Danville Express

Living - April 20, 2007

Presenting the Past: Blackhawk- The name, the ranch, the homes

by Beverly Lane

Today Blackhawk describes a country club in Danville which is celebrating a 25th anniversary in 2007. Both the name and the homes development have been linked to two "Blackhawk Wars," one in 1832 and one in 1974.

Originally the name came from a Sac and Fox Indian warrior of such intelligence and fierceness that the 1832 Black Hawk Indian Wars were named for him. Black Hawk led a war which resisted President Andrew Jackson's policy of relocating Indian tribes west of the Mississippi. The name was then given to a famous horse, called Black Hawk, which the pioneer Easton family brought to California during the 19th century. Their Hillsborough ranch was named for the horse.

Danville's Blackhawk Ranch was established in 1917 when Ansel Mills Easton and his son-in-law William Q. Ward purchased 1,250 acres from Robert N. Burgess, owner of the new Mount Diablo Country Club. Architect Louis Mulgardt designed a spacious showcase house for the families at the ranch where registered Shire workhorses and pure-bred Shorthorn cattle were raised.

When the ranch was sold to Raymond Force in 1934, it was used as a summer home where walnuts, Arabian horses and Hereford cattle were raised. Force enlarged the property by purchasing the adjacent Wilson, Freitas, Sousa, Frick and Goold properties. The Forces moved to the ranch in 1941, and Mrs. Force, an ardent gardener, planned and planted a beautiful garden and grounds. Force also used the land to test new versions of Caterpillar farm equipment and tractors, transporting the experimental vehicles under wraps so they could be tried out in secret.

After Force passed away, Howard Peterson, the owner of Peterson Tractor in San Leandro, bought the ranch. Peterson owned the Two-County Ranch on the boundary of Alameda and Contra Costa counties and had admired the Blackhawk for years.

One Saturday in the '60s Peterson learned the Blackhawk Ranch was available. In the habit of going north from his ranch to get his hair cut in Danville, he recalled that Bill Flett, of Geldermann Realtors, saw him in the barber shop and said to him, "Howard, how'd you like to buy the Blackhawk Ranch? It's up for sale." Peterson said he could hardly wait to get out of the barber chair.

He bought all 6,500 acres of the ranch in 1964, which included 140 acres of walnuts, 500 acres of hay, 1,000 head of beef cattle and seven acres of well-landscaped gardens. One year he sold 103 tons of walnuts to Diamond.

Peterson said he and his wife loved the ranch. They rebuilt the Easton-Ward house to create a beautiful ranch house with large picture windows looking in all directions. When EBMUD was expanding to the valley, Peterson convinced EBMUD that he simply "had a big yard" and the entire ranch went into the water district's service boundary.

Mr. Peterson said he sold Blackhawk because the county re-assessed the ranch as a potential subdivision, raising the taxes to $100,000 a year. He decided not to go into the land development business himself and chose to sell it to one buyer, keeping 300 acres of the home and headquarters. After two years of discussions with Florida developer Ken Behring, a sale of 6,200 acres concluded in 1975.

Behring's Blackhawk Development Corp. envisioned a housing development of 4,800 dwelling units on 4,200 acres, the largest proposal to date in the county. From 1973 to 1976, no development proposal in the Bay Area received more newspaper headlines, with writers happily calling the debates "The Blackhawk Wars."

Charges were made of "leapfrog zoning," urban sprawl and potential destruction of the Mount Diablo foothills over the proposal. Opposition came from environmentalists, local activists and Diablo residents who organized as "Amigos de Diablo."

Overriding their staff recommendations, the Board of Supervisors approved the development for 4,800 homes in 1974. The Amigos collected signatures for a referendum, and a lawsuit was filed. Petition signature-gatherers were harassed as they collected signatures. Blackhawk Attorney Dan Van Voorhis said that his side was "attempting to clarify the situation by putting 'truth squads' on the street."

The referendum did not make it to the ballot and was dismissed by a Superior Court judge for several reasons. Blackhawk Development Corp. in turn sued Amigos members for slander, saying they had "maliciously conspired to delay" the project.

Blackhawk Corp. ultimately reduced the number of houses to 2,400 and dedicated 2,000 acres of open space to Mt. Diablo State Park by 1999. The first homes opened in 1979. More than 40 builders participated in the development, and two 18-hole golf courses, two clubhouses and several sports complexes are part of the gated community today known as Blackhawk. The Wars are no more.

Sources: Museum of the San Ramon Valley archives, Valley Pioneers 1974-9, interviews with Howard Peterson, Sue Watson, Tony Dehaesus

Beverly Lane, a longtime Danville resident, is curator of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley and co-author of "San Ramon Valley: Alamo, Danville, and San Ramon."

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