Wilder Ranch 40th Birthday

Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks throws a party on Oct. 25 for Wilder Ranch State Park, which almost became a sprawling subdivision.

Story and photos by Molly Lautamo

Oct. 20, 2014—To walk through the historic buildings of Wilder Ranch State Park is to be transported to another time when draft horses cleared fields for barley, water generated electricity, the Wilder family gathered at the ranch for rodeos, duck hunts and quiet evenings listening to the phonograph around the dining room table—and dairy production was profitable. There’s enough history here at Wilder Ranch for a person to dedicate years to research, discovery and teaching, and many Wilder docents have done just that. Barbara Cooksey, now a staff interpreter with California State Parks, has remained at the park for two decades.

“I fell in love with Wilder Ranch and all of its cultural history, starting from the Ohlone Indians to the present-day California State Park and all of the history in between,” says Cooksey.

It’s easy to fall in love here. The park tells a gripping tale of the interaction between humans and nature connecting us all to this swath of unique land.

To tell this tale, Wilder Ranch has for years been a model state park, offering guided nature walks and living history demonstrations year-round with the support of the non-profit organization Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. This weekend, Friends throws Wilder’s annual Heritage Harvest Festival, a day of family-friendly activities ranging from apple tasting to square dancing.

Celebrating the fall harvest and the park’s rich history, this year’s festival also marks the 40th anniversary of Wilder’s acquisition by the parks system. Forty years ago, Wilder Ranch was saved from development and began the long transformation to the complex site it is today.

That’s right. Wilder Ranch could have wound up a tamed landscape, its fascinating past confined to textbooks, lost beneath parking lots, lawns and multi-level housing.

So how close did Wilder Ranch come to losing its wildness? Pretty darn close.

Wilder Ranch: From Dairy Operation to Housing Development

For almost 100 years, generation after generation of Wilder families ran one of the best dairy operations in Northern California. Then, in 1969, high property taxes (what?! in Santa Cruz?) forced the Wilder family to sell the land to an investment company. The company had big plans for the ranch that once churned butter and housed five generations of Wilders along with their many farm animals. That era would come to an end with the new development, comprised of 10,000 dwelling units, a town center, schools, business, a golf course and a measly 2,000 acres of open space, compared to the park’s current 7,000 acres. The development’s population would surpass that of Santa Cruz: 40,000 people compared to the city’s 32,000. They were ground-shaking plans, and the residents of Santa Cruz County weren’t having it.

A group called “Operation Wilder” formed to fight the development. Stuck in the middle of the battle, Santa Cruz County finally decided to back the people and oppose the investment company. State Parks bought the land in 1974, but Wilder Ranch still didn’t open to the public for another 15 years.

Another tough bunch of Santa Cruzans banded together in a group called Friends of Wilder in an effort to pressure the parks department to open the land and restore the historic buildings. Once again, the citizens’ group prevailed, and the park opened in 1989 for public use. Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, which had formed in 1976, agreed to maintain the buildings, provide park personnel, and help run the many community programs and events that take place at the park.

The non-profit organization has led several large restoration projects in recent years.

“In 2008 Friends completed a partnership project with State Parks to restore the Meder House [the oldest house on site after the adobe]. The house is now open to the public through guided tours," says Bonny Hawley, Executive Director of Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. "Friends also funded putting a new roof on the Victorian, and just this past year we issued a grant to get the horse barn painted and restored."

A Tangible Connection to The Past

Wilder Ranch today allows people to relive an integral part of Santa Cruz’s past, from the days when the Ohlone people hunted and gathered on the land to the 1900s. This cultural and natural history can be found throughout the park.

Thanks to a restoration effort led by The Benthic Lab at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and California State Parks, walking above the Wilder coastline on the Ohlone Bluff Trail now gives a glimpse of a landscape from 500 years ago. Inland across Highway 1, the park’s coastal prairie represents hundreds of years of land management by humans, first the native Ohlone use of fire and later ranchers’ cattle grazing and agriculture.

Down at the cultural complex, visitors can step back to the year 1840 and imagine the Bolcoff family, who raised 17 children in the adobe, the site’s oldest standing structure. Restoration efforts led by Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks now allow visitors to travel back to the late 1800s and early 1900s in a tour of the 20-room Meder House. Furnished with replicas of the antiques that adorned the Meders’ and then the Wilders’ home, visitors can sit in the chairs and touch the player piano to connect with history.

The house tours, school programs and living history events make the past come alive here. Docents dressed from the late 1800s give demonstrations of the Pelton Water Wheel that generated electricity for the ranch, the tools in the blacksmith shop are once again put to use and kids can take part in old-fashioned crafts and games.

The Heritage Harvest Festival includes all of the above, plus draft horse rides, a dedication ceremony to the newly painted horse barn, a volunteer reunion, and a raffle for a painting of the Victorian house, proceeds from which will fund a new coat of paint for the real thing.

For those who can’t make it this weekend, events happen throughout the year. Even on quiet days when the docents are dressed in modern-day wear and you can only peer through the windows of the old houses, the ranch is magical, somehow untouched by the frenzy of modern life.

Everywhere stand reminders of times gone by: the goats and sheep grazing in the shade of the cow barn, the soft clucking of hens and the horses’ deliberate hay-munching, a cat sunning in the empty stable, the original weather vane put up by Mr. Wilder atop the horse barn, and the old houses painted and furnished as they were over a century ago.

Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014
Wilder Ranch State Park, 2 miles north of Santa Cruz on Hwy 1. 11am-4pm. Free, but parking is $10.