Cover Story - September 9, 2005
Who was Hap Magee?
Colorful character was one chapter in the history of this popular park
by Julie Nostrand
"Who was Hap Magee?" Recent visitors to Hap Magee Ranch Park seemed perplexed by the question although willing to give answers. "A farmer." "A rancher." "A founder of the area." One person ventured, "He was a person, right?" In fact, all the answers are correct, and each covers a small part of Hap Magee's story. Hap Magee Ranch Park is situated on La Gonda Way on the Danville-Alamo border. Its story is long and rich, dating back 150 years. And if the story of Hap Magee Ranch Park were a book, Hap Magee's life and times on the property would be just a chapter. The story of the land begins with its first recorded purchase by August Hemme in 1852, just after California achieved statehood. Hemme, one of the area's earliest settlers, bought 3,000 acres in total extending from Alamo down the flatlands of the San Ramon Valley, according to "Remembering Alamo...and Other Things Along the Way" by local historian Virgie Jones. Jones' book describes Hemme as a man known for his generosity. He gave property to churches and schools, and for many years, he owned the land where the present day park is located. Hemme went into the assaying business but ended up filing for bankruptcy during a depression in the late 1890s. He died in 1904, leaving his estate in control of his holdings. The tale of the land then begins a new chapter, which is now memorialized on a drinking fountain outside the children's playground. The plaque commemorates an act of generosity, reading: "A donation made by Captain Isaac Swain and his wife, Ann Tasker Swain, to the San Francisco Protestant Orphanage Asylum." The Swains, a prominent San Francisco couple, donated money and property to the charity in 1874. Their donation was to go toward the purchase of land for the charity's use. The Swains, who died in the 1880s, according to genealogy records, most likely never visited the land in Alamo, but their kindness made the land's second chapter possible. For 37 years, the charity invested wisely, and in 1911 the San Francisco Orphanage Asylum purchased 17.5 acres of land from the August Hemme Estate, which was detailed in a report in the Walnut Creek Courier-Journal in 1937. The charity spent years making the site a home away from home for disadvantaged youths from San Francisco. News reports of the day indicate that the first buildings at Camp Swain were not completed until 1913. Lore has it that the first campers slept in tents while Neil Harrison, a well-known local builder, finished construction on the earliest structures. The buildings still standing on the parkland were completed between 1923 and 1925. The Magee House and the Swain House originally served as homes for the caretakers of the retreat. Handwritten notes found at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley show that the building now housing the YMCA is the original junior boys dorm, but it has been modified since it was first built. In its former glory days, the camp had many buildings: dorms for boys and girls, a nursing building, a dining hall and even a swimming pool. About 150 children once made the long trek to Alamo from San Francisco and spent 10 weeks in the warm sun of the East Bay each summer. One account says the early attendees of Camp Swain spent their summers harvesting fruit for local farmers. Later news reports state that the kids ages 6-18 had the time of their lives exploring and playing on the Alamo ranch. As with the Hemme era on the land, the Camp Swain chapter comes to a close with another real estate transaction. In 1946, Harry and Juanita Magee, Hap Magee's parents, purchased the 17.5-acre parcel of land from the San Francisco Protestant Orphanage Asylum, according to another book by Virgie Jones, "Historical Persons and Places...in the San Ramon Valley." Newspaper accounts tell that the orphanage continued to operate Camp Swain on the ranch site until 1952. The next year, Hap Magee and his wife Ruth moved to the Alamo ranch after a downturn in the cattle business. Here, the Magee chapter truly begins. Born in 1922, Hap grew up in Piedmont, graduating from Piedmont High School in 1941. Legend has it that at the age of 10, Magee met silent film cowboy Tom Mix, who gave him a pair of gloves made by Native Americans. That gift inspired a lifetime dedicated to collecting and preserving the Old West. By the time Magee and his wife, Ruth, relocated to the Alamo property he was not only an experienced rancher but also an avid collector of Old West memorabilia and a dedicated fan of Texas longhorn cattle. According to multiple news reports of the 1960s and '70s, Magee's herd of longhorns, split between his Alamo ranch and his property in Nevada, was one of the largest herds in the country. At one point, the herd's fame transcended its status as a local novelty: The Hayward Daily Review in May 1976 quoted Magee as saying that his herd had a theatrical agent to handle its numerous commercial and public appearances. In fact, it was not uncommon for Magee to herd a few of his cattle through Danville to the Silver Dollar Banquet Room (now Celia's in the complex behind the Danville Hotel), so the community could see the cattle up close. One story in the local papers said that Magee once rode in a Danville parade with one of his bulls in the back of a black limousine, but photographs of that spectacle are sadly lacking. Despite the attention his cattle garnered, Jones' book and many other sources assert that it was Magee's collection of Western memorabilia and branding irons that made him a local legend. Sources place the size of his brand collection anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500 strong. At one point, the collection included brands from Daniel Inman, Bing Crosby, Beatrice Kay, Safeway Stores and the King Ranch. So famous was his collection of brands and Old West memorabilia, that in 1977, Magee became a trustee for the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City. In his later years, Magee shared his collection of memorabilia with the community by setting up displays to help educate folks on the ways of the West. He would load up trailers and bring the West to the Diablo Bank parking lot for residents to enjoy. Those who knew Magee remember him as an affable guy. Mike Doyle, current mayor of Danville and a resident since the early 1950s, recalled Magee as "a nice fellow who loved this city and community." "He was a real nice guy," remembered author and historian Virgie Jones, who has lived in the area since the '40s and knew the Magee family. Magee, his wife Ruth and their daughter Julie lived on the land until the late 1980s. The Magee chapter of the story ends after his 1985 death in Napa when his wife sold the land to a nonprofit land agency for about $940,000. The agency then sold the land to Danville and Contra Costa County for about $1 million, and a commission was formed to plan and operate the park, beginning the current chapter of the story. The first public meetings on the park began in 1988. For a long time it was an open grassy area and a few buildings, but slowly it has evolved into the popular place it is now. Today, Hap Magee Ranch Park is a wonderful asset to the community. Its children's play area is crowded, the dog park is a popular spot, and the buildings are used to host a number of special events. The current chapter is punctuated by the laughter of children and underscored by the importance of preserving history. If the question ever arises about the identity of Hap Magee, answer confidently that he was a colorful character who played an important role in the community. Given the property's history, it seems fitting that the land is making kids smile once again. The mystery of the brands Help write the ending of a chapter in the history of Hap Magee Ranch Park. We would like to know: What happened to Magee's famous brand collection? The huge assortment of brands is a well-known piece of local lore, but its current location remained elusive to our researcher. News accounts report Ruth Magee stating her intention to donate the collection to a museum in Caliente, Calif., but searches for such a museum were fruitless. An anonymous handwritten note in the museum file suggests the brand collection was donated intact to a museum in Southern Nevada, but searches for the collection in Nevada were dead ends. Does anyone know what happened to Magee's brand collection? Did it remain intact? Was it sold off in pieces? Were brands of significance donated locally? We would welcome any information, to bring closure to this subplot in the history of the Hap Magee Ranch Park. Call 837-8300 or e-mail editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.