Publication Date: Wednesday, July 31, 2002
Last of the Skyline cowboys: Jim Rapley's yarns on the old days
Last of the Skyline cowboys: Jim Rapley's yarns on the old days
(July 31, 2002)
These yarns about Skyline in the old days have been adapted from stories told by Jim Rapley to Almanac reporter Marion Softky in 1982, and published that summer.
New Year's party at Searsville with the old prospector
Part of the lore of Searsville Lake centers around Domingo Grasso, the hermit who played genial host to generations of Stanford students at the little cottage where he lived and mined for gold.
Oldtime cowboy Jim Rapley has his own vivid recollections of Domingo on a New Year's Eve -- or thereabouts -- when he was 14. Old Domingo "dug pits and mined and prospected for gold," Mr. Rapley recalls. "He shipped ore once a year."
Mr. Rapley remembers Domingo's little "all up and down board cabin" with Italian and American flags. It was "very neat and surrounded by little paths lined with rocks. He had his own vineyard and made his own wine from his own grapes."
Mr. Rapley tells of the time when he and his older brother and a friend or two were on Jasper Ridge, hunting or trapping or something, and ended up at Domingo's.
"Old Domingo thought he should celebrate with us so he brought out his homemade bread and his homemade cheese and his homemade wine.
"It was terrible wine. I didn't want any, but my brother thought I should take part in the deal because otherwise Old Domingo would be insulted. So rather than insult him, I drank some of that wine.
"I don't think I drank as much as they did, but I drank enough. They were still in there at seven, and I was out under an oak tree.
"I never saw so many robins in my life. As long as I lay down, I could look up into that tree. I saw one robin and he looked like a thousand.
"But still we had miles to walk out of there to Menlo," Mr. Rapley still remembers. "We came out of there in various by-ways. We all seemed able to walk, but it wasn't very straight.
"We hitched a ride on a lumber wagon. I woke up in Charlie Branstein's yard in Atherton on top of a load of lumber.
"That was the first wine I drank. But it wasn't the last."
The last cattle drive
Former Skyline rancher Jim Rapley likes to tell a story his father told him about the Langleys, an early ranching family that gave their names to the road, the hill and the quarry.
"When the Langleys settled here in the early days, they were more concerned with the lumber business," Mr. Rapley explains. "They were lumbermen, but they had a herd of cattle.
"They didn't do anything with these cattle; they just increased, multiplied and went wild."
The Langleys finally decided to round up the wild cattle so they "could start out again with something they could handle -- gentle cattle, you know.
"So they hired Old Felix -- he was an outlaw cowboy and he hired about 15 cowboys to help him. They started to round them up. They were going to drive all those cattle down into Mayfield (Palo Alto). A fellow by the name of Fisher was to buy them all and butcher them.
"And they did round them up pretty well. The idea was to have them all in what they call Fern Hollow. And they figured they did have those cattle in there. In the morning they would surround them all and make the big drive.
"There was a lot of people heard about this big drive. So they came up with horses and buggies and on horseback and all.
"The cowboys built fires all around, and that was supposed to keep the cattle from coming out. But when morning came, there wasn't any cattle to take out.
"They had all gone down through the canyon. They came out all over -- they came out at La Honda; they came out everywhere.
"From then on it was gather as many as you could and rope 'em. They spent the day out there ropin' and tying each one to a tree. Then when they got so many together, they'd butcher 'em right out there and come out with the sled and load them and take them to town.
"The more they worked them, the wilder they got.
"My dad and his sister were going to school in La Honda on a little old pony. I guess when they were coming home, the cowboys had been running these cattle all day, and they were just coming down the mountain like crazy -- pretty near to the kids.
"This one guy, Cunningham, he was a hero from then on. He had his coat and kept waving it and turned the herd away from the kids." Mr. Rapley leans back, looks up and smiles: "Yes, I guess it was kind of an exciting round up."
Yes, there were grizzlies in those days
Skyline rancher Jim Rapley sees more wildlife now than when he was growing up because there is less hunting now than there used to be when the ranchers used to hunt quail, rabbit and deer.
Still earlier, in his father's day, wildlife was abundant in the Skyline hills. Mr. Rapley recalls: "My dad said he could go down to Mindego Creek and catch a mess of trout in no time at all. He said the quail would sound like thunder in the evening when they would go to roost. There were so many quail; deer were everywhere.
"Then there were no laws and people trapped and hunted for the market. They put these box traps out; they could take a whole field of quail. It wasn't too long before the quail were getting scarce.
"They did the same thing with the deer. No limit. You could shoot anything -- doe, fawn. They'd come up sometimes with a four-horse wagon and load it up and take it down and sell the deer. They thinned out the deer population pretty quick.
"Then they started making laws." It still took a long time for the wildlife to make a comeback, Mr. Rapley notes. He himself doesn't do any hunting now. "I don't think I was a hunter at heart," he says, "In those days you hunted for meat."
Mr. Rapley has seen two lions, both a long time ago, and both in Spring Valley where they were laying the big Hetch Hetchy water line near Edgewood Road.
As for bears, Mr. Rapley has never seen one but recounts this tale from his father:
"I guess my father saw the last grizzly bear when he was a kid -- only 11 or 12 years old.
"He was picking blackberries and he seen these two little cubs reaching up, picking berries. And the mama bear and papa bear came out. Although he had an old shotgun, he didn't stop 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."
Pictures on the wall and each an early day vignette
Jim Rapley's little office off his old ranch workshop is lined with faded pictures. And each picture triggers a vignette of earlier days.
On one wall is a photo of a beautiful Morgan stallion.
"I broke him myself for a man with artificial hands," Mr. Rapley recalls. "He bought the horse as a colt from Randolph Hearst. He used to ride it 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. After the War some of them would be so disgusted they'd figure, 'What the Hell's the use? I don't have any hands.'
"Charlie used to lace his shoes. He'd pull out his cigarettes and take one cigarette and light it. He'd do everything.
"He'd say, 'Well, Jim, I think I owe you a little money.' He'd pull out the checkbook (and write a check). I couldn't begin to write like him, you know, he had beautiful handwriting.
"So he made the best use of those hooks, I guess, going around encouraging people to see what they could do."
Another picture shows a man in suspenders standing by an old-fashioned porch. That was "Jack the Ripper, one of the most famous characters around," Mr. Rapley chuckles.
"He was one of those old characters who used to go from one ranch to another, doing whatever needed to be done -- haying or rounding up or whatever.
"Jack the Ripper was anything but what that name implies. He was rather a gentle old guy. He'd rather be a tough guy, but it wasn't in his nature.
"Old Jack's been dead a long time. He spent his last days in Woodside."
Prohibition brought 'business' to the Skyline
Jim Rapley leans back in the snug little office next to the workshop on his Skyline ranch.
There was a "different kind of life in the hills" during Prohibition, he recalls.
"There were very few places that didn't have a still -- every ranch that I know of," Mr. Rapley remembers. "Seemed like an ideal place. You went through someone else's yard to get there.
'When you saw a truckload of sugar going in, you knew they weren't feeding it to the cattle. Finally they cleaned it out when a woman got tired of her son coming home drunk and she squealed.
"The most spectacular still was right on Skyline -- on the old Brown Ranch, located where the Spring Ridge picnic area is now. The Browns had left the ranch and the buildings were vacant. This Armenian woman moved in. I don't know how many stills she had in the house, but her two sons were doing all the manufacturing of moonshine in there. They slept, ate and stayed right in that house and made booze.
"They made 500 gallons per day, which is quite a bit of alcohol. People claimed the old house would vibrate when they were working.
"The woman did all the delivering. She had a nice car and always dressed well. I had an idea she had a lot of help from the law because she never got caught."
Mr. Rapley himself never got involved in moonshining, although he says: "I was in an ideal place, but I was too busy milking cows and shipping cream. The only time anyone ever suspected me was when I was shipping the cream from the express depot in Redwood. Some guys in suits and ties came in and took the lids off and started looking in the cans.
"I guess they thought I was shipping booze."
The lady on the stagecoach fainted
Skyline oldtimer Jim Rapley remembers wonderful summers he spent as a boy with his grandparents at "The Landings," their place at the summit of Old La Honda Road.
These were the stagecoach days when Old La Honda Road carried all the traffic from "Redwood" over the Skyline to the lumbering and ranching communities on the Coastside.
When Mr. Rapley was a boy, Sam Stout -- "a big redfaced fellow' -- drove the four-horse stage over the hill from Redwood City to La Honda and Pescadero. Al Weatherby, who had driven 20 mule teams in Death Valley, ran a freight service with four mules and a wagon. He bought goods for the stores in La Honda and Pescadero and for anyone else who was along his way. Mule teams also hauled redwood boards from Deadfield's mill near Loma Mar to the lumber yard in Palo Alto.
"It was sure dusty," Mr. Rapley remembers. "Wagons and cattle drives and everything went over that one road. It was a common sight that these guys all had a bandana handkerchief pulled over their face."
The stagecoach trip from the flatlands "wasn't the most comfortable ride in the world." By the time they got to the top of Old La Honda Road, the passengers were ready for a break. So the wagons and coaches often made a popular but unofficial stop at The Landings.
As Mr. RapIey tells it: "By the time they came from Redwood City, when they got to the top of the mountain, those women would want someplace to go. They'd go to my grandmother's home and get a drink of water and a sandwich, but it was all free. My grandmother was a very compassionate woman."
Some of Mr. Rapley's best yarns come from his father. He tells this one which took place long before he used to visit his grandparents at The Landings as a boy:
"With the hot weather, women were wearing corsets. Well, they're bound up in one of those and sitting straight up. There was a continuous turmoil going on -- all these old teamsters at the stage stop and this woman faints.
"So one guy hollers, 'Cut the bodice! Cut the bodice!' With a pocket knife he was ripping the poor gal's corset -- or whatever it was.
"I guess when she came to, she passed out all over again." With this punch line, Mr. Rapley looks up with a wonderful slow smile.