Rancher Don Wood has a branding iron collection that includes brands from Mission San Jose, Joe Maria Amador, Mariano Castro, Bartolome Pacheco and Antonio Peralta. The ranchos of these early settlers comprised vast acreage so branding was important to mark ownership of cattle. Castro and Pacheco received a grant of more than 8,900 acres and used two different brands so they could graze their livestock together. This, of course, was the point of branding, to mark ownership. Still today, Don Wood told me, hot-iron brands, registered and paid for, are the only accepted proof of ownership in California.
Wood showed me a book called "California Brands 1973," which has 813 pages with about 40 brands on each page. "And there are more now," Wood said. The best brands were the simplest, he explained, although some were quite intricate. The Wood family settled in the valley in 1862. "We ran cattle on the Wood ranch until 1985," Don told me. He still lives on "what's left of the Wood Ranch" near Camino Tassajara.
A man who had brought produce to the adjacent farmers market told Don about his family's cattle ranch back in Mexico, and how it was dwindling. That's because the young men like you don't stick around to help run them, Don chided him.
Barney Robles, who said he grew up on his family's ranch near the Morgan Territory, was also manning the display. Don said at his ranch they funneled the calves into a calf squeeze to hold them still for branding, but Barney did it the old-fashioned way, by roping them. He said he spent his boyhood roping everything in sight - posts, dogs, cats. Once his mother sent him to get a chicken from the barnyard for Sunday dinner and was angry when she saw that he'd roped it. He said he was about 13 when he began to rope the calves and brand them, and his father made him and his five brothers ride bareback so their feet wouldn't get tangled in the stirrups.
Barney worked many years for local character Hap Magee as well as at the Weidemann Ranch. On his days off, he was a volunteer fireman. Hap also branded his horses, Barney said, although that was unusual around here.
George Stegemann and Gary Soto, who also have been around cattle all their lives, were at the branding station, heating the branding irons over a propane stove. People could brand tanned leather, hairy leather or a small wooden rectangle. The hairy leather came from a longhorn steer of Hap Magee's that was found on Stone Valley Road, Barney said, and Hap had given him the hide. "I got tired of tripping over it so I decided to give it to the cause," Barney said.
I hadn't intended to do any branding myself but before I knew it, I was holding a hot iron brand over a piece of hairy leather, helped along by Soto. He told me to "rock" the branding iron but unfortunately I rolled it so my brand turned out a bit blurry as smoke and the smell of burned hair wafted upward. Let's try it again, he said, but I left the second one to him. Voila! A crisp clear brand. Luckily the hairy leather was no longer attached to a calf. I'm sure once is enough for the little 'uns, although I'm told it only hurts for a very short time.
The ranchers had a nice way about them, patiently waiting while children looked over their display, stepping in occasionally to answer questions or help them choose a brand. When I mentioned this to museum curator Beverly Lane, she said that's the way ranchers are - they have good instincts and sense of timing honed from years of gauging nature. They also seemed to enjoy teaching people about ranching; it lives on in other parts of the country but in the San Ramon Valley, it's history.
-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.