The House in the Wilderness – The Era of the El Sur Rancho

From 1797 until 1833, the San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo (the Carmel Mission) was the headquarters of all of the Spanish missions in Alta California. Mexico declared its independence from Spain on September 28, 1821. Two years later, a new constitution established the Federal Republic of Mexico, and the town of Monterey became the military capital of the Alta California territory.

Earliest illustration of the Carmel Mission by Jose Cardero, 1791

Two hundred years ago, news traveled slowly. Reports of Mexico’s independence didn’t reach California for seven months. When it finally did arrive, the converted Indians living at the twenty-one California missions were never actually informed of their new political freedom.

According to some accounts, conditions for the Indians worsened after the Mexican government came to power. Though the Spanish priests were replaced by padres trained in Mexico, it would be another decade before the Indians were released from their enslavement at the missions

Half a century after their inception, each of the twenty-one California missions was situated upon an enormous tract of land, with its own sawmill and grain mill. Some 30,000 Indian neophytes tended the missions’ collective ten million acres of grain, industrial-scale gardens, and nearly two-million head of cattle, sheep, goats, mules, and horses.

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Ruins of the Carmel Mission church, 1860

It cost a fortune to maintain the missions. During the five decades that Spain ruled Alta California, two ships were sent annually from Acapulco, Mexico – more than 2,500 miles away – loaded with goods. These were sold duty-free, without mark-up, to the residents of the remote coastal territory. Spanish soldiers enlisted for a ten-year term of service, at the end of which they could retire to a life of subsistence farming at one of the pueblos ­– small villages attached to the missions, where they’d have their own plot of land to homestead. Each of the padres at the missions received an annual salary of $400. According to George von Langsdorff, who spend six weeks in California, in 1806, Spain spent a million piastres on the California missions, annually.

The new Federal Republic of Mexico issued an order to liberate every single converted Indian – all 30,000 of them – from the missions and set them up as subsistence farmers on their own homesteads.

But this never happened.

The local Indians had, for thousands of years, existed as hunter-gatherers. Freed from the oppressive forced labor of the mission system, many abandoned farming and anything that even resembled mission-related farm drudgery. Furthermore, dispossession of Indian lands became standard procedure during the years of Mexican rule of Alta California, and this only worsened when the Gold Rush began.

Coat of arms of the First Mexican Empire, 1821

After Mexico had won its war of independence with Spain, California remained a sparsely populated region, geographically isolated and devoid of infrastructure. The non-Indian residents of the territory – the gente de razon (reasonable people – people who were culturally Hispanicized) were skeptical about the first governor appointed by the Federal Republic of Mexico, José Maria Echeandia, who arrived in 1825. He was hypochondriac who left his wife and four daughters behind in Mexico City and missed them, terribly.

When the new Mexican government came into power in the 1820s, the economic system in Alta California fell apart. The Republic of Mexico discontinued salaries for garrison soldiers and stopped granting homesteads in the pueblos to retiring soldiers. Soldiers and civilians, alike, had no option but to barter with the missions for food, clothing, soap, leather goods, and furniture – all of which were produced by Indian forced labor.

In 1826, when Captain Beechey visited, the twenty-one Spanish missions were supporting about two-thirds of the Spanish-speaking population of Alta California and controlled an area equal to approximately one-sixth of the territory.

This economic collapse led to social unrest. In 1829, a group of impoverished and angry presidential soldiers marched south from Monterey, demanding immediate payment for several years of outstanding salaries. Governor Encheandia repelled them with armed troops near Santa Barbara and the destitute soldiers fled. That same year, Estanislao, a “neophyte” Indian from Mission San José (present-day Fremont, California) organized a war party of Indians in the San Joaquin Valley, so large that 100 Mexican soldiers could not quash the rebellion.

In the 1830s, the Mexican government awarded hundreds of large tracts of land to former military officers and Mexican citizens politically connected to the provincial governors. Two decades later, when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, real estate holdings (and wealth) had consolidated to such a degree that fewer than 200 California families owned more than fourteen million acres.

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Map showing legal boundaries of Rancho San José y Sur Chiquito, 1898

The Big Sur coast south of Carmel was still considered too steep and inaccessible for cattle ranching, so only three of these Mexican land grants were awarded in that region, two on the north coast, and one on the south.

The San Jose y Sur Chiquito land grant – 8,876 acres (14 square miles) near the Carmel Mission, was situated at the northern gateway to El Sur (The South). One of the earliest illustrations of the Carmel Mission depicts cattle grazing on the pastoral lands of San Jose y Sur Chiquito.

Rancho San José y Sur Chiquito takes its name from two creeks: San José Creek and the Little Sur River (El Río Chiquito del Sur). In 1835, the Rancho San José y Sur Chiquito property was first granted to Teodoro Gonzales, then later that same year, regranted to Marcelino Escobar.

On August 26, 1841, two of Escobar’s children sold the 8,876-acre land grant to Doña Maria Josefa Abrego, for about three cent an acre. Maria was the wife of Don José Abrego, a Mexican businessman who came to Monterey in 1834. on the vessel La Natalie.

According to legend, she later lost the Rancho San José y Sur Chiquito deed in a card game to some soldiers from the Monterey presidio. Some say it was Maria Josefa’s husband José – notorious for his compulsive gambling – who drew the losing hand, and that Maria was simply his proxy. It is not known whether this is history or folklore, but it’s such a good story, it hardly matters.

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The original hand-drawn map of the Rancho San José y Sur Chiquito, 1853. The map was used to support Jose Castro’s claim for the rancho during court proceedings after Mexico ceded California to the United States.

The earliest map of the property, from the early 1850s, is hand-drawn diseño – a descriptive map was submitted in an application for a Mexican land grant – indicates that the Rancho extended from the Carmel River south to the north side of Palo Colorado Canyon and included Point Lobos, San Jose Creek, Malpaso Creek, Soberanes Creek, Tres Pinos Creek, and Garrapata Creek, including present-day Garrapata State Park. This map indicates that a road or trail was already present along the coast.

In 1868, William and Mary Ann Waters and their five children traveled from the whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, crossing the Isthmus of Panama to homestead on the San Jose y Sur Chiquito, three miles south of the Carmel River – the present-day location of the Highlands Inn.

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Hand-drawn diseño of Rancho El Sur supporting Juan Bautista Alvarado’s patent claim.

Another land grant, twenty miles down the coast, and roughly 8,880 acres (14 square miles) Rancho El Sur, encompassed the area from the mouth of Little Sur River, inland about two and a half miles over the coastal mountains and south along the coast past the mouth of the Big Sur River to Cooper’s Point, including present-day Andrew Molera State Park.

Cooper’s Point is named for John Rogers Cooper. He was born in September of 1791, on the island of Alderney, one of the Guernsey Channel Islands, in England. Rogers sailed to New England with his mother around 1800. He descended from a venerable Massachusetts maritime family and spent his boyhood years in Boston, during the presidencies of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

Captain John Rogers Cooper

Captain John Rogers Cooper sailed into the Mexican territory of Alta California in 1823, as master of a small trading schooner, the Rover, arriving in the earliest days of of the Republic of Mexico’s rule.

Rogers was thirty-two years old. Making his home in Monterey, Cooper started a general store there and was open for business when Captain Beechey arrived in late December of 1826.

Cooper sold the Rover to Luis Antonio Argüello, the first native-born governor of Alta California. Cooper and Argüello became partners in a lucrative sea otter trade. Sea otters have the thickest fur of any mammal and their pelts brought the highest prices in the fur market.

Some of the first Yankees in the Santa Lucia Mountains were seasoned fur trappers who, a decade before, had decimated beaver populations in the Rocky Mountain. These veteran mountain men found employment working for Cooper and Argüello, hunting sea otters on the Big Sur coast. And it didn’t take long before the sea otters were hunted to extinction.

By 1841, Captain Cooper reported that there was not a single otter to be found on the entire 250 miles of coastline between Fort Ross and Big Sur. That year the southern sea otter was declared officially extinct.

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Sir William Beechey, circa 1810

The Presidio in Monterey was erected when the Spanish arrived, in 1770. When Captain Beechey visited Monterey in 1826, he noted:

“The plain upon which the presidio stands, was well adapted to cultivation, but it is scarcely ever touched by the plow, and the garrison is entirely beholden to the missions for its resources. Each soldier has nominally three pounds a month, out of which he is obliged to purchase his provisions. If the governors were active and the means were supplied, the country in the vicinity of the establishment might be made to yield enough wheat and vegetables for the troops, by which they would save that portion of their pay that now goes to purchase these necessary articles.”

The pueblo of Monterey was formally authorized as a city by the Mexican Government in 1827, and by 1830, about five-hundred people had built homes outside the Presidio walls. In his memoir, Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., who visited Monterey in the late 1830s, remembered the green lawns in front of about one hundred residences.

Captain Cooper’s wife, Maria Jerónima de la Encarnación Vallejo

Captain Cooper was quick to assimilate into the Mexican culture of 19th-century Alta California. In it to win it, he converted to Catholicism, so he could marry eighteen-year-old Maria Jerónima de la Encarnación Vallejo.

They were wed at the Carmel Mission, in 1827. She was from one of the most prominent families in the province and was the daughter of Ignacio Vicente Ferrer Vallejo, brother of General Mariano Vallejo, who fought the war with the United States in 1846-48.

In for a penny and in for a pound, at the age of thirty-nine, in 1830, Captain “Juan Bautista” Rogers Cooper became a naturalized Mexican citizen. With citizenship came the ability to own real estate.

Before the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, Juan Bautista Alvarado was probably the first European landowner on the Big Sur Coast. Born in Monterey in 1809, Alvarado’s grandfather had marched with the Portola expedition in 1769. Alvarado Street in present-day downtown Monterey is named for him. Governor José Figueroa officially awarded the Rancho El Sur land grant to Alvarado in 1834. Soon the pastures of Rancho El Sur, were stocked with cattle and horses.

But Alvarado was more interested in politics than cattle ranching and it’s unknown if he ever personally visited to property. He would later serve as one of the early governors of Las Californias. Ambitious and determined, he was then too busy being the civil governor and needed a competent administrator to manage Rancho El Sur, way down the coast. As it happened, Captain Cooper was married to Alvarado’s aunt, Encarnación, of whom Alvarado was very fond. So he turned to her husband, his Yankee uncle, for assistance.

Juan Bautista Alvarado

In 1840, Alvarado offered Captain Cooper ownership of Rancho El Sur in exchange for Cooper’s much more accessible 22,000-acre ranch property situated between the Salinas River and the Tembladero Slough, near present-day Castroville. And so, Cooper became the owner of the Rancho El Sur land grant in Big Sur. Captain Cooper never actually lived at Rancho El Sur; rather, he and his wife lived in an abode brick house in Monterey.

One report, perhaps apocryphal, ties Captain Cooper to the fabled, “Lost Indian Gold Mine,” a staple of local folklore. The July 28, 1904, issue of the Salinas Californian newspaper reported:

“Thus did the founder of the Spanish-American family of Cooper establish his claim to the grant El Sur, which tradition says was described to him by a friendly Indian, who exhibited valuable specimens of [gold] quartz, which he declared were found in the almost inaccessible [vastness] where the wild cattle of El Sur ranged.”

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Map showing the legal boundaries of Rancho El Sur, 1898

Captain Cooper operated a profitable dairy and cattle ranch at Rancho El Sur, that thrived during the 1840s and 1850s. The ranch was several dozen miles from town, on rough and undeveloped trails, and the fresh milk was an extremely perishable commodity.

In the 1850s, Captain Cooper began making cheese, which had a much longer shelf life than milk. It is said that, in the days before refrigeration, Cooper’s cheesemakers pressed the whey from the curds using screw jacks and the resulting product, which was sold in Monterey, became known as “Monterey jack cheese.”

It’s a tidy little story, but unverifiable. Some sources say that Monterey Jack was made by Franciscan friars and their Indian converts, at the missions in Alta California, in the late 18th-century.

Captain Cooper’s grandson, the morbidly obese Andrew Molera, is best remembered for having popularized the artichoke in the early twentieth century. Molera ran the dairy at Rancho El Sur during the First World War and manufactured Monterey Jack cheese that sold in town for six cents a pound.

David Jacks

David Jacks, for whom Monterey’s Jacks Peak is named, was born in Scotland in 1822. As a nineteen-year-old, he came to the United States for the Gold Rush and worked his way west to Monterey in 1849. He bought so much real estate, so rapidly, that it’s still remembered as “the Rape of Monterey.” For years, he was the largest landowner in Monterey County. It is said that Davy Jacks sold (and may well have produced) a cheese that was soon known as “Jacks’ Cheese” and eventually called “Monterey Jack.”

There are innumerable variants to this story. José Manuel Boronda, his wife Juana, and their fifteen children, came to settle on the 6,625-acre Rancho Los Laureles land grant in Carmel Valley, in 1840. They constructed an above ground arena in front of their adobe home where they staged bull and bear fights, rodeos, and fiestas. Her great-granddaughter remembered family stories of Juana using a handmade jack to press the curds into cheese, then just called queso del país, or country cheese. They say that when her husband was injured, she went door to door selling her to support her fifteen children.

The only part of the story that we know to be true is that the name “Monterey Jack,” applied to the mild, pale cheese, is ubiquitous today. Your milage may vary – such is the nature of folklore.

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Captain Cooper’s wife, Maria Jerónima de la Encarnación Vallejo

In Mary Bell’s Sunset Magazine article, published in 1904, the author explains how Captain Cooper’s wife would not brave the narrow and winding trail down the coast to what is now referred to as the original Cooper cabin at Rancho El Sur:

“In one of the hushed places, the home-builder erected his dwelling from shafts of the sequoias. The stately Spanish lady, his wife, never visited the house in the wilderness, but one can fancy that the captain planted the spreading rosebush which is still aflame with pink blossoms every month of the year, for Dona Encarnacion to enjoy. The house still stands windowless and doorless, behind the long windbreak of [eucalyptus], the only foreigners among the trees that grow from the mouth of the Little Sur at Cooper’s point.”

The original Cooper Cabin, erected in 1861, the oldest surviving structure on the Big Sur coast

Erected in 1861, the Cooper Cabin (in present-day Andrew Molera State Park) is considered the oldest surviving structure on the Big Sur coast. It is today surrounded by mature blue gum trees that are believed to have been planted when the cabin was first built. But it isn’t the oldest surviving structure in the Santa Lucia Mountain. Twelve miles east of Big Sur (as the crow flies), at Rancho Salsipuedes (present-day Avila Ranch) in the Ventana Wilderness of the eastern Santa Lucia Mountains, a 240-year-old adobe building still stands ­– one of the last remaining privately owned early California homesteads that is neither government property nor corporation-owned real estate.

Before the California Gold Rush, Spanish was spoken at Rancho El Sur. Cooper employed dozens of Mexican and Indian vaqueros. They teased him about his shrunken left hand and gave him the nickname Juan el Manco (John the One-Armed). In a photograph taken late in his life, the Captain faces the camera with his arms folded across his chest, and it appears that his left arm is shorter than his right.

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Captain John Rogers Cooper

The English schooner Star of the West was owned by a Virginian named John Parrott. In 1845, Parrott embarked on his first trading voyage to the California coast. He’d hired Captain William Atherton to transport a cargo of goods from Liverpool, England, valued at $120,000 (more than $3,500,000, in 2022 currency).

Parrott knew that the Mexican authorities at Mazatlan would demand a cash payment for customs duties. So, he conceived the following deception: although his cargo was bound for Mexico, he would land his ship in the United States, where he could pay his duties in merchandise instead of cash, thereby saving thousands of dollars.

But it was not to be.

On July 27,1845, the Star of the West wrecked upon the rocks at Point Lobos, twenty miles north of Rancho El Sur and seven miles south of the city of Monterey. At that time, the salvage laws considered the cargo of a wrecked vessel to be the property of whoever carted it away. And in Monterey, in 1845, that person was Captain John Rogers Cooper.

The Star of the Wests cargo was destined for the interior of Mexico and had been packed securely in waterproof bundles. So, most of the merchandise was in excellent condition when Cooper and his crew loaded it onto horse drawn wagons and carted it back to Rancho El Sur. Although Cooper made a small fortune from this single salvage operation, he was not the only salvager who profited from the wreck. In History of California 1841-1845, Hubert Howe Bancroft says, “… all Montereyans became wreckers for the time, some making great gains; although three men were drowned.”

Though its location has yet to be discovered, the wreck of the Star of the West lies in the waters beyond the rocky shores of the Point Lobos State Reserve.

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Thomas Oliver Larkin

From 1839 to 1844, Cooper commanded the Californian, a Mexican government vessel transporting mail, prisoners, and government officials. Cooper made a number of voyages: to Mexico, the Hawaiian Islands, and Peru. Two years later, he commanded the Elizabeth. In 1849, he sailed to China as captain of the Eveline, returning with a valuable cargo that was purchased by Larkin and Lesee. Cooper’s half-brother, Thomas Oliver Larkin, who lived in Monterey, had served as U.S. Council to Alta California and was actively engaged in espionage operations for the American government.

The United States claimed California in the summer of 1846. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill two years later, changed life in California for everyone living there and effectively put Cooper out of business. Tens of thousands of would-be gold seekers poured into the territory. Cooper lost all of his extensive land holdings to squatters, except for his ranches in Castroville and Big Sur.

According to Dr. Philip Blair Laverty, by the end of 1849, around 80,000 Americans, 8,000 Mexicans, 5,000 South Americans, 1,000 Chinese, and several thousand Europeans had arrived in California. Californios, about 1,300 in number, along with their Indian servants, were some of the first miners to make it to the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Captain John Rogers Cooper, circa 1870

Recipients of Mexican land grants were required to verify legal ownership of their properties with the new American government after California was admitted to the union, in 1850. Many of these grantees lost their property because they were Mexican citizens who didn’t speak English, nor were their attorneys familiar with the peculiarities of American law. It’s no coincidence that one of the successful claimants was the English-born citizen of the Republic of Mexico, the politically well-connected Captain “Juan Bautista” Cooper.

Captain Cooper retired from seafaring when California gained statehood in 1850. The following year, he was appointed harbor master of Monterey. At this time, Monterey was still a small town, with a population of about 1,100.

According to local folklore, Captain Cooper used his political position and his cattle breeding business as a cover to become a professional smuggler. He secretly landed imported goods from China and the Sandwich Islands at the mouth of Big Sur River (then known as Rio Arbolado or River of Shady Trees), to avoid the high taxes levied by the American officials at the Custom House in Monterey – which could run as high as forty-two percent of value of the merchandise. An old wind-wracked tree near the mouth of the Big Sur River known as the Smuggler’s Redwood became a recognized landmark on the coast.

Monterey Custom House

The remote location of Rancho El Sur and its proximity to the river, made it the perfect location for a smuggling operation. Under cover of darkness, ships would anchor off the coast while their cargoes were transferred to small fishing vessels and rowed ashore. Then Cooper transported the contraband into Monterey on horseback, on a trail he had constructed specifically for this purpose.

In the 1860s, Captain Cooper is said to have retired from the smuggling racket. At Rancho El Sur, he crossbred Guernsey, Jersey, Aberdeen, and Hereford cattle imported from the Channel Islands, producing what many considered, the best breeding stock in the state of California.

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John Baptist Henry Cooper, son of Captain Cooper

Cooper put some of his money back into the neighborhood, paying for the construction of the first schoolhouse and community center in the region. In the 21st century, Captain Cooper Elementary School in Big Sur is named for him and Andrew Molera State Park, is named for his grandson.

In 1870, Captain Cooper’s son, John Cooper II, married 17-year-old Martha L. Brawly of Castroville. She was born in Peoria, Illinois, and came to California with her parents when she was small. Her dad, John G. Brawley, was a cousin of Abraham Lincoln.

Eusebio J. Molera

Captain Cooper retired to San Francisco, a wealthy man, dying there in 1872, at the age of 80­. He’s buried at the San Carlos Cemetery in Monterey.

After Captain Cooper’s death, Rancho El Sur was sub-divided. A section went to the captain’s oldest daughter Amelia. Her husband was a Spanish civil engineer named Eusebio J. Molera, who had shared management duties at Rancho El Sur with his brother-in-law, Captain Cooper’s son, John Cooper II.

Another section went to Cooper’s second daughter Ana, who was married to a San Francisco real estate broker named Herman Wohler.

The largest section went to the captain’s son, John Cooper II and when he died in 1899, the property was inherited by his widow, Martha Cooper.

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The July 28, 1904, issue of the Salinas daily newspaper, the Californian, offered a glimpse of Rancho El Sur – what was now more frequently referred to as “The Cooper Ranch” – during Martha Brawley Cooper’s tenure:

“Mrs. Cooper personally oversees the work on the ranch … and is constantly increasing the stock, constructing new pastures and converting more of the fertile meadowland into cultivated fields. About 200 acres are planted in the hay and 80 acres in field corn, beets and pumpkins for fall food. There are about 100 head of cattle on the Ranch No. 1, about 500 these being milk cows. But 100 steers are sold to the butcher every year, and 175 pigs went to market in 1901. There are 200 stock hogs. The horses used by the vaqueros are raised on the ranch.

“Mrs. Cooper is enthusiastic over ranching, and is rightfully proud of the income from the sale of her cattle and cheese.

“The road to El Sur is a remarkable piece of engineering. It winds along the bluff of the wild broken coast, with the waves dashing high over the rocks. The first glimpse of the grant is obtained from an immense elevation, with two great canyons opening toward the ocean on either side. The narrow road, which winds up and down the mountainside so precipitously that one involuntarily catches one’s breath at the turns, passes at intervals through forests of pine, redwood, laurel, tanbark oak, madrona and birch. The roadside is bordered with ferns in early February, seventy varieties of wildflowers are counted during a drive up to the ranch.”

By the turn of the century, the coast south of Carmel was more often referred to as “The Sur” than El Sur. Perhaps the earliest printed usage of “Big Sur” as a placename, appeared in the June 15, 1889, edition of the Monterey Cypress newspaper, referring to the “Little and Big Sur Country.” Thereafter, the placename, “Big Sur” comes into prevalent usage.

In the twenty-first century, campers in Big Sur are notorious for trespassing and littering. This was a problem a century ago. Although Rancho El Sur was private property, it was an attractive destination for sportsmen and campers. Preventing outsiders from trespassing on the property became a real problem. Martha Cooper posted “No Trespassing” signs all around Rancho El Sur’s boundaries. For decades, she ran a display advertisement in the local newspapers, during the summer months, notifying would-be trespassers:

“Warning. Notice is hereby given that all persons who hunt, fish or otherwise trespass upon the land known as the Pheneger and Boland ranches, or any other part of Sur No. 1 or in any other property belonging to me in Monterey County, Cal., will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
-Mrs. Martha M. Cooper-Vasquez”

She went so far as to offer a $25 reward for information leading to the identification of trespassers – an awful lot of money at the turn of the century.

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Andrew Molera, age 10, 1887

In 1915, Captain Cooper’s grandson, the famously fat Andrew J. Molera took over operation of Rancho El Sur and ran the place until his death in 1931.

In 1922, Molera leased 150 acres of farmland in Castroville, California, to Angelo del Chiaro and his cousin, two Italian farmers. Although Molera had grown sugar beets there for a few years, he encouraged his new tenants to grow artichokes, which brought three times the value of sugar beets, per acre. By 1926, 12,000 acres in California, most of them in Castroville, were dedicated to growing artichokes. Castroville is now the artichoke capital of the world. Mr. Molera’s claim to fame is having popularized the artichoke, which is now ubiquitous in the American produce aisle.

He was so obese that when he died of a heart attack in 1931, an extra-large coffin had to be built to encase him.

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James J. Hill (1838-1916)

In 1928, Martha Cooper, one of the largest private landowners in California, sold the northern 8,000 acres of Rancho El Sur to Texas oil tycoon, Harry C. Hunt, of Pebble Beach, for more than half a million dollars.

Thirty years later, Hunt sold the property to the grandchildren of the Great Plains Railway robber baron, James Jerome Hill. Today, the “El Sur Ranch” is private property owned by a “very wealthy, very humorless man” named Jim Hill, who is the great-grandson of the infamous robber baron.

It is a curious phenomenon: the wilderness homesteads of the Anglo Big Sur pioneers have a limited evolutionary path.

In our time, they have either become overpriced resorts, state parks and preserves, or the private estates of the ultra-wealthy.

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Categories: California History.