Seeing the Elephant – The Pfeiffers of Big Sur

Sébastien Pfeiffer was born in Dolving, Moselle, Lorraine, France, in 1794. His wife, Catherine Vetzer was born in Haut-Clocher, Moselle, Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine, in 1795. They married in 1819. Around 1830, Sébastien and Catherine and their five children immigrated to southwestern Illinois.

John Butterfield

Their son, Michael Sebastian Pfeiffer, was born on September 18, 1832, in St. Clair County, Illinois. According to family legend, as young men, the three Pfeiffer brothers, Michael, Joseph, and Alexander, came west with the Gold Rush and worked in the gold fields of Sierra County, in eastern California at the Nevada border.

Joseph and Alexander stayed in California, but Michael Pfeiffer returned to Illinois, where he married sixteen-year-old, Barbara Laquet on April 14, 1859. She was born in Givrycourt, France, and had immigrated to southwestern Illinois in the 1840s, with her parents, Christophe Laquet and Marie Bonicho.

In 1858, entrepreneur named John Butterfield was awarded the $600,000 a year contract to deliver the mail between St. Louis, Missouri, and San Francisco. It took 25 days, at full horsepower, to make the run, one-way, from St. Louis to San Francisco. They say the rider changed horses 141 times in the course of the journey. That same year, he founded the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, the longest (and possibly the bumpiest) stage line in the world.

A few months later, Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer joined a wagon train, following the Butterfield Overland Stage route from St. Louis, Missouri, west to California.

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A forty-niner seeing “The Elephant,” 1851

The phrase “seeing the elephant” was a popular Americanism that had achieved widespread usage by the 1830s. It refers to gaining experience of the world, but at a terrific cost. George Bonniwell travelled to California in 1850. He wrote:

“This is a trying time to the men and horses. I have just been to get grass, and got up to my ‘tother end’ in mud … First glimpse of the Elephant.”

There’s an old story about a farmer who set out in his wagon to see the circus. Along the way he met up with the circus parade, led by an elephant. The farmer’s horses were so terrified of the pachyderm that they bolted and pitched the wagon over on its side, scattering the farmer’s eggs and vegetables all over the roadway. “I don’t give a hang,” exclaimed the farmer, picking himself up out of the dirt. “I have seen the elephant.”

Michael Pfeiffer had “seen the elephant,” freezing his ankles in the icy streams of the Sierra foothills, panning for gold. He’d witnessed, first-hand, the guys who really got rich during the Gold Rush – the men who “mined the miners” – selling eggs to the miners for a dollar apiece. He’d heard the story about Sarah Royce, who made $18,000 by baking and selling pies to miners. He’d read about one fellow who’d arrived in San Francisco in July 1849 with 1,500 old newspapers, which he sold to the miners for a dollar apiece.

Barbara and Michael Pfeiffer

This time, Michael Pfeiffer wasn’t interested in gold. He wanted his own ranch and to that end, he brought several fine brood mares with him to California.

Once they got to the Pacific Coast, the Pfeiffers – a French-speaking Catholic family – raised wheat in northern California, with Michael’s brothers Joseph and Alexander. Then they rented a farm in Solano County, in what is now Vacaville, where their sons Charles and John were born in 1860 and 1862, respectively, and their daughter Mary Ellen was born in 1866.

When the landlord raised the rent, it wiped out their small profit margin and they moved on in disgust. They rented another ranch, but once again, the landlord raised the rent and they departed.

The Pfeiffers studied maps of California and found that most of the land was already taken. However, a neighbor in Tomales Bay told them that beyond Rancho El Sur, in the remote mountains south of the Big Sur River, there was still some unclaimed property for homesteading. They’d heard there was good grazing land in Pacific Valley, halfway between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. They had also heard that, for a five-dollar fee, they could file a homestead claim down the coast.

California side wheel steamboat

So, early on Tuesday morning, October 5, 1869, the Pfeiffers boarded the Northern Pacific Transportation Company’s sidewheeler steamboat Sierra Nevada at the Folsom Street wharf in San Francisco, with their four children, Charles, John, Mary Ellen, and baby Julia, who was just eleven months old. The housing above the paddlewheel was used as a corral for their cattle and horses. They sailed through a raging storm, with waves breaking over the deck and seasick passengers clinging to the rail for dear life. On the evening of the second day, when they arrived at the wharf in Monterey Bay, the diminutive Mrs. Pfeiffer was too seasick to stand.

It was another seven days and nights before they reached Big Sur, traveling on foot the forty miles of narrow, muddy Indian trails, through the wilderness, with their thin and terrified cattle, camping out under the stars at night. The trail was scarier than the boat ride itself, traversing the mountain tops, far from drinking water and shelter, through the realm of the grizzly bear and mountain lion.

The Cooper Cabin, erected in 1861, is considered the oldest surviving structure on the Big Sur coast  (in present-day Andrew Molera State Park)

It was October 14, 1869, and the chill of autumn was in the air. One of their sons was sick with a fever and they were still fifty miles from Pacific Valley. They were exhausted from being on their feet, day after day, and weary of the seemingly endless deer trails through the foreboding canyons and over the towering mountains. Unsure of how many more days of arduous travel lay ahead, they stopped to rest their horses.

They crossed the Big Sur River where the original Cooper land grant cabin stood, less than a quarter of a mile from the ocean in present-day Molera Point. They proceeded south along the crest of the ridge and came upon a clearing, where they camped for several nights.

There, in Sycamore Canyon, there was ample water and grass for cattle and horses, so they decided to wait the winter out. Michael Pfeiffer hastily began building a temporary lean-to shelter. They never made it to Pacific Valley. The Pfeiffer’s had found their “homeplace,” as the early pioneers called it. As winter ended, the grass came early and by springtime, wild oats covered the meadow and hillsides. They were convinced that the land could support their family and they decided to stay.

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Michael Pfeiffer built a small house of hand split redwood, just north of the mouth of Sycamore Canyon, west of the Big Sur Valley. According to family folklore, a passing ship had lost its deck load of timber and much of it had washed up on the beach, so Michael Pfeiffer used this lumber to build his house. A hole was cut near the bottom of the front door for the family cat, so she could escape the bobcats and mountain lions.

Grizzly bear paw

The beauty of their new surrounds was indeed breathtaking. The tall mountain peaks cascaded thousands of feet to the sea. The fog cloaked stands of giant redwood trees in the canyons and the live oaks and madrones on the hillsides were stunning to behold. But life in Sycamore Canyon was hard. The Pfeiffers lost two colts and a number of heifers and calves to mountain lions and grizzly bears. They called the creek that flowed by their house “Bear Killed Two Calves Creek,” after a terrifying real-life incident involving a grizzly bear, the most fearsome predator on the coast. A road near the site of the Pfeiffer homestead is still called Bear Killed Two Calves Creek Road. For the first few years, there was no increase in the size of their herd because the grizzly bears ate so many of their cattle.

Each time Michael Pfeiffer found evidence of the presence of a grizzly, he’d set traps, but he never caught anything. When John and Charles Pfeiffer were children, their father would send them out to check the bear traps. The boys had seen livestock killed by grizzly bears and knew these predators were deadly. Every few steps they would stop and listen, ready to run for home at any moment.

They never found a bear in one of their father’s traps, but several times, the boys discovered a hog or a calf, half eaten by a grizzly bear. The grizzly’s technique was to slap its prey in the flanks with its 15-inch wide paw, and knock it over – the impact being sufficiently forceful as to break ribs. The bear then ripped open the abdominal cavity and ate the fat off the stomach, then the brisket – always the fattiest pieces first.

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Florence (left) and John Pfeiffer (right)

After the death of her husband, John Pfeiffer, in 1941, Florence Zulema Pfeiffer, then in her 70s, wrote an unpublished memoir, which included accounts of John’s childhood at his parent’s homestead in Sycamore Canyon in Big Sur. During the first months of 1945, portions of the text were serialized in the Sunday issues of the Oakland Tribune. She recounted the story of how a neighbor showed John’s father how to get rid of the bears:

“It was to take the fat from the stomach and intestines of a freshly killed animal, make it into a ball as big as two fists, and place in the center a certain amount of strychnine. The ball was hung from a branch of a tree and high enough to be beyond the reach of dogs. Then the tree trunk was spread generously with fresh fat. It did not take long [for the bear] to find the hanging ball which contain the poison. Using this method, the Pfeiffers were soon rid of the bears.”

Deer were plentiful and this was their chief source of food in Sycamore Canyon. Michael Pfeiffer taught his sons to hunt sustainably, “Never to kill a doe or fawn and you’ll always have plenty of venison.”

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Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer

At low tide they could always find mussels and large red abalone. They caught trout in the Big Sur River. When they reached a stream, they’d select a limber sapling and make it into a fishing pole, using a spool of Barbara Pfeiffer’s black linen thread for fishing line and a few flattened shot for weights. If they ran out of grasshoppers or angleworms, they’d cut a small piece of rawhide from a shoelace, which made an excellent lure.

Florence Pfeiffer wrote in her memoir:

[The Pfeiffer boys] learned also to catch the steelhead and some of these were put down in salt and kept for several months.

When cash ran low Father Pfeiffer would go to Monterey or Salinas Valley to get a job. It might be driving cattle or hogs or working in harvest fields. He left his small family in Sycamore Canyon and mother took charge. She was a brave, fearless woman, and ruled her family with a tight rein. Even when the boys were men, they jumped up to do her bidding as would a boy of 10 or 12. She helped grub the brush, planted and cared for the garden, milked and made butter, rendered the lard, made sausages, cured the meat, did the family laundry, even to making soap, made all the clothing including the boys’ trousers, and knitted socks and stockings.

Michael Pfeiffer (left) and Barbara Pfeiffer (right) display the quilt the made on the front porch of their Sycamore Canyon homestead, 1910

Just five-feet tall, Barbara Pfeiffer single-handedly managed the children, the cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens. Using her husband’s muzzle loader, she fought off grizzly bears, coyotes, mountain lions, gray foxes, skunks, bobcats, lynxes, weasels, and other predators. She canned preserves, carded wool to make clothing, milked the cows, made cheese and butter, and fed her family from her vegetable garden.

Florence Pfeiffer wrote of her mother-in-law, Barbara Pfeiffer:

The children were taught while very young to help in every way possible. One night, hearing something disturbing the chickens, she got up, dressed, lighted the lantern, and called the boys to go with her. Near the house, sheltered under a big sycamore tree, she had put a hen and some young chickens in a box. When she went to see if they were alright, she saw the tail of a skunk moving above the chickens. She grabbed the skunk by the tail, called for the ax, and held the skunk against the tree while one of the boys quickly cut of its head. Held in that position, it could not throw its scent, and so the chickens were saved and there was no disagreeable odor.

Another time, an owl was getting a chicken almost every night, so John was told to sit with a shotgun under the tree where the chickens roosted and see if he could get it. It was dark and cold and he could only see the outlines of the chickens against the sky. Finally, he noticed one chicken picking at another and in no way for a good chicken to behave. An owl will settle with the fowl on a roost and annoy one until it flies. Then it will catch it and fly away.

Charles Pfeiffer

It was about this time John, then nine years old, and Charles, eleven, shot their first deer. The family was fresh out of meat. Father Pfeiffer had taken his “horse pistol” – with six shots and not too heavy – and with which he was an excellent shot, and started out to get a deer. Toward evening the boys saw a big forked-horn buck quite near the house. They came home, got their guns – one a muzzle-loading shotgun and the other a rifle, big and heavy. Soon they were close enough to shoot and wound the deer. They followed more than a mile before they got in the fatal shot and then found the deer too heavy to carry. At dark, or almost, they returned home and Father Pfeiffer, they learned, had come back without a deer. The boys shouted, “We got one down by the beach ­– and hurry, for the tide is coming in!”

Father Pfeiffer got the lantern and they were none too soon on the beach for already the waves were coming ashore. The deer was badly shot, hit too many times and not in the right places. Father carried it home and mother managed to save some of the meat.

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19th century kerosene lamps

Florence Pfeiffer wrote in her memoir about the time her husband John Pfeiffer and some other boys accompanied Michael Pfeiffer, Edward Wise, and Juan Vasquez, on a hog drive from Rancho El Sur to Monterey:

Some men passed them and, after greetings, said, “Stop at our place, put the hogs in the big lot and help yourselves to some of the deer meat hanging in the back.” Now, driving hogs is about the hungriest work a man can do and this was over rough country and mostly afoot. It was dark when they arrived. A fire was soon made outside, the coffee was set to boil, steaks were cut from the meat and broiled on the open fire. One man remarked, “must have been an old buck, meat kind of tough and a little strong.” But they were hungry and ate heartily. Next morning when they went out to cut more meat by daylight, they saw that the meat they had cut and eaten was from an animal with a long tail. It was a mountain lion. But, nearby, a nice deer was hanging as an invitation to appetites.

The children learned to split firewood and carry it into the house, as this was the only source of fuel for heat or cooking. Living conditions were primitive, due to the distance from town. Folks living on the coast did all their cooking in stone or brick fireplaces, their homes illuminated by tallow candles. Later, iron woodstoves were hauled from Monterey on the backs of mules and in spring wagons. In time, kerosene lanterns replaced the greasy tallow candles which, in the short days of winter, were lit at 3:00 pm. In that era before plumbing, water was hauled in buckets from the nearby creek or spring and each homestead had a hand-dug outhouse.

John Pfeiffer

Florence Pfeiffer remembered:

They made butter, which was packed in small barrels and taken on pack horses with eggs, chickens, sometimes a few dozen quail and some venison, to Monterey for sale where the stores would exchange coffee, sugar, salt, and other needed staples.

These trips would take three of four days. John’s first trip out alone [in 1872] was to meet his father who had been “outside” to work. John was then just past ten years old and he had a string of four pack horses. If the pack got loose, he led the horse to a steep bank, where he could rest the pack and climb up on the bank, to reach and tighten the ropes. (A ten-year-old boy!) He was to meet his father at Monterey ­– this was late fall before the rains began and father, with his earnings, had bought from the stores, food stuff for another year’s need.

The trail down the coast was exceedingly rough, running sometimes near the ocean’s edge and again on the hillside or way up on a mountain, just to go down again – and always the brush to fight against. On their way home they stayed all night at a settler’s cabin where lived a large family. They were excited over twin calves in their small herd. A young boy visiting from nearby said “he didn’t think that was so wonderful, that nearly all his aunt’s cows had twin claves.” Knowing looks were exchanged by the grownups, which young John did not understand until years later. The fact was the aunt was quite a notorious cattle rustler.

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Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer’s homestead in Sycamore Canyon

Michael Pfeiffer filed a land patent on January 20, 1883. As soon as the boys were old enough, John and Charles made homesteading claims of their own, on land near their parents’ ranch. Florence Pfeiffer wrote in her memoir:

At that time, one could take up 160 acres on a pre-emption, live on it six months, and then make a final proof. And later, one could take another 160 acres as a homestead, on which one must live five years before one could get a government title. John’s first claim, the pre-emption, is on the mountain between Sycamore Canyon and the Big Sur River. His homestead was on the river, and the little house now stands, kept and preserved by the State Park. John liked this place because he was much interested in bees, and planned to have a big apiary on the open land back of his house.

The coastal woodlands proved a harsh and often inhospitable environment. Before you could plant, the land had to be cleared by hand. However, once the dense brush was removed, the soil crumbled and frequently tumbled down the steep slopes. Livestock lost their footing in the unstable soil. And you had to lay sheets of hardware cloth under the soil or the gophers would eat the whole crop. During the summer storms, lighting ignited forest fires that burned for days and sometimes months. And then, when the winter rain came, the fire-scarred slopes unraveled into mudslides and floods.

It wasn’t easy to raise cattle in the Santa Lucia Mountains – and not just because of the bears and lions. In that steep, mountainous country, you needed about twenty-five acres just to graze as a single head – so, one had to have hundreds of acres to make any approximation of a living raising cattle. In those days before fences and forest reserves, cattle ranged freely.

Very few people still raise hogs, sheep, or goats in Big Sur, the way homesteaders did in the 19th century. In the 1860s, Monterey County had the largest sheep population of any county in the entire United States. Many of the early settlers felt that hogs and sheep were better suited to the rough terrain than cows.

Kate Pfeiffer at the family cattle ranch in Sycamore Canyon, circa 1900

The Pfeiffer’s farm was more than 500 acres and twelve of those acres were tilled. They raised 200 cows and pigs, netting a yearly income of $1,100, mostly from sales of butter. The Pfeiffers, who by then had eight children, operated the ranch without any hired hands.

Florence Pfeiffer recalled that, when her husband John was a boy in the 1870s:

There was no school and not enough children in the neighborhood to demand a teacher, so Charles and John were sent to Monterey for their first schooling. John always spoke with great affection of his “second mother,” a Mrs. [Josefa] Wolters, who boarded school children in her home, with whom he lived while in Monterey.

Pfeiffer School at Post Ranch circa 1905

As the trails were improved, travel became a little easier. To get a school established, one had to have enrollment of eleven students and attendance of six. At that time, only four of the Pfeiffer children were of school age. So, some of the neighbors’ kids were sent to live at the Pfeiffer’s house during the school term, enough to warrant a teacher.

The first schoolhouse was built in Sycamore Canyon, and later, another was built near the Post’s Ranch, which was more convenient for the Castro children.

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Barbara Pfeiffer and Michael Pfeiffer (far right) and their son William (far left) and grandson, Joseph Alexander, in front of the Pfeiffer homestead, 1916

During those first years, the Pfeiffer’s only neighbors were the Innocentes, an Indian family who lived seven miles away in Big Sur (near the southern end of present-day Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park).

Immanuel Innocente was born around 1815 at Mission San Buenaventura (in present-day Ventura, California), before the Mexican Revolution and baptized Manuel Maria de los Inocentes – “of the Innocent Ones” (meaning: an Indian). His parents were both of Chumash descent from the village of Muwu (in the Mugu Lagoon region of present-day Ventura County). His mother died when he was four years old. Manuel’s half-sister, Pomposa, born to his father’s second wife, was the last chief of the Indian village of Saticoy (near present-day Ventura) and is remembered for holding the last Chumash Fiesta (pow wow) around 1869. Manuel and Pomposa’s father, Francisco de los Ynocentes, were interpreters for the missionaries at Mission San Buenaventura.

In December 1842, Manuel married 23-year old Francisca Antonia India. Some reports state that she was of Salinan descent, a tribe indigenous to the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Salinas Valley. Other say that she was a Yokut from the Kern River area and spoke Bankalachi, a dialect of Tubatulabal. Her mother was Maria Gabriela-Saicumu India, who was born around 1800. Her father was named Oguotono.

Sometime in the 1860s, Manuel hired onto a cattle drive from southern California, north to Watsonville, in Monterey County, and brought his wife and children with him. They settled in the agricultural community of Pajaro, California, a few miles from Watsonville. Soon, Manuel got a job at the Cooper Ranch (Rancho El Sur) eventually rising to the position of chief vaquero.

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For as long as anyone can remember, in practically every generation, there has been a housing shortage in Big Sur, and this problem persists today. In the 1860s, the Cooper Ranch had a bunkhouse for hired hands, but no accommodations for vaqueros with wives or children.

Part of the time, Manuel lived with his family in Pajaro, regularly making the fifty-mile journey to the Cooper Ranch for his work. On his way up and down the coast, he traveled the deer trails through the mountains and canyons.

The June 21, 1945, issue of the Oakland Tribune published an excerpt from Florence Swetnam Pfeiffer’s diary, about the day Manual Innocente met John Davis:

“He [Manuel] stopped at a little cabin on the [Big Sur] river bank belonging to Davis, uncle of Attorney George Hudson of Monterey. Davis had found this place alluring, and had taken a ‘settler’s right’ building a small cabin of split redwood, cleared some of the land, planted mission pears, grapevines, seedling peaches and apples.  He also made a small dam in the river from which he irrigated some of the level land. Davis lived there perhaps eight years when he sold his ‘claim’ right to Manuel Innocenti and his wife Francisca for about $50.”

The homesteader in question is often misidentified as George Davis. However, he was in fact, John Davis, one of the most enigmatic characters in Big Sur history. The quoted paragraph from Florence Pfeiffer’s dairy is the only mention of his name in the historical record.

His father, Nehemiah Davis, was born in Ohio in 1801. The family lived outside Cincinnati, in Harrison, in southwest Ohio, near the borders or Kentucky and Indiana, and John was likely born there. John’s mother, who gave birth to a dozen children, died when he was a boy, perhaps in childbirth.

In 1846, forty-five-year-old Nehemiah married a twenty-seven-year-old widow named Eva Anna Balwell Hudson, in Jefferson County, Iowa. She had five children under the age of eight – two of them twin babes in arms.

It is unknown whether Nehemiah or his son John was the first to follow the Gold Rush west to California. By 1866, Nehemiah, his wife Eva, and their children were settled in the farming community of Pajaro, California. Their son, William George Hudson, born in 1838, became a deputy district attorney.

John Davis is often identified as the first American homesteader in Big Sur. Except for those living and working at the Cooper Ranch (Rancho El Sur), Davis was supposedly the only other neighbor living on the coast in those days.

Some accounts place John Davis in the Big Sur Valley as early as 1853. His homestead was situated close to the pre-contact Indian village of Pixchi, which had been thriving Indigenous community less than a century before his arrival. The site is close to the head of the Mount Manuel Trail in present day Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park.

Little is known about John Davis. Perhaps he found his lifestyle too solitary, or maybe he felt the neighborhood was getting too crowded. After less than a decade in the Big Sur Valley, Davis sold his claim rights to the Innocentes and disappeared into history, without leaving much of a trace. That said, a couple of those old heirloom mission pears trees Davis planted were still producing delicious fruit in 1945.

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The present-day Manual Peak Trail traverses the former Innocente homestead to Manuel Peak, named after Manuel Innocente

The Innocente family moved into Davis’ cabin where Manuel and Francisca raised six children, Maria Madelana, Juan, Manuel or Manuelito, Jose, Rafael, Maria, and Juana. One of their babies died in infancy. When their sons were old enough, the boys started working as vaqueros at the Cooper Ranch.

They grew corn, melons, berries, and vegetables, and put in a few more fruit trees. Where Francisca planted an elaborate flower garden, today stands the barracks building in Camp SP – 12 in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), in 1933.

In the early 1870s, shortly after the Pfeiffer family built their house in Sycamore Canyon, Francisca Innocente walked the seven miles from her home in Big Sur to ask her nearest neighbor, Barbara Pfeiffer for medicine for her sick child. Mrs. Pfeiffer had nothing to offer but a tablespoon of castor oil, which Francesca accepted with gratitude.

The view from the Innocente homestead

But thereafter, Francisca made an annual trip to visit her “white sister,” bringing gifts of seeds for her garden. The presence of grizzly bears made for a dangerous journey and she had to keep to the open spaces as much as possible. Just before reaching the Pfeiffer homestead, Francisca, so accustomed to going barefoot at all times, would sit down in the shade of a sycamore tree and put on her shoes, which she only wore when visiting her neighbors. After the visit, she would sit down under the same tree and take her shoes off and carry them home. Florence Pfeiffer remembered, “Around her home she was always barefoot, but when she went visiting, she wore her shoes with much pride and great discomfort.”

Life on the coast could be lonely. There were no other Indians living in the area at that time and the Pfeiffers lived seven miles away – a great distance to travel on deer trails, even with a horse. Then, in 1877, Bill Post moved his family down to Big Sur. His wife, Anselma Onésimo, was of Rumsen descent, much to Francisca Innocente’s delight.

Sometime in the 1930s, Lois Carpenter, who worked for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, wrote a handwritten account of the Innocente family story:

Just as Manuelito approached maturity, he developed a wracking cough. Native herbs and remedies learned at the Mission, proved useless. On a flat overlooking the valley floor they boy was laid to rest. This spot was destined to become the final resting place of the entire family except the father…

Manuel, now about eighty years of age began to act queerly. Francisca noticed that he often jumped and whirled nervously as he watered the garden. Sometimes he gave a wild yell. He disappeared for all of one night, and returned soaking wet from where he had been walking in the river. He started up the trail to Post’s. At Post’s he hid himself from imagined pursuers.

W. B. “Bill” Post

Bill Post thought that Manuel was mentally ill. In 1888, Frank Rico took Manuel to Salinas to arrange for him to be placed at an institution. “The old man,” said Bill’s oldest son, Frank Post, “Manuel Innocente, went crazy and died,” shortly after arriving at the state insane asylum in Napa, California. It is likely that his remains are buried in old the cemetery, on the east end of the Napa State Hospital campus.

Later, after the land was surveyed, Julio “Julie” Innocente filed a claim for the family homestead. In 1889, while Julie was riding a horse he’d borrowed from the John Cooper II, the horse fell on him, severely crushing his ribs. He was confined to his bed with a terrible cough. Frank Post came and sat with him each night and his mother, Francisca, cared for him during the days. Julie died before “proving up” on the land.

Frank Post arranged for the casket to be made and Julie was laid to rest beside his brothers and sister in the family burial plot. Almost all of Francisca’s other children had died of tuberculosis and were buried among the oaks on John Pfeiffer’s land. Her oldest son Juan died of sunstroke after climbing Mount Manuel, the mountain that is named for his father.

A few years later, Francisca, then in her 70s, finally filed for a land claim on “the home place” herself, on March of 1892, and received 80 acres. Part of the land was later sold to Garcia Martinez and part to Bill Post.

Charles Francis “Frank” Post (left) and his brother-in-law, Peter Nelson

Frank Post remembered, “the old Indian woman was left alone when her last son died.” Frank’s mother, Anselma persuaded her husband to build Francisca a small cabin across the road from the Post Ranch. Francisca sold her family homestead to Bill Post for five dollars.

“So, we built a home for her in the old orchard.” Frank Post explained. “We promised to take care of her as long as she lived, and then the lands would go to father. My sister Mary … took care of her.”

Active until the end of her life, Francisca Innocente tended her small garden and prepared her own meals. She could say mass from memory and liked to reminisce about her days at the mission.

She continued to visit her friends. In the last months of her life, sensing her time wasn’t long, she asked Frank Post’s sister Mary, to help her review her few possessions. She gave several of her dish towels to her closest friends and then sat in front of her open fireplace and burned all of her family keepsakes. It was her time. She came down with a cold and a week later, on May 17, 1907, she was gone.

Florence Pfeiffer remembered, “When [she] died at nearly a hundred years, every tooth in her head was still good. Her mind was clear up to the last…”

Before she died, Frank Post remembered, “She said, ‘This dress that I have on right now, don’t let nobody take it off. Bury me in this dress.’ We buried her with her children, on John Pfeiffer’s land…,” upon on a small flat at the foot of Mount Manuel. Among the oak trees, the yuccas grow wild on the side of mountain, above the tiny, rock walled Innocente family cemetery. In the summer, they blossom. To the passer-by, it appears that there are fresh flowers blooming on Francisca’s children’s unmarked graves.

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Julia C. Pfeiffer (Burns)

Julia Cecelia Pfeiffer, the daughter of Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer, was born in 1868. Except for a short time in 1890 when she worked at Notley’s Landing at Palo Colorado Canyon, Julia lived with her parents in Sycamore Canyon. She was an excellent horsewoman whose riding and roping skills were equal to those of the best vaqueros at the Cooper Ranch. They say she could “shoe a horse, plow a field, harvest a crop, or take care of cattle.”

The 810-ton lumber schooner Majestic, built in 1908, ran aground in a storm near Pfeiffer’s Point, on December 5, 1909, in the very same spot where two other freighters had previously wrecked. The twenty-one members of the crew made it to shore and there was no loss of life.

Esther Julia Pfeiffer, who was five years old at the time, remembered how the crew of the Majestic was rescued by her forty-one-year-old aunt – her namesake – Julia Cecelia Pfeifer, for whom Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is named – who courageously rode her horse through the storm-surging surf, carrying a lifeline.

The wreck of the steam schooner Majestic off Point Pfeiffer at Big Sur, December 1909.

The Monterey Daily Cypress reported:

“It was wet and slippery, and it took the half-drowned men nearly an hour to reach the top [of the bluff] … A few miles away lay the house of John Pfeiffer, and they made for the place where they received breakfast, dry clothes, and transportation to Monterey … The sailors speak in the highest praise of the treatment they received at the Pfeiffer Ranch. “The captain of the Majestic, in an expression of deepest gratitude, gave the Pfeiffer family the steamship’s nameplate. The carved wooden hung above the doorway of the Pfeiffer School for decades and may still be there. The fateful location where the Majestic (and the other two freighters) ran aground, just south of Pfeiffer point, is still called Wreck Beach.

The Majestic School in Sycamore canyon, 1917 (note the ship’s nameplate over the door)

In November of 1915, at the age of 47, Julia married her neighbor, 34-year-old John Henry Burns, and they ran the Saddle Rock Ranch, north of McWay Canyon in present-day Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Burns’ father had homesteaded on 160-acres near Barlow Flats, four miles east of Posts, in the backcountry of the Santa Lucias. After the death of their father, John Burns and his older brother Edward, were orphaned. They were taken in by Bill and Anselma Post, who lived just south of the Pfeiffers.

John and Florence Pfeiffer’s daughter, Esther Julia was named for John’s sister, Julia Cecelia Pfeiffer Burns. The July 31, 1915, issue of the Monterey Daily Cypress printed Isaac Newton Swetnam’s letter, nominating his granddaughter, young Esther Pfeiffer, for an award for bravery:

Harry Greene, Monterey, Cal.

Dear Mr. Greene: – I write to you particulars of the cool bravery displayed by Miss Esther Pfeiffer in saving four young ladies from drowning in the Big Sur River.

Esther Pfeiffer, seeing that they were about to drown, went at the risk of her own life to a point where she could give a helpful hand, first to Miss Helen, then to Elsie Hall, and they assisted in the rescue of Miss Elizabeth McGuire and Mrs. Norman Sloane. Mrs. Sloane was unconscious when taken from the water.

Miss Esther Pfeiffer was but 11 years of age the third of last April.

The same Miss Esther Pfeifer, when but five years of age saved Virginia Cox, a two-year-old child from drowning in the Big Sur River. The child had fallen into the river and Esther Pfeiffer went in and held the child’s head out of the water until its mother came to its assistance. All of the above particulars can be vouched for by the best of authority. A great number of people, hearing of the above, say that Miss Pfeiffer is entitled to the Carnegie medal of $2,000 for bravery.

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Mary Ellen Pfeiffer

In 1884, Barbara Pfeiffer received news that her seventy-four year old father, Christophe, had died in Mascoutah, St. Clair County, Illinois. In 1888, she ad her husband, Michael, made the journey back to Illinois to settle the estate. While they were away, their oldest daughter, Mary Ellen, then in summer of her twenty-second year and unmarried woman, was alone in her parents’ Big Sur home at the mouth of Sycamore Canyon, when she was raped.

The October 18, 1888, issue of the Salinas Weekly Index published the following article under the headline, “A Foul Deed:”

“It has just been learned that about 2 weeks ago the family of M. Pfeiffer, who lives about 20 miles down the coast, went out, leaving the oldest girl, who is about 19 years of age [sic], alone on the ranch. According to her story, a man with a mask came to the house and asked for something to eat, and seeing the girl alone, criminally assaulted her. When the folks arrived she was still lying on the floor, almost unable to speak. She has since lost her reason and has been out of her head, and is not expected to live. As yet no clue can be found of the guilty party. Much indignation is being expressed and a reward should be offered to bring the guilty party to justice. The family is well to do and respected by all who know them.”

The December 6, 1888, issue of the Salinas Weekly Index reported:

“Miss Mary Ellen Pfeiffer, daughter of Michael Pfeiffer who resides over on the coast below Monterey, was examined by Drs. Tuttle and Trimmer last Monday, adjudged insane and committed to the Asylum at Stockton. The unfortunate girl was the victim of a mysterious brutal outrage while alone at the home of her parents about 3 months ago.”

After months in the asylum in Stockton, Mary Ellen made the long journey back to her parents’ home in Sycamore Canyon.

Abortions were so common in 19th century America that they were advertised in the newspaper (albeit, in euphemistic language). The Comstock Law of 1873 made it a federal crime to sell or distribute materials that could be used for contraception or abortion and by the end of the century, almost every state had criminalized abortion.

In On Homeopathic Treatment of Abortion, published in 1860, Dr. Edward M. Hale of Chicago stated that at least 10% of married women had an abortion and that 20% of all pregnancies ended in intentional abortion. In his 1866 edition, he revised his estimate upward to 25%.  In 1868, Dr. Horatio Storer, a former Harvard professor of obstetrics, published Criminal Abortion. He concluded that in New York City, fully 20% of all conceptions ended in abortion.

It is remarkable that Dr. Hale, a champion of abortion, and Dr. Storer, a violent opponent of abortion, agreed so closely on their figures. However, the Pfeiffer family’s Catholicism and the changing laws may have limited Mary Ellen’s options.

It’s possible that the baby’s father was someone she knew – her two older brothers and her future husband lived nearby. Marietta entered a convent and, on May 30, 1889, she and gave birth to a healthy baby girl. After some consideration, she decided to keep the child and named her Maryetta.

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Fourteen-year-old Marietta Dani’s Christmas card to her aunt Lida Pfeiffer, 1903

Seven years later, Mary Ellen married Alvin Dani, the son of Lucia, California, pioneer Gabriel Dani. Their wedding as held on February 19, 1896, at the Central Hotel in Monterey. Mary Ellen’s little sister Kate, ten years Mary Ellen’s junior, was the bridesmaid.

Mary Ellen and Alvin Dani lived at a ranch at the “Peak Place” at Dani Ridge, on Pico Blanco, between the forks of the Little Sur River, not far from Al Clark’s cabin.

Alvin became a father to Maryetta. Mary Ellen and Alvin’s first child, Adelaide Electa, was born on December 23, 1897. Two years later, Mary Ellen gave birth to their second child, another daughter, Alvina Dolly.

But Mary Ellen was not well. She experienced what the Monterey New Era newspaper described as “fits of despondency.” On September 27, 1900, the Salinas Californian newspaper reported:

“Mrs. [Mary Ellen] Dani was 34 years of age, and highly esteemed in the community where she lived. She was the daughter of [Michael] Pfeifer … and the mother of three children, the youngest being less than two years old.

“Happiness was the watchword of the Dani home until death crossed the threshold and robbed it of a devoted mother and an affectionate wife. Last Sunday evening the husband was making preparations to go out on a protracted hunt, and his wife was lending a willing hand.

“Monday morning Mr. Dani arose at the usual hour and, after starting the fire, as was his custom, he went to the barn to care for the horses. Upon returning to the house his wife informed him that she was sick, and that he would have to get breakfast. He started in with all willingness, when he noticed that his wife was in great agony. She was cramped and every muscle in her body seemed to be twitching. The alarmed husband asked her, what was the matter and she told him that she had taken the strychnine.

“The frenzied husband ran to the door and called his wife’s brother who lived on the ranch, and sent him for the neighbors, while he hastily administered an emetic, but the antidote was of no effect, at about twenty minutes after the husband entered the house his wife died in intense agony. Mrs. Rawson and another neighbor lady, who had been notified, ran to the Dani home and arrived just before the woman died.

“The poison has been purchased by the husband several weeks before for the purpose of killing a mountain lion which had been bothering him. It was an eighth-ounce bottle and about half of it had been used in setting baits for the lions. Mrs. Dani had swallowed the remainder of the drug.

“A jury was impaneled, and, after listening to the testimony, returned the verdict that the deceased came to her death from the effects of poison administered by her own hand.

“The same day the body was consigned to a grave on the Big Sur, a large number of friends and acquaintances attending the funeral.”

In fact, happiness was not the watchword of the Dani home. Mary Ellen had been depressed and despondent, and her husband, Alvin had a secret.

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Kate Dani raised Mary Ellen’s three children, as well as six of her own. From left to right: Margaret, Stanley, Katherine (holding baby Donald) and Albert, 1908

Mary Ellen made the heartbreaking discovery that Alvin, the father of her two youngest children, was deeply in love with her younger sister, Flora Katherine “Kate” Pfeiffer, who’d been the bridesmaid at their wedding

Secrets are hard to keep in a place like Big Sur. Maybe Mary Ellen heard gossip from a neighbor or relative about her husband’s feelings for – or relationship with – her little sister. Perhaps, while helping him pack for his extended hunting expedition, she discovered something that informed her, or confirmed what she had long suspected.

Whatever it was, it put her over the edge.

Alvin Dani, and most of the ranchers in his generation, kept a small bottle of strychnine on hand, to kill grizzly bears, mountain lions, and a variety of predators. It was available at every pharmacy. Alvin Dani even used strychnine in instances where other ranchers would not. In September of 1913, the Monterey American newspaper commented:

“There seems to be a new crop of ground squirrels all along the line. Alvin Dani, foreman of the El Sur rancho, has a man out continually poisoning them, but what good can one ranch alone do if the rest do not cooperate?”

Fans of Law and Order will no doubt recognize the three essential elements central to every murder mystery – motive, means, and opportunity. One might assume the husband to be the prime suspect in this family tragedy. However, the inquest and jury found no evidence of foul play.

Mary Ellen is buried in the tiny, now forgotten Pfeiffer Cemetery, situated on Clear Ridge, just above the original Pfeiffer homestead site, at the mouth of Sycamore Canyon.

Two years after Mary Ellen’s death, the January 21, 1903, issue if the Californian reported:

“Alvin Dani and bride, formerly Miss Kate Pfeiffer, surprised their friends here by returning home after being quietly married in Santa Cruz.”

Mary Ellen Pfeiffer’s daughters were raised by her little sister Kate and their father Alvin Dani. Kate and Alvin would have six more children of their own.

Sister Cephas DeClarence

While still in her teens, Mary Ellen’s eldest daughter, Maryetta Dani, who was born out of wedlock, left Big Sur to join the Sisters of Charity and became a nun. As Sister Cephas DeClarence, she specialized in nursing. By 1910, she was working at St. Vincent’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri.

She started at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1930, and worked there for the rest of her life. Sister Cephas, better known as “Saint Vincent’s Angel,” pushed her juice cart through miles and miles of hospital hallways, visiting some 4,000 patients each year. She was under the care of the Sisters in Indianapolis when she died in 1982, at the age of 93.

On her death certificate, her father is listed as Michael DeClarence. This is the only document on which this name appears.

*           *          *

Alvin and Kate Dani on the porch of the Pfeiffer family homestead in Sycamore Canyon, late 1940s

Michael Pfeiffer, Mary Ellen and Kate’s father, lived to be 85 years old. He died at the home he’d built at the mouth of Sycamore Canyon, in September of 1917.

The influenza pandemic of 1920 sickened many families in Big Sur. Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer’s oldest son, William, age 46, died of influenza on March 8, 1920. Two days later, his wife, Alice Dani also died of influenza, leaving three orphaned children who were very sick with the disease. Alice’s brother, Alvin, became the children’s guardian.

Barbara Pfeiffer lived to be 93-year old. After her death, in 1926, Alvin and Kate Dani moved into her home, the old Pfeiffer house by the beach and lived there until Alvin’s death in 1949. Decades later, Jan Brewer bought the house, which later burned down, in the late 1960s.  Kate moved to the Brazil Ranch, south of Bixby Canyon and her grandson, (also named Alvin) moved into the old Pfeiffer homeplace.

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In the 1880 census, Michael Pfeiffer identified his occupation as dairyman, his oldest son Charles is a butter maker, and Charles’ brother John is an apiarist.

The original John Pfeiffer homestead cabin

In 1884, Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer’s son, John Pfeiffer, homesteaded a couple miles east of his parent’s Sycamore Canyon home and built himself a cabin there. Shortly after he’d proved up on his homestead, the Wurld brothers wanted to sell their nearby property; they were elderly and ready to move back east where they were born. John had to borrow enough money to make the purchase. The Wurld house stood close to the present-day location of the Big Sur Lodge.

In 1902, John Pfeiffer married Ma Swetnam’s daughter, Zulema Florence Brown. Born in Kentucky in 1871, she’d traveled west to California in a spring wagon as a toddler, with her mother and father.

She’d been married before, in 1895, to D. Guy Sharet Brown of Pacific Grove. He was from Virginia and he and Florence had a daughter named Ellen Olive, born in 1896 and a son named Christopher Kyle, born 1897.

In 1899, Florence filed for divorce and, with her two children, moved back to her parent’s house in Palo Colorado Canyon. Three years later, she married John Pfeiffer and he became Kyle and Ellen’s stepfather. John and Florence later had two children of their own, Esther Julia and John Ivan.

Photo of Isaac Newton Sweatnam, master beekeeper like his son-in-law, John Pfeiffer, circa 1900

John Pfeiffer was a cattle rancher and an expert on the natural history of Big Sur. Like his father-in-law, Isaac Newton Swetnam, he was a master beekeeper who produced the highest quality, best-tasting sage honey on the coast. Swetnam also grew some of the best strawberries in Monterey County.

Michael Pfeiffer followed the Gold Rush to California in the late 1850s. His son, John, had also “seen the elephant,” following the Gold Rush to Alaska, four decades later. Florence Pfeiffer explained:

In 1898, John Pfeiffer joined a party going to Alaska. Although a few struck it rich, John Pfeiffer, like many others, did not. The trip for him as a financial failure, but a wonderful experience, and he always wanted to go back – which he did [in 1934] after he sold some of his land to the State.

In the Winter of 1898, he pulled a hand sleigh a carried a pack on his back over the Chilkoot Pass from Dvea to Lake Bennett, over great snowdrifts and ice … After his return from Alaska in 1900, he continued his farming and bee culture, worked at Point Sur Light Station during its construction, and made picket fences for [the Cooper Ranch].

The gracious kindness that was extended to guests and visitors during the time of the Spanish ranchos had developed into a tradition in Big Sur. John Pfeiffer was raised in his parents’ home in Sycamore Canyon, where that traditional attitude of hospitality-without-recompence and tolerance of travelers, was patiently practiced.

In adulthood, John and his wife Florence maintained this tradition, hosting the many travelers and tourists who ate at their table and stayed at their home, located on the old County Road in the Big Sur Valley. It is said that the hearty breakfast Florence Pfeiffer served her guests were entirely memorable.

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Pfeiffer’s Ranch Resort

There’s a story that, in the early 1900s, Florence found one of her guests outside, beating his mule. She told him, “I can’t make you stop mistreating that animal, but I can charge you a fee for staying here.”

And that’s how the Pfeiffer’s got into the resort business.

Thereafter, she charged for food, lodging, and feed for their horses. In 1906, John Pfeiffer built a hotel and a new two-story house. For years, Florence and John ran Pfeiffer’s Ranch Resort (today the site of the Big Sur Lodge in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park). She confessed, “strange to say, when the people had to pay, we had a far nicer class of guests…”

The Pfeiffer’s provided their guests with hayrides and picnics on the beach. The October 25, 1921, issue of the Stockton Daily Evening Record, described a visit to Pfeiffer’s Ranch Resort in its heyday:

“The Pfeiffer’s Resort is in the midst of a luxuriant redwood grove right on the banks of the river five miles from the mouth. Campers are strictly taboo and consequently the place has a freshness and freedom from trash and refuse no longer found in many parts of the coast country. Mrs. Pfeiffer, who is adamant on the question of campers and will not give them the privilege at any price, explains that she regretfully had to take the step she did because they would not respect the game laws and were careless with fires. Campers may stay at Post’s two miles further on, however, and there, saddle horses may be obtained for going into the wild country beyond. They are rented out at a rate of $3 a day…

Florence Pfeiffer (left) Maria Onesimo (center) and Florence Lial (right), the kitchen crew at Pfeiffer’s Resort, circa 1920

“The sleeping quarters at Pfeiffer’s are in cottages scattered through the trees. For fresh air fiends there’s a special appeal in the cabins which have the front wall removed and a curtain in its place. It is a treat to lie there in the morning with the curtain pulled back and look up into the trees in the wooded slope on the other side of the river.

“The meals are served to the guests in an open-air porch overlooking a small garden. Plain home cooked food is served. The tables are blessed with milk and honey and the Pfeiffers have their own cows and the ranch contains the apiaries of the Monterey Honey company. Fine mountain sage honey as clear as crystal is on the table at every meal. C.K. Brown, Mrs. Pfeiffer’s son, after a life on the sea which has carried him to all corners of the globe, has come back to the ranch is in charge of the bee industry. He tends to the shipping of honey which finds a market in other parts of the state.

“A deep swimming pool with a springboard and other equipment is a couple of hundred yards up the river and affords diversion for those who like the water.”

Florence Pfeiffer in her garden

Florence’s son by a previous marriage, Christopher Kyle Brown had attended the Polytechnic School in San Luis Obispo before joining the US Navy, where he worked as a water tender on the Sherman, sailing to many international destinations. Like many saltwater sailors, Kyle had tattoos on his body and both arms. In the late 1920s, he returned to Big Sur, where he had been spent his childhood. He and his wife Minnie, and their son Wayne, lived near the Pfeiffer Ranch.

While Kyle and Minnie were out of town on vacation in Northern California, their seven-year-old son, Wayne, was left is the care of a 29-year-old nurse named Hazel, the wife of their neighbor, Percy Oliver James.

On Saturday, September 7, 1929, the seven-year-old boy found some matches. He was playing with them among the hay bales in the loft of the barn, when they hay caught fire and ignited the boy’s clothes. Another child playing nearby heard Wayne’s screams and saw the flames and ran to the house to alert Mrs. James. She ran to the barn, grabbed the ladder and climbed to the loft where she saw the burning child. She reached out and managed to catch Wayne, but he broke from her grasp so suddenly and ran back into the flames, that she lost her balance and fell to the floor, 30-feet below, breaking her leg. The barn burned down. Neighbors arrived and pulled the child’s charred remains out of the smoldering rubble and drove Mrs. James to the hospital in Monterey.

Wayne’s parents didn’t find out about the tragedy until they returned from their trip. Three years earlier, on Monday, August 30, 1926, Hazel and Percy James’ one and a half-year-old son was killed when he was run over by a bakery delivery truck in Monterey.

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Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park lodge circa 1940

John Pfeiffer was seven years old when his family arrived in Big Sur in 1869. Like his mother and father before him, he was now the custodian of the family homestead and ranch.

The inaccessibility of the region and the high cost transporting the timber to market spared the canyons of Big Sur from the kind of widespread logging seen in other parts of central California. The Santa Cruz Mountains north of Monterey Bay were almost completely logged during the late 19th century. Conversely, in 1924, the State Board of Forestry reported that just half of the virgin timber in the Big Sur area had been harvested.

A chachka sold in the gift shop of the Big Sur Lodge

In 1930, during the construction of the paved highway, many residents were approached by developers. A commercial real estate developer from Los Angeles offered Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer’s son John $210,000 for the family ranch.

John Pfeiffer had seen the elephant.

He couldn’t bear the thought of the Pfeiffer Ranch being turned into a subdivision. His heart’s desire was to somehow preserve the natural wonders of the family homeplace.

Just before Christmas in 1933, during one of the worst years of the Great Depression, John and Florence Pfeiffer sold 700 acres of their beloved Pfeiffer Ranch to the conservation group, the Save the Redwoods League, for a price considerably below market value.

Ownership of the property was transferred to the State of California and, the following year, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park opened for public use. The Big Sur Lodge in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park stands today, on the site of the Pfeiffer Ranch Resort.

*           *          *

For three decades Florence Pfeiffer was the postmaster in the Big Sur Valley. In her memoirs, she offered a poetic description of the natural surroundings that so enchanted her husband John:

He always found time to hunt and fish, or for a trip to the ocean for mussels and abalones. Or to ride loose-reined over the ranges, for he loved the rough, wild stretches of this country, the high, bleak mountain tops and Ventanas, the many little canyons with their wealth of growing trees, redwoods, laurel, oak, sycamore, cottonwood, elder and the rest. He loved the clear, swift streams edged by beautiful native ferns. On the hillsides were great stretches of blue-gray sage, with here and there a huge patch of blue lupin, splashes of wild lilac, white or blue. On some mountain tops madrone trees grew, and from their blooms came the thickest and finest flavored honey. The many grassy slopes where cattle and deer graze … and in the far distance the eternal Pacific with its varying moods, weaving a white birder for its rocky coastline or sending long blue waves over the yellow beaches. He loved it all, but best the Big Sur Valley, the river of clean-cut water in which lurked many fine trout and where steelhead came with the spawn spring water every winter to spawn.

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Categories: California History.