Jim Rapley, last of the Skyline cowboys, dies at 105
Jim Rapley, who died peacefully on Aug. 31 at 105, was a legend in his time. A third-generation rancher on Skyline, he ran cattle on Langley Hill for 55 years. And he had a special talent for spinning tales about the old days, back to the times when both sets of grandparents ranched the Peninsula hills.
With a slow, down-home twang, "Jimmy" would lean back in his chair, and tell about the time his father was a kid and met two grizzly cubs and their mother near La Honda; or his first drunk with the hermit of Jasper Ridge; or the lady from the stagecoach who passed out at The Landings, his grandparents' stage stop where Skyline Boulevard now meets Old La Honda Road; or the last cattle drive, when all the cows got loose. And on and on.
"He listened very, very intensely," recalls Hildegard Jackson, a Skyline neighbor and close friend for more than 40 years. "He could tell the story of the past in the finest detail — which made the past so much more alive. I always admired that."
Jimmy Rapley was born on July 29, 1902, the fourth of nine children. He actually grew up living on Cedar Street (now Buckthorn Way) in Menlo Park. His mother had had enough of the hassle of raising children in the mountains, he said in a 1982 interview, "so that's how we moved to the lowlands."
Jimmy attended the old St. Joseph School before it was torn down. He also remembered the 1906 earthquake, not the earthquake itself as much as the excitement it caused. "At nighttime, you could stand in the yard, and you could see the sky was red," he said. "These people were coming wanting to sleep in the barn, carrying a parrot, or pushing a baby buggy."
Jimmy loved riding with his father, who hauled logs and hay and grain, and also drove the local water tank truck to deliver water. On these trips he absorbed stories of the land and its people. He remembered his father pointing out "a whole family buried under that oak tree, a guy hung under that other oak tree down by Searsville."
In those days kids worked the old-fashioned way. Jimmy put in time working at Duff and Doyle, the old general store in Menlo Park; caddying "for two bits" at the Menlo Golf and Country Club; dismantling buildings from Camp Fremont after World War I; and working as a dairyman at the old Diamond Ranch above Searsville.
When he was 15, Jimmy passed up Central High School to rent some land on Skyline and start his first herd of cows. "It was not a very big herd, but it was a beginning," he said.
By the 1930s, he bought the family ranch off Rapley Ranch Road from his parents. Through many years, he tended cattle, his own and others', for meat and milk products. "We worked around the clock. No one was in bed at daylight," he said.
Mr. Rapley built a reputation for being able to handle horses — and mules. For a while he drove teams of mules with a "reputation," hauling dirt from the construction of the pipelines bringing water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite to the Pulgas Water Temple.
Jimmy also trained an untrainable Morgan stallion for a colorful character named Charlie McGonical, an amputee with hooks for hands. The trick for training horses, Jimmy Rapley said, was to treat them just like kids. "You don't try to work with the backside; you work with the head."
While Jimmy was still a bachelor in the shack he built, lots of relatives would drop off their kids to stay with him during the summer for wholesome work and play. In 1946 he married Anne Foley, the sister of one of those kids. She still lives in Redwood City.
In those days, the ranching families on Skyline were close. They worked and played together and helped each other out. Ami Jacqua, daughter of neighboring ranchers Rudolph and Gerda Isenberg, remembers Jimmy Rapley fondly. He helped her father with their cattle, fed their family big ranch breakfasts, taught the kids about horses and cows, and sang for them while they were riding.
"He was wonderful with children, He was a wonderful neighbor and teacher and mentor," says Ms. Jacqua, who still lives down Langley Hill Road. "He had no kids of his own, so we were his family."
Seven years ago, Jim and Anne Rapley's peaceful aging was horribly interrupted when their house caught fire and burned during a January storm. They were rescued and taken in by neighbors Bruce and Hildegard Jackson. They stayed with the Jacksons for six weeks before moving off the hill to a rest home in Redwood City.
The Jacksons have been visiting them almost daily ever since. His death will leave a huge void in our life, says Ms. Jackson. "With each individual — friends, family, neighbors — he had an individual relationship. It was absolutely amazing."
Mr. Rapley is survived by his wife, Anne, of Redwood City, and a sister, Pauline Murphy of Los Altos.
A celebration of Mr. Rapley's life is being planned.
MORE ON JIM RAPLEY
• To read the 2002 cover story, "Jim Rapley turns 100," go to: www.almanacnews.com
• To read six of "Jim Rapley's yarns on the old days," go to: www.almanacnews.com