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Issue date: November 29, 2000

Meanwhile, back at the ranch: New book tells history of Portola Valley's Webb Ranch Meanwhile, back at the ranch: New book tells history of Portola Valley's Webb Ranch (November 29, 2000)

By Alan Sissenwein

Almanac Staff Writer

If you've ever sat gridlocked in traffic on Interstate 280 near Alpine Road, you may well have grit your teeth, cursed the joys of 21st century living, and even indulged in some uncharitable thoughts about your fellow motorists.

And while you were doing this, you might not have realized that you were within walking distance of the Webb Ranch, a Portola Valley institution that is reminiscent of a less-harried era.

The ranch, which has existed since 1922, is a place where horses graze in green fields, and fruits and vegetables are grown for sale at a roadside produce stand. About 250 horses are boarded at the ranch, which offers riding lessons.

The ranch is also a family business in the truest sense of the phrase, and four generations of the Webb family have lived on it.

"It's just an absolutely unique place," said Cliff Pierce, a Redwood City resident and equestrian who has been boarding horses at Webb Ranch for 28 years.

In August, Mr. Pierce published a 43-page book, entitled "Pioneers to Pumpkins: The Webb Ranch," that tells the ranch site's history from the days of the Costanoan Indians to the present. Mr. Pierce, who visits the ranch on a daily basis, said the book has sold about 300 copies so far, and it may need a third printing.

Mr. Pierce, the author of two other books on California history, said he was motivated to write "Pioneers to Pumpkins" because the Webb Ranch is one of the last surviving ranches on the Peninsula. He noted that the change of seasons is visible at the ranch as fields are tilled in the spring and harvested in summer. The ranch's produce, which is sold at a stand on Alpine Road just east of I-280, includes tomatoes, strawberries, corn, squash, beans, bell peppers, cucumbers and melons.

In October, children prowl the ranch's pumpkin fields looking for raw materials for their Halloween jack-o'-lanterns, a tradition that is more than 20 years old. The public can also attend horse shows and polo matches.

"This continues to exist right here in the middle of this metropolis," Mr. Pierce said.

He said he wanted to leave a record of the ranch's history in the event the roughly 300-acre site might one day be developed. The site itself is owned by Stanford University, and the Webb family has been leasing it throughout the ranch's existence.

Webb family members, however, say such development is not impending. Their current 10-year lease is due to expire soon, but they say Stanford has given them no cause for alarm.

"I don't think it's going to change here, to tell you the truth," said Stanley Webb, 80, who has spent most of his life on the ranch and lived a good deal of its history.


The ranch, as Mr. Pierce's book explains, had its genesis in 1854, when Irish immigrant Dennis Martin and his wife, Bridget, bought 1,250 acres of land on the south side of San Francisquito Creek for $8,000. The acreage included much of the future Webb Ranch.

Mr. Martin built a house on the site that has since been renovated many times and continues to serve as Stanley Webb's home. Mr. Martin also built a barn and a shed, nicknamed the "Long Barn," that are still in use on the ranch.

Money problems eventually forced Mr. Martin to transfer the land's title to his son-in-law, James Dixon. In 1882 Mr. Dixon sold it to railroad tycoon Leland Stanford, who also bought land north of San Francisquito Creek that would become part of the Webb Ranch.

Between the time Mr. Stanford purchased the land and the United States' 1917 entry into World War I, it was leased to growers and dairy farmers. In 1915, alfalfa and other crops for hay were being grown on the future Webb Ranch site, but the area now occupied by a polo field was used as a U.S. Army machine-gun range after the war broke out.

The land reverted to its agrarian use in the wake of Imperial Germany's defeat. In 1922, 36-year-old George Webb subleased the ranch from James Rolph, and the Webb Ranch was born. The following year, Mr. Rolph was elected to the state's gubernatorial seat, and George Webb assumed the governor's lease.

Growing up on the ranch

George Webb had been looking for some farming land near San Francisco when he sub-leased the ranch. Born in Texas, Mr. Webb rode to California on horseback in 1904. He eventually purchased land in Watsonville and began growing strawberries, but found them hard to bring to market in San Francisco.

"They didn't have the roads that they have now," recalled Stanley Webb, George's son, who noted that bumpy roads often resulted in damaged produce. He added that a pier existed in Watsonville, but they could not rely on the boat service to San Francisco.

These factors led to the leasing of the Webb Ranch and the family's move to it in 1929.

During these first years, there was no electricity, and the ranch's 40 cows had to be milked by hand. Stanley Webb said he enjoyed milking the cows twice daily, at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m.

He also used to plow and cultivate the land, but said his father never asked him to perform chores.

"I never felt I had to do anything, I just did it," he said, adding that his father was a gentle man who never said a harsh word to him.

On one occasion, when Mr. Webb was about 10 or 11, he helped fight a fire near the current location of Sand Hill Road, beating at the flames with wet sacks.

"I thought I did a lot," he said with a laugh, adding that about 50 firefighters were combating the blaze.

Mr. Webb credits his childhood labors with saving his life. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Mr. Webb and some fellow students from U.C. Davis went to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. At 143 pounds, Mr. Webb was considered seven pounds underweight for military service, and he attributes his light weight to his ranch work. Mr. Webb's college friends were accepted by the military.

"Every one of them was killed on (his) first mission," he said.

The Japanese-Americans who farmed the Webb Ranch fields were interned at the war's start, which left the staff short-handed. Mr. Webb received a draft deferment so he could aid in growing tomatoes for the troops, but he eventually brought his weight up to over 150 pounds and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Despite this effort, he was never sent abroad.

Comes a horseman

After Japan surrendered, Mr. Webb returned to the ranch and in 1949 married Alice Gurley, a Palo Alto resident whom he had met when she was a Stanford student during the war years. They moved into the Dennis Martin house, and Stanley Webb took over the ranch's management from his father in 1950. George Webb died in 1957, the same year that the youngest of Stanley and Alice's three children, Gary, was born. The ranch also sold its cows after local dairies no longer wanted raw milk delivered, and the character of the ranch changed further with the arrival of Fay Humphries, an Oklahoma-born cowboy, who began the ranch's horse-boarding business by converting the dairy barn into a horse barn. Prior to coming to Webb Ranch, Mr. Humphries ran a boarding stable in the San Mateo hills, but he had to leave when the ground was earmarked for the local community college.

Mr. Pierce probably devotes more space in his book to describing Mr. Humphries than any other character.

"He was sort of a father figure to us boarders," said Mr. Pierce, who said that Mr. Humphries' advice on horse care was eagerly sought.

Mr. Pierce noted that Mr. Humphries had grown up with horses and, during the 1960s and 1970s, played polo in Argentina, Hong Kong and England. Despite the fact that Mr. Humphries was never rich, Mr. Pierce said, wealthy polo players accepted him as part of their crowd because of his riding abilities.

"He made his way in life through hard work and a love of horses," Mr. Pierce said.

Mr. Webb, however, said that the beginnings of the boarding stables also had much to do with his children, who wanted to ride horses.

Mr. Webb said that he never felt any particular affinity for horses, having had to walk behind them during his ploughing days.

"It didn't seem like fun to me," he said.

Fay Humphries died in a 1987 automobile accident on I-280, and the ranch's horse-related businesses have been run by Mr. Webb's daughters, Lyndal and Sharon, since the 1980s. The produce stand

As children, Lyndal and Sharon also played a large, if indirect, part in founding the Webb Ranch Produce Stand.

In 1962, they asked their parents if they could take some strawberries to the roadside and sell them to passers-by. The strawberries were leftovers that had not been sold to retailers.

Mr. Webb said he gave his permission grudgingly, thinking it would be a waste of time. By the end of the day, the two girls had sold 80 crates of strawberries for the bargain price of $2 per crate.

Since then, the produce stand has become a staple on Alpine Road. Gary Webb took over the management of the family produce business when his father retired in the 1980s. During the peak business days of summer, he said, the stand can get as many as 350 to 400 customers per day.

The stand is also the only place where the Webbs' produce is now sold.

"Everything I grow, I sell," said Gary Webb.

During the 1980s, Mr. Webb said, there was little competition for selling fresh produce to local stores, but the growth of fresh-produce sections in chain superstores has changed the market.

"The competition factor in the 1990s was huge," Mr. Webb said, adding that the family had considered opening a second produce stand in the late 1980s but discarded the idea as competition grew fierce. In 1989 and 1990, the family became involved in public controversy when the ranch's immigrant laborers voted to have themselves represented by the United Stanford Workers union, demanding better living conditions and higher wages. As the Almanac reported, the union charged that the workers' housing lacked adequate heat, electricity and bathroom facilities.

Stanley Webb denied this charge. The county Environmental Health Department inspected the laborers' housing and found 75 health-and-safety violations, mostly things like worn-out linoleum, leaky plumbing and malfunctioning heaters.

During this period, the produce stand was damaged by fire, and family members doubted whether they'd be able to raise a crop in 1990. In March 1989, Gary Webb's ranch home also burned down, a blaze that Stanley Webb blames on an exploding water heater.

"Everything bad happened at once," he said.

Finally, a contract was signed in April 1990, raising workers' wages from $4.25 to $5.50 per hour and allocating $17,500 to upgrade the housing.

Stanley Webb maintains that the ranch has always treated its workers well, and the farm was attacked by the union as a means of indirectly hurting Stanford University.

"It was all political stuff," he said. Today, Stanley and Alice Webb have 10 grandchildren, with some in college and others in grade school. While Gary, Sharon and Lyndal continue to work at the ranch, Stanley Webb said it is uncertain how many of his grandchildren will stay there.

In 1985, Stanley and Alice moved to a home in Capitola with a view of Monterey Bay, but they later moved back into the Dennis Martin house to be near their family.

"We decided we liked it here better," Mr. Webb said.


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