Golden, Black Twig, Pink Pearl, Smokehouse, Yarlington Mill, Kidd’s Orange Red, Belle De Boskoop, Suntan, Foxwelp, Baldwin, Hauer Pippin, Pink Sparkle, Burford Red, Grannysmith, Fuji and Spitzenburg. The trees yield a crop of approximately 4.5 tons.
Stay tuned for the article on winemaking with winemaker Sherman Thacher and his assistant winemaker Daniel Callan producing a unique cider. According to the label on the bottle of Apple-Grape wine, the apples go through a grinding process after several weeks of sweating. The fruit is allowed to macerate for 24 hours before being basket pressed. The juice is roughly settled, racked, and combined with a small amount of red grapes grown on the ranch. The juice is then inoculated for a long, cool fermentation. The finished cider is bottled, unfiltered, and unfined during the winter months. The label features the iconic barn and apple blossoms. Anne Laddon, local artist and founder of Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, designed and painted the label in 2020. Only 180 cases are produced.
1850: California becomes a State and San Luis Obispo County is established.
1860s: Las Tablas, the frontier of Cambria, becomes an area of interest for business opportunities such as cattle raising, farming, lumber harvesting and mining.
1869: J. W. Hendrie acquires a patent for 4438 acres from the Land Management Office in San Francisco on July 10.
1869: John W. Chesney and Henry C. Huffaker acquire 344.40 acres of land listed in a Document Type, State Volume Patent on July 10 through the Land Management Office in San Francisco. This land was purchased originally on April 24, 1820 for cash.
1869: Rebecaf Huffaker acquires 160.40 acres listed in a Document Type, known as Agricultural Script Patent on June 20, 1873. This land was originally acquired by the State Grant-Agricultural College on July 2, 1862.
1869: Frederick Huffaker registers his cattle brand Bar KY.
1871: John Chesney and Frederick Huffaker, settlers from Kentucky, purchase land several parcels of land from J.W Hendrie both individually and jointly and establish cattle ranching.
1873: Rebecaf Huffaker purchases 160 acres of land through the State Land Grant Agriculture College who was authority over the land under legislation dating back to July 2, 1862.
1882: Morgan Brians, Sr, purchased the land from J. W. Hendries and moves to the property as a full-time resident.
1899: Frederick Huffaker conveys a parcel of land, 664.80 acres in township 27 South to J. Nurgaard by deed dated May 4th. The land is located the west side of said North East Quarter and is five acres in size.
1899: George F. Bell acquires 664.80 acres from The San Francisco Savings Union, duly organized and incorporated under the laws of the State of California, for $4,000.00 in Gold Coin or United States of America according to a resolution, adopted by the Board of Directors of said corporation at a meeting held on the 23rd day of February 1894. The transfer takes place on the seventh day of December 1899. This property is adjacent to the Old Kentucky Ranch.
1901: Hector N. Zahn and James Pierce Baldwin purchase the Joseph Frank ranch for $18,000. The 2880 acres are located in sections 19, 29, 32,31, 34 31-26-11. Source: Morning Tribune, Volume XIV, Number 136, October 26, 1901.
1902: George F. Bell acquires 200 acres of land in Township 26 from George and Mary Hamilton in township 26 for the sum of eight hundred dollars, Gold Coin or the United States of America. The sale was recorded on March 11. This property is adjacent to the Old Kentucky Ranch.
1902: The Zahn and Baldwin Company has been incorporated with capital stock of $500,000 by Otto J. Zahn, Hector N. Zahn, James Pierce Baldwin, Warwick O. Symondson and Cornelius Baldwin, all of Los Angeles. The principal place of business is San Francisco. The directors have subscribed for $400,000 of the stock. Source: San Francisco Chronicle, April 22, 1902, page 8.
1902: George F. Bell sells the land to the Zahn and Baldwin Company for $11,000 for 1,150 acres including ½ of section 36-26-10, 8 acres of section 1-27-10; ¼ of section 12-27-19, and a fractional share of section 31-26-11. Source: Morning Tribune, Volume XXXI, Number 14, June 4, 1902. The deed was recorded in November 1902.
1905: Zahn and Baldwin Co. transfer some lands including Section 35-26-10 to Mrs. Francis Zahn. (Note: the Zahn family tree includes the father, Dr. Johann Carl Zahn, who is married to Francis Zahn. They have five children: Otto Johann Zahn, Oscar Carl Zahn, Hector Nelson Zahn, Oswald Francis Zahn and Lorenzo Paul Zahn.)
1905: A carload of blooded horses arrives for the Zahn Ranch. Source: Paso Robles Record, May 27, 1905. (Note: this may be Mrs. Francis Zahn’s ranch.)
1913: The Kentucky and Frank ranches totaling 4500 acres were sold on March 14 for $125,000 to Los Angeles capitalists who propose to subdivide the land in small tracts with a view on planting same into orchards. It is expected that the subdivision of the property will commence immediately and the small tracts put on the market. Source: Paso Robles Record, March 15, 1913. The property was transferred to the Fair Oaks Land Company whose principal officer was Maurice B. Ayers. The ranch was divided into parcels that became known as the Hilltop Ranch, Fair Oaks Ranch, the Kentucky Ranch, the MacGillivray Ranch, and portions of the Chimney Rock Ranch.
1913: Francis Zahn transfers ownership of a certain amount of acres of the Old Kentucky Ranch to J. Harvey Foster and M. Ayers in May. Source: Paso Robles Record, April 12, 1913, page 4.
1913: J. Harvey Foster and M. Ayers transfer ownership to Fair Oaks Land Co. in May.
1914: News Flash: Fair Oaks Ranch manager, J. Harvey Foster with a crew of 65 men, has just completed the arrangement for setting out 100 acres to pears and almonds that promises to be the best in the district. Source: Paso Robles Record, March 21, 1914, page 1.
1914: News Flash: Mr. G. F. Bell, the owner of Bell’s Store in Paso Robles, is now planting 1100 apple trees on his property near the Kentucky Ranch. Last year he planted the same amount of trees which will make the 2200 tree apple orchard one of the best in this section. Source: Paso Robles Record, March 21, 1914, page 1.
1916: News Flash: Fair Oaks Land Company grants Trust Deed to Commercial Bank of San Luis Obispo in the amount of $65,000 secured by the Old Kentucky Ranch of 4400 acres. Source: San Luis Obispo Tribune (weekly edition), Volume XLVII, Number 71, April 18, 1916.
1919: Fair Oaks Land Company sells or transfers title to the land to M. Ayers.
1926: M. Ayers sells the land to H. Henriksen.
1929: H. Henriksen transfers ownership to Hendriksen Ranch Co.
1934: Henriksen Ranch Co. transfers ownership to Henry Henriksen.
1935: Henry Henriksen sells the ranch to Leo J. Bergin. News Flash: According to the Press, the Kentucky Ranch was sold earlier this year to Leo J. Bergin. The ranch covers 1,026 acres. Bergin has made extensive repairs, modernized the buildings and increased the value of the livestock. Source: Paso Robles Times, December 28, 1935.
1941: L. Bergin sells to William Taylor (Tay) Garnett, movie director, and his wife Mari Garnett. He purchases the Kentucky Ranch and raises cattle. Tay is famous for directing the film “The Postman Always Rings Twice among others. He hosted many celebrities including King Vidor, an associate film director. He convinces King Vidor to purchase 1,300 acres adjoining the Kentucky Ranch to the west. The two directors attracted famous guests including William Randolph Hearst. The three men occasionally ride horseback from Hearst Ranch to the Kentucky Ranch.
1955: W. Gilbert Parker DDS purchased all but 25 acres of the Kentucky Ranch from Tay and Mari Garnett. He attempts to farm the property.
1963: W. Gilbert Parker DDS dies and ownership transfers to the Estate of W. G. Parker.
1967: The Estate of W. Gilbert Parker transfers ownership to Ruth Ford Parker.
1970: The Estate of Ruth Ford Parker sells to Murdock et al. which is known as Recreational Properties.
1970: Recreational Properties, a corporation based in Los Angeles, purchases the ranch in 1970 and establishes one of the finest quarter horse operations in California. The corporation began buying additional portions of the original property and also purchases approximately 50 acres of Nacimiento lakefront property which is included in the Kentucky Ranch organization.
1970: Ownership transfers from Evelyn Ford Murdock, Ray Ford Bulloch, Peggy Bragdon, Gorgine Hollibush, Raymond Green and Eugene Murdock to Augustus Tagliaferri, doing business as Universal Land Holding Company on December 22. It is not clear who owns Recreational Properties but I suspect it is Augustus Tagliaferri.
1972: By December the Kentucky Ranch includes 1,500 acres and extensive quarter horse facilities, owned by Recreational Properties.
1975: Ownership transfers from Augustus Tagliaferri doing business as Universal Holding Corporation and his wife Patricia Tagliferri to Emmy Management Corporation on June 11.
1975: Ownership transfers from Emmy Management to Herbert and Jane Boeckmann on June 11.
1978: August Tagliaferri and August Tagliaferri doing business as Universal Land Holding Company quit claims acreage to Herbert and Jane Boeckmann on April 17.
1982: King Vidor dies at his ranch in Paso Robles.
1992: The Mabel M. Collelmo Revocable Trust dated September 10, 1985, grants to Colleen Collemo, Trustee of the Colleen Collemo Living Trust the property referred to as the Fair Oaks Ranch. This includes Parcels one through seven, dated April 8.
1995: Bruce and Sandra Ebelherr purchased 312 acres of the Kentucky Ranch from H. F. Boeckmann II and Jane Boeckmann on October 6.
1996: Photo of the Kentucky Ranch dated April 30 by James F. Danig.
2004: Sherman Thacher purchases the 52 acres with the landmark Bar K R Barn from the Ebelherr family. The address is 8355 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles.