Amazing People: The Steeles, the 2-ton cheese & other legends e & Other Tales

[I wrote this in 2003.]

When Colonel Albert S. Evans learned that the Steele Brothers Dair at Ano Nuevo had produced a huge two-ton cheese in the 1860s, the author insisted on meeting Rensselaer Steele, owner of the famous Cascade Dairy Ranch.

The Colonel, who worked for the New York Tribune, often galloped atop his trusty old steed Don Benito to the scene of a news story. He was a rugged, experienced outdoorsman, avid fisherman and hunter, who, for protection against critters–wild or human–carried a Smith and Wesson revolver.

In 1869 it was Colonel Evans’ goal to collect anecdotes for a book that he hoped would illuminate the unique character of the rapidly vanishing “early Californian.” The book would be published as “A La California: Sketches of Life in the Golden State.”

Colonel Evans’ writing adventure began in San Francisco. From there he turned his attention southward to the San Mateo County Coastside–where he visited Pescadero, population 300. Pescadero’s local economy depended on the success of the nearby sawmills, dairies, grain and potato ranches. The lumber, butter, cheese and vegetables were sold at the bustling farmer’s market in San Francisco.

With popular little Pebble Beach a stone’s throw from Pescadero, there was also a growing summer tourist trade.

Around and about Pescadero, no newcomer was ever spared the horrific tales of injuries inflicted by the local grizzly bears and Colonel Evans got his earful.

Evans also became fascinated with the saga of two stubborn local men, each claiming that he was the title of Pescadero’s first settler. Don Salvador Mosquito, reportedly a former member of the Indian outlaw Pomponio’s gang, insisted he came first. His competitor, the Spaniard Senor Felipe Armas, argued that he came first.

While the contentious pair could never resolve their disagreement, Colonel Evans turned out to be the winner–because he walked away with the unique anecdote for his book.

Like all the tourists, Evans boarded at the famous Swanton House. His host was a talkative character called Thompson who had an encyclopedia knowledge of the local shipwrecks, including the Carrier Pigeon, Coya, Hellespont and the Sir John Franklin. More great details for the Colonel’s book.

Thompson was anxious to serve the Colonel as a guide, and he offered to accompany the writer to the Steele’s beautiful Cascade Dairy ranch, named for the stunning 30-foot waterfall on the land.

The day was sunny when Evans and Thompson began the short journey from Pescadero south to Ano Nuevo. Along the way they stopped at renown Pebble Beach, where tourists passed the da rummaging through handfuls of smooth colored stones, seeking the one beautiful enough to be set in gold.

Other tourists were sea bathing. When Evans and Thompson paused at the beautiful beach, they saw a woman who appeared to be playing in the waves a few feet from shore. They also saw a big Newfoundland dog that was breathlessly running back and forth along the shoreline. To the observer, it appeared the dog could be worrying about the woman’s safety.

Thompson knew the dog’s name. “Cona” had already attained local fame for rescuing a little girl in danger of being sucked into the surf by undertow. Cona became a hero, and everybody spoiled him, until one day the glory faded, and the Newfoundland found himself leading an ordinary dog’s life again.

According to local lore, Cona was determined to win back the lost affection. To achieve that, the dog appointed himself Pebble Beach’s unofficial lifeguard, patrolling the shoreline, looking for someone to save–often a bather who wasn’t drowning and sought no help. Some considered the dog’s behavior a public nuisance, and Colonel Evans was witness to the incident where the big dog dragged the unwilling woman bather back to shore.

The “dog hero” story may have been Evans’ best anecdote of all.

On the road between Pescadero and Ano Nuevo, Colonel Evans was delighted to see an abundance of dairies. Thompson advised that the dairies were either owned by the enterprising Steele family or leased from them. The Steeles were famous throughout the Bay Area, their cheese and butter sold in the City–but the milk was too perishable to survive the trip.

Colonel Evans was impressed. He looked forward to meeting Rensselaer (RE) Steele at the Cascade Ranch at Point Ano Nuevo near the San Mateo-Santa Cruz County line.

[Some wondered how it came to be called Ano Nuevo. Punta del Ano Nuevo was named in honor of New Year’s day, 1603, when Sebastian Vizcaino sailed by and his expedition’s diarist and chaplain, Father Antonio de la Ascension, wrote the name on his map.]

By the time Colonel Evans’ horse and carriage trotted up to the entrance of the Cascade Ranch, R.E. Steele had spotted his distinguished guest and walked across the path to greet him warml.

In his book, Evans noted that there were “two fine two-story frame houses on the ranch, a quarter mile apart, which, unlike the majority of homes on this part of the coast, are elegantly furnished, surrounded with shade trees and gardens, and provided with all the comforts of life.”

[R.E. Steele’s cousin, Isaac, lived nearby in a house at the Green Oaks Dairy.]

At the Cascade Ranch, Evans noted the vibrant flowers, the fruit trees, the giant vegetables–all protected from the harsh ocean winds by a solid hedge of cypress trees. In the midst of this sheltered paradise, apple, pear, fig, plum, peach and almond trees dazzled the eye.

R.E. pointed to a prized, sweet smelling apple tree and confirmed that the second year after it wasz planted, he picked two bushels of the finest apples.

A wide variet of vegetables flourished as well. Big-leafed vines crawling along the ground produced plump orange pumpkins, squash and melons. There was even a bed of peanuts that survived the often harsh coastal climate.

Everything seemed to flourish here.

That was true, acknowledged R.E. Steele, but it wasn’t always that way. When he arrived with his cousins in 1862, the locals ridiculed the plan to set up a dairy near desolate Point Ano Nuevo, a place where earlier farmers found little success.

The locals openly discouraged the Steeles from working the land–it was unproductive, they said, predicting the Steeles would be unlucky. The land wasn’t suitable for raising cattle, they warned. Not even rabbits would make their home there.

At that, R.E. laughed heartily, gesturing towards the 1500 healthy cows peacefully grazing and thriving on the native wild oats.

Fortunately R.E. and his cousins, E.W. and Isaac, weren’t discouraged by pessimism. When they came from New York state to open a dairy operation at Point Reyes in Marin County, they heard the same dire predictions from neighbors. The wouldn’t have left Point Reyes, but the property they rented was sold and they moved to Ano Nuevo to start all over again.

The cheese and butter end of the Cascade Dairy business became so profitable that the Steeles planned to expand by opening another dairy at San Luis Obispo.

As Evans and R.E. Steele walked about the farm, they took a tour of the modern three-story redwood dairy building. R.E. pointed to the numerous pantries that held countless vessels filled with milk waiting for the cream to rise. Indeed, thought Colonel Evans, the Steeles were an extraordinary family.

Finally it was time for Evans to ask about the famous two-ton cheese produced during the Civil War, a decade earlier.

“Oh,” R.E. said, “it weighed nearly 4,000 pounds. We auctioned the cheese at the Mechanics Fair in San Francisco and donated the proceeds to the Sanitary Commission for the Union Troops.”

President Lincoln himself received a wedge of the mammoth-sized cheese.

It was no surprise that the Steeles were so generous. Not only were they patriots but relative General Frederick Steele had served in the Union Army.

Evans and Steeles left the dairy building and sat on a wooden bench where they discussed the hazards of life on this rugged part of the South Coast. Just as the Pescaderans had warned the Colonel about grizzlies earlier, R.E. said the wild animals still prowled the nearby redwoods–and from time to time they attacked stock at his ranch.

“The grizzly fears neither man nor beast,” Steele said. “Sometimes hunger or even a bad mood causes one to strike unexpectedly. If a hunter knows anything about surviving a grizzly encounter, he aims his weapon at the bear’s heart, vertebrae or brain. Then he pras that his well-aimed bullet produces the desired result. But nine times out of ten, the first shot merely enrages and further infuriates the grizzly bear.”

The Cascade Dairy was surely one of the highlights of Colonel Evan’s adventures, near the top of the list. And, fortunately, he was spared the confrontation with a grizzly.

Sadly, Colonel Evans did not live to finish the writing of “A La California: Sketches of Life in the Golden State.” He met his final fate when the steamship Missouri burned at sea on its voyage from New York to Havana in 1872. But the friends of Colonel Albert S. Evans made certain that the book was published, completing whatever writing was needed to shore it up.

What once was the location of the Steele’s Cascade Ranch is now part of the spectacular Ano Nuevo Reserve. There is no finer home to marine animals, birds and plants on the entire Coastside.

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