Publication Date: Wednesday, July 31, 2002
Jim Rapley turns 100
Jim Rapley turns 100
(July 31, 2002) Last of the Skyline cowboys still spins yarns about the old days -- grizzlies; the hermit of Jasper Ridge; the earthquake
By Marion Softky
Almanac Staff Writer
"I'm like the skunk when the wind changed. It all comes back to me now."
Jim Rapley leans back in his chair at a Redwood City rest home and launches into a yarn about seeing a mountain lion. He was working on a crew digging the tunnel to bring water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the 1920s when he spied a lion on a side hill. "We took turns looking at him through a telescope," he says, a gleam lighting his cloudy eyes. "He was sliding along on his belly across an open patch."
At 100 years old, Mr. Rapley may be mostly deaf and blind, but his memory is sharp, and he can still tell a good story. And what a trove of yarns he has.
Mr. Rapley's memories of Peninsula life go back far beyond the colorful events of his own life -- which include the San Francisco Earthquake, 55 years of ranching Skyline, and a World War II encounter with the FBI. Through hand-me-down tales, collective memories extend back almost 150 years to the 1860s, when both pairs of grandparents ranched the hills and worked in the valleys of the Midpeninsula.
"Grandfather O'Leary was a story-teller and a soldier of fortune," he says. "Grandfather Rapley didn't have too much time for tomfoolery."
Jim Rapley celebrated his 100th birthday with about 80 family and friends at a party last Sunday, put on by Skyline neighbors Bruce and Hildegard Jackson at their California Ferns nursery in East Palo Alto. He actually turned 100 on Monday, July 29.
The Jacksons have been close friends and supporters of Mr. and Mrs. Rapley for years. After a disastrous fire burned down the Rapley house two and-a-half years ago, the Jacksons took in the Rapleys and gave them a home for six weeks, before they moved down the hill to the rest home where they live now. "We really thought he would not make it, but he snapped out of it," says Mrs. Jackson.
Since then, Mr. or Mrs. Jackson -- or both -- have been visiting the Rapleys six or seven days a week. "He was my mentor," says Mrs. Jackson simply.
Mr. Rapley's 100th birthday provides an occasion to take a new look at the way things were when most Peninsula residents made their living off the land. Just 20 years ago, on June 23, 1982, the Almanac published a major interview with Jim Rapley. Then, a younger Mr. Rapley spent several afternoons bringing alive the old days -- the mud and the dust, the characters who peopled the land, the events that shaped their lives.
"It really was a different world," Mr. Rapley reflected. "Today we take everything so for granted. You want to keep something cool, you put it in the refrigerator. Well, they had no refrigerators."
Growing up in old Menlo
Actually, Jimmy Rapley grew up in Menlo Park on Cedar Street (now Buckthorn Way) off El Camino Real.
"Going to school, going to town -- everything they did was so hard, my mother figured she'd had enough mountain business," Mr. Rapley explained. "So that's how we moved to the lowlands."
Thus Jimmy, fourth of nine children, spent most of his childhood in Menlo Park -- except for glorious summers visiting grandparents on the mountain. He attended the old St. Joseph's school, the one that was torn down because it did not meet fire codes.
Mr. Rapley recalled the 1906 earthquake when he was about 4 years old. "I remember not so much the earthquake as the excitement with it," he recalled. "After the big quake I remember my father going around checking on everything that was broke.
"Everybody was so excited. At nighttime you could stand in the yard, and you could see the sky was red. Where we lived in Menlo, they had a big old barn. These people were coming, wanting to sleep in the barn, carrying a parrot, or pushing a baby buggy or anything with something in it.
"There was a lot of little quakes after the big quake. I remember them more than the big quake. We had a girl working for us, supposed to be my nurse. She was hysterical." Mr. Rapley looked up and laughed. "And she got me hysterical."
Young Jimmy loved to ride along with his father on work trips. Rapley senior used to "team out of the mountains." He would cut and haul wood; he would haul hay and grain; he did a little farming in the valley. And Jimmy would absorb stories of the land and its people.
"He mostly used to point out what happened along that road," Mr. Rapley recalled, "a whole family buried under that oak tree, a guy hung under that other oak tree down by Searsville."
Mr. Rapley's father also drove the water truck that provided fresh water for residents of the Menlo Park and Atherton area in summer when Bear Gulch Lake became too bad to drink. Mr. Rapley remembered helping, filling the buckets from the tank wagon and delivering them to homes.
As a boy and young man, Jimmy was active in Menlo Park life early in the century. He caddied for "two bits" at the Menlo Golf and Country Club on the former Selby estate. Late in World War I, he waited on customers at the old Duff & Doyle general store; he helped dismantle the wooden buildings at Camp Fremont after the war. Later he worked as a dairyman on the old Dimond Ranch above Searsville.
Instead of going to Central High School, Jimmy Rapley moved up to Skyline. There he had a little cabin and a corral and started building up his herd of cattle. "I've been running cattle the best part of my life," Mr. Rapley said. "I started my first herd when I was 15 years old. It was not a very big herd, but it was a beginning."
55 years a rancher
When Jimmy Rapley moved to a shack and barn he built himself out of an old schoolhouse on 96 rented acres on Skyline Ridge, there was no Skyline Boulevard.
"The old road along Skyline was beautiful with old rail fences and the brush gone. It was a typical country lane following the line of least resistance," he recalled, speaking slowly with the twang of the hills.
"In the old horse-and-wagon days, why getting to Woodside was a pretty good chore. People never went to town unless they were out of everything or had something to sell."
In the 1930s Mr. Rapley bought the family ranch off Rapley Ranch Road from his parents Through all those years, he tended cattle, his own and others', for meat and milk products.
The work was tough. "We worked around the clock. No one was in bed at daylight. Chores were done with a lantern in the morning and chores were done with a lantern at night." In winter he rode the hills during storms to tend the cattle. "I did a lot of my cowboying alone," he said.
His bachelor quarters became a popular place for relatives and friends to leave their children in summer for some wholesome work and play away from town. "People would dump their kids here, and half the time I wouldn't know who the people were who owned the kids," Mr. Rapley recalled.
The sister of one of those kids was Anne Foley of San Francisco. They married in 1946; now 90, she's still with him in Redwood City.
A lifelong animal lover, Mr. Rapley also had a way with horses -- and mules. This talent got him a job driving the teams that pulled the dirt out of the Hetch Hetchy tunnel being excavated through the hills between Edgewood Road and the Pulgas Water Temple.
The teams had a "reputation," and the whole crew turned out to watch the young man try to harness them -- which he did. Later he described the job driving the teams as they pulled cars of dirt on railroad tracks out of the tunnel as "pretty tedious."
The most expensive horse Mr. Rapley ever trained was a Morgan stallion. It belonged to an amputee with artificial hands named Charlie McGonigal, who had bought the horse as a colt from William Randolph Hearst. McGonigal's son couldn't break the horse, so he begged Mr. Rapley to train him. "He was so scared of the horse, he scared the horse," Mr. Rapley said with scorn. "The horse wouldn't let him in the stable."
Mr. Rapley took on the job, and soon had the horse so "a little kid could ride him." McGonigal used to ride the horse in parades. "He was quite a guy, Charlie McGonigal. He was so good with those hooks that he spent most of his time going from hospital to hospital talking to amputees.
"Charlie could lace his shoes. He'd pull out his cigarettes and take one cigarette and light it. He'd pull out a checkbook and write a check," Mr. Rapley continued. "I couldn't begin to write like him, you know. He had beautiful handwriting."
What was Mr. Rapley's trick for training horses?
Just like kids, he replies. "You don't try to work with the backside; you work with the head."
Neighbors and grizzlies.
In the old days when the hills were inhabited by a few ranching families -- like Williams, Isenberg, True and Rapley -- neighbors were far apart in distance, but close in spirit.
Mr. Rapley may have done most of his cowboying alone, but he was also there for old-fashioned fun. There were rodeos and barbecues at one ranch or another. Dances would move from one barn to another, and sometimes they would "import girls from Redwood [City]."
Ami Jaqua remembers when her parents, Rudolph and Gerda Isenberg, moved to their new ranch in 1941 when she was 7. The first morning, Jim Rapley's pigs got under their front porch, and the children were sent off to tell him.
"We rode over and shyly told him," she says. "One thing led to another. Jimmy started helping father with cattle. He was wonderful with children."
The four Isenberg children, and a couple of Japanese refugee girls staying with them, soon adored the Rapleys. "He was a wonderful neighbor and teacher and mentor. He had time for us," Mrs. Jaqua says. "He had no kids of his own, so we were his family."
A high point in their lives was to go over to the Rapleys for a big ranch breakfast. Because their father was vegetarian, they really dug into his bacon, beans and scrambled eggs.
Mrs. Jaqua remembers that Mr. Rapley had a nice voice and loved to sing when riding. "I think I asked him to sing 'Wild Irish Rose' a thousand times," she says.
Mr. Rapley also remembers the Isenbergs with pleasure. "Everybody was part of the family when you stayed with the Isenbergs," he says.
Besides teaching the Isenberg children about horses and cows, Mr. Rapley and Mr. Isenberg worked together and had adventures together. Mrs. Jaqua remembers the time they managed to drive a bulldozer over a cliff. "They rode it down a steep side hill," she chuckles..
Mr. Rapley still laughs about the time during World War II the FBI came to his ranch to question him. The agents apparently thought a suspicious-looking bulldozer track Mr. Isenberg had plowed across the hills might be an air strip.
As Mr. Rapley told them off, and a bunch of kids trailed in, the FBI agents took off with a roar-- only to get stuck in a mudhole spinning their wheels. To their shame, Mr. Rapley had to get their car out. "They took off," he says gleefully.
Mr. Rapley never saw a bear himself, but he likes to tell the story of when his father met some grizzlies, which were once common in the local hills.
His father was about 11 years old, picking blackberries at a family ranch near Bear Gulch. "It had been very foggy, and two little cubs came out and began to roll and play. Pretty soon mom appeared.
"Although he had an old shotgun, he never stopped running. My grandmother used to tell about it. She said he nearly dropped at the door when he got home. He never even looked back to see if they were coming after him."
Thinking of all his adventures -- including getting burned out of his house in a storm when he was 97 -- Mr. Rapley is kind of amazed he is still here. "I'm more surprised than anyone. I came so close to being dead so many times."