William Steele Moves His Cows by Galen Wolf
Long before daybreak, the cows of William Steele were milked that memorable morning, at Steele’s barn on the shore of Tomales Bay, by milkers under weak lantern light. This was the day that William Steele’s option on thousands of acres of land, running from the Gazos Creek to Santa Cruz County line, took effect and he was to move his herd south to his new land. He intended to move his dairy, and he chose the daring route of the area. The milking that afternoon was to be done before the sun set, a hundred sea miles from where he had milked the cows that morning. This late milking had to be done because you can’t shut down a cow just because of a move.
That morning, Wiliam Steele had a large barge tied to the short wharf at Millerton on Tomales Bay. He had engaged a wheezy steam tug to pull it. The route would follow the narrow bay, pass through the far narrower channel and then into the open sea. Even today, modern boats avoid the dangerous channel. Once in the open ocean, his tow faced the grim Point Reyes, the windiest promontory in America. Beyond the peril lay Duxburg Reef, noted for shipwrecks, and then the turbulent Potato Patch at the mouth of the Golden Gate.
Steele had set up high and heavy railings and stanchions for anchoring the animals on the barge, to keep them from being rolled into the unsteady waves.
A few flocks of awakening bay ducks were scattered by the tumult of shouting men and bawling cows as the loading began. Cows are hardly cooperative and this occasion was no exception as the loud voices of men and animals rang out in a great hullabaloo to distrub the dawn.
Cowhandling, however, was the forte of the Steele hands. The trip began with the first light, which saw the tug wheezing into the channel with the tow obediently swinging astern.
Meanwhile, on the faraway ranch, plans had been completed to house to new seaborne guests. Barns had been built, pad-stalls and stanchions stood ready, milk houses waited and great stacks of hay perfumed the air.
But now Steele’s problems began to unfold. A few days before the move, the Tomales workers informed him that they would not leave their beloved Maria. They agreed to load the cows for Steele and then….no more. Milkers were hard to come by. The nearby townspeople had cows of their own and they could not help.
Finally, in desperation, in the grey dawn of that day, a foreman came in from San Francisco with a gang of Chinese men. Few of them had ever seen a cow, let alone milked one. In haste, they had their schooling. They secured a few nearby animals and milking was demonstrated to a ring of serious nodding heads. They picked up the idea quickly. Smiling, nodding, “Plenty savee. Can do.”
Tomales Bay was now behind the barge and the bar made its challenge. It was full tide now and serenly the convoy swept out to open sea. It was a fair day, but ocean is ocean and the cattle stood in seasick misery as the sun glinted whitely on the windswept waves of Point Reyes.
Hours passed with the whistling wind and spray on the wet decks. The old tug had been honestly built. The barge followed closely behind the tug. As they passed Duxburg, all were reminded of the fatal wrecks on that notorious reef, as they watched the breaking reef.
Then came the plunge and tumult of the Potato Patch’s cross seas, and finally the even rollers of the coast south of the Gate. Soon Pigeon Point appeared. The sun was low. They were ready for landing the distressed cargo at last.
Chalky patches on Rattlesnake Mountain marked the Gazos Creek as they neared the shore. The cove below Norman Steele’s home had been reconnoitered. Since there were no rocks, it was a fairly safe landing cove. The little tug crept in towards the shore. It had caught up the barge in brackets and pushed it hard toward the sandy cove. The deeply laden barge grounded a hundred feet from shore, but its heavy load could not be taken any closer to the beach.
The cows were wildly excited as little rollers sloshed along the barge’s sides. A gangway was lowered and the first cows were forced down it. The water was back-deep for the animals and splashed along their sides. The men on board were just as excited with success so near. The rush and crash of the small surf, the smell of land and hay, and the return of miling time all had the cows in a state of wild confusion.
The cows began leaping from the low barge amid the screams of the gulls, shouts of the men and barking of dogs. They streamed ashore, wild-eyed and shaking seawater from their faces.
The Steele boys were born to handle cattle. It must have felt like home to the cows, as they buried their muzzles in their feeding boxes. As they were being milked on new land, even the fingers of Chinese recruits did not seem too strange.
And thus William Steele came to San Mateo County. Other neighbors arrived as dramatically and in many different ways. These years were of high enterprise and a man’s worth was measurable.