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A Brief History of Blue Oak Ranch Reserve

The first recorded inhabitants of what is now the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve were Werwersen Ohlone Indians, who were resident for at least part of the year. According to Santa Clara County Parks historian Ron Bricmont the largest settlement was to the south, in Hall’s Valley. Rob Edwards (1984) reported evidence of a large village site in the flats south of where the barn now stands. There is further evidence of habitation in the middens at West Pond, the spring east of Gramps’ Pond, and the confluence of Village Creek and North Creek. Bedrock mortars exist on the west side of the ranch, south of West Pond, and on the east side north of the Sawtooth.

The present-day Blue Oak Ranch Reserve occupies what was a portion of a large former Mexican land grant called Rancho Canada de Pala. The grant was approximately 16,000 acres and included the Blue Oak property, most of what is now Joseph Grant County Park, and other small holdings. (The origin of the name Canada de Pala is the subject of debate. The word pala translates as “shovel” in Spanish, but means “water, in many Native Californian dialects. Two chieftains by the name of Pala were known to early Spanish missionaries in California; the land grant may have been named for one of them.)

Jose de Jesus Bernal, a Mexican citizen, became the Rancho Canada de Pala grantee on 9 August, 1839 (Gudde, 1960) and inhabited the land for many years, building a house and raising cattle and horses. Benal maintained his title to the land right through the period when the United States wrested Califonia from Mexico in 1846. When the U.S. government passed the Federal Land Act of 1851, which required all landowners to file claims or lose their rights to land grants deeded under the former Mexican government, Bernal pursued his claim. Legal fees and court costs from fighting other settlers’ claims on the land plied up, eroding Bemal’s finances and plunging him into debt. As so many grantees were forced to do, he began selling parcels to pay his legal fees. A very large parcel was deeded to Benal’s attorney, Frederick Hall, to pay for processing his claim. (Hall went on to acquire large holdings in Rancho Canada de Pala, and eventually built Mt. Hamilton Road.)

Benal won his claim to the property in 1868, but his holdings had shrunk considerably in the process; between 1850 and 1880 as many as six different families raised cattle and subsistence-fanned the area now known as the Blue Oak Ranch. The foundation of the Guerraz family home is still visible near the Windmill Gate. The cabin built by Amos White, who purchased land from Bernal in 1859, still stands today. Joseph D. Grant, son of a wealthy San Francisco merchant, began buying most of the land in the area, and by 1900 owned most of what had been the Rancho Canada de Pala land grant, as well as other, contiguous lands. Grant used the property for grazing cattle, recreating, and hunting game. He also offered his deer-hunting cabin (which was located near the Sawtooth above Deer Creek) and the White cabin to friends such as Leland Stanford and Herbert Hoover. (Hoover stayed in the deer-hunting cabin for more than a month after his election loss to Franklin Roosevelt [Ron Briemont, pers. comm.].)

Joseph D. Grant died in 1942 . In the years after his death, his heirs sold off about half of his land (Ron Bricmont, pers. comm.). When his last remaining heir (daughter Josephine Grant McCreary) died in 1972, she bequeathed what remained of the land to the Save the Redwoods League and the Menninger Foundation of Kansas. Santa Clara County purchased the land in 1975, and created Joseph D. Grant County Park. The park currently occupies 9,522 acres, the northern boundary of which is contiguous with BORR.

From about 1940 to 1960 the lands now constituting the ranch were held by a few families engaged in livestock raising and subsistence farming. In the 1960s the lands were purchased by the MacDonald Land Company and consolidated into what is now known as the Blue Oak Ranch. MacDonald raised cattle until 1972, when the Rancho Pilon’s Ownership Group bought the land with plans to convert it to vineyards, complete with their own reservoir system and hydroelectric power plant. Rancho Pilon’s plans were dashed by the property’s location on the Calaveras fault (some reservoirs had been planned to sit right on the fault), and by mitigation requirements to relocate proposed reservoirs that would have inundated archeological sites. In 1990, Rancho Pilon’s sold the land to the Blue Oak Trust.

The Blue Oak Trust entered into a conservation easement agreement in 2000, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, California Field Office’s campaign to acquire open space for conservation in the Mount Hamilton Range. The campaign, now in its 10th year, is working towards protecting as open space up to 500,000 acres in the 1.2 million acre region surrounding Mt. Hamilton. To date they have purchased land and/or acquired the development rights for more than 100,000 acres. The conservation easement on BORR restricts new development to a 10 acre area, and permits only wilderness compatible activities on the majority of the Ranch.

On December 1, 2007 the Blue Oak Ranch trust transferred their ownership of the Ranch and buildings to the Regents of the University of California, for the purpose of creating the 36th reserve in the Universities’ world renowned Natural Reserve System. The University accepted the terms of the Conservation Easement, with minor clarification, and entered into an open space agreement with the County of Santa Clara. An anonymous donor provided start up funds and a generous endowment gift that will ensure the NRS will be able to indefinitely operate Blue Oak Ranch Reserve