50th anniversary: Colorful characters highlight Cameron Park’s story
“You’re looking at the best investment you can make, a piece of California.”
That proclamation, lifted off a 1960s era sales brochure for Cameron Park, sums up the promise of a series of visionary entrepreneurs who each contributed to creating “a special place to live” perched “1,200 feet above the smog and fog,” between the state capital and the Sierra.
This year Cameron Park celebrates its 50th birthday.
Legions of hard-working salesmen and women leaned over Sacramento and Bay Area kitchen tables in the 1960s and 1970s, pitching the promise of Cameron Park. Prequalified by hours of hard work at the kitchen table, many bought lots on their first visit.
Busy Cameron Park real estate veteran John Pearson, now 80, helped make Cameron Park a reality. He spent his best years hiring, training and motivating real estate sales teams to deliver the promise.
Seated in the Cameron Park Country Club, he boasted a three-year consecutive close streak between 1966 and 1968, during which time, “If they showed up, they bought.”
But there were plenty of down times along the way. Fortunes were won and lost on the hard scrabble ranchland east of Sacramento in the 1960s where a few colorful men envisioned homes, schools, a golf course and why not an airport? When you start from scratch, anything’s possible.
None of the early developers was more flamboyant than Robert “Larry” Cameron, a world champion saddle bronc rider from Canada known as “Calgary Red” on the rodeo circuit. Bronc riders have notoriously short careers, but Cameron stretched his time in the saddle as a trick rider for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Wild West show.
Cameron found himself selling Cadillacs in San Francisco after the crash of ’29, and won the Sacramento Pontiac dealership in 1936. During the next 26 years “I sold more Pontiacs than anyone in the world,” he told former Mountain Democrat reporter Ursula Smith in 1979.
After developing Cameron Ranch in Carmichael, he bought and lost two ranches to eminent domain, one to the Sacramento Metropolitan Airport and one to American River College, according to newspaper accounts.
In the 1950s he purchased 5,700 acres of ranchland in what came to be known as Cameron Park. The ranches produced award-winning Angus cattle.
Pearson recalled Cameron as a “hale fellow well met,” a shrewd businessman and well-connected everyman with big name friends in boxing and movies, a dynamic promoter with red hair to match a fiery personality.
Cameron’s wife Ruth was equally charismatic. A former high-fashion model who grew up in Paris café society, she remained active in the arts and various charities until her death in 2008.
Pearson recalls when Larry Cameron began selling five-acre lots south of Highway 50 to investors in the early 1960s.
In 1962 he broke ground on the country club. The Mountain Democrat reported that the grand opening was attended by boxers Jack Dempsey and Max Baer.
Sales of residential lots between Fairway Drive and Cameron Park Drive also began in 1962, with premium lots in what became known as the “pocket area” along Royal Drive released next.
Those early lots went for $2,000 to $3,000, said Pearson. Golf course lots were more dear: $5,000 to $10,000.
The golf course opened in spring of 1964, but not where Cameron had originally planned it, said Pearson. The golf course was to be located south of what became Burke’s Junction but a dam located along Deer Creek near the first hole would have flooded the entire valley, creating a large lake.
Pearson sold real estate for California Land and Home on evenings on weekends. Later in 1964 he helped owners Tom Check and Bill Weaver open a Cameron Park office, an “A frame kit that I pounded nails on,” he said.
Located at the current Food 4 Less site, the steep-roofed A-frame was moved numerous times, sometimes in the dead of night, and is now located on Country Club Drive at Cameron Park Drive, a freeway-visible location which houses a chiropractor.
Over the course of a 47-and-counting year real estate career, Pearson became adept at surviving downturns, perhaps because he unknowingly entered the field in the midst of the first recession that had a significant impact on the local real estate market — a mid-1960s downturn that lasted until 1968 and eventually proved Cameron’s undoing.
After rolling through the early 1960s, Cameron issued bonds to fund street, water and sewer improvements for much of the rest of Cameron Park. When sales slowed in the mid-1960s he couldn’t keep up with the bond payments and lost his dream, said Pearson.
Cameron and his wife Ruth retired to Rescue. He died in 1992.
Dorado Estates, led by charismatic front-man Ray Henderson, bought Cameron’s dream in 1965 at a bargain price, according to Pearson. Henderson also bought the A-frame from Check and Weaver, hiring all but two of their sales people.
Pearson stayed on at California Land and Home as general manager and began rebuilding his sales force with former Aerojet engineers who had no trouble grasping the nuances of his “kitchen table close” technique.
He also branched out, working with local builders and developers, many with more ideas than money. He recalls numerous deals with both Tony Gastaldi and Ken Wilkinson, who bought large tracks and successfully split them into smaller parcels.
Pearson grew his sales force to 33 by 1969. Henderson had also expanded in the recovering economy, opening remote offices near airports in San Carlos, the East Bay and Sacramento, but continued to struggle with growing pains, distractions and those steep bond payments, said Pearson.
In a meeting that Pearson recalls for its “B movie” qualities, Henderson sent sales director Finn Vaughn to recruit Pearson to Dorado Estates. Vaughn slid a blank check across the table to Pearson and told him fill in any number he wanted. Pearson accepted the offer but won’t say what he wrote on the check.
The airport opened in late 1967. Pearson was a pilot and spent much of his work week in the air, flying from office to office.
The economy began to turn around, and a young pilot named Daniel Wildman came on board in the San Carlos office. Schooled in Pearson’s “kitchen table” close, he recalled his prospects’ reaction upon seeing the lush foothill oasis called Cameron Park first from the air, then from the fairway.
“John kept a Land Cruiser at the airport for us,” Wildman said. “I’d fly them in then drive them from the airpark to the country club. They were always impressed.”
Wildman, who now lives in Cameron Park, said his competitors at the time pitched swamp land in Florida and desert lots in eastern Oregon.
“It wasn’t hard to see the investment here,” he said. “If they liked horses, I pointed them south of the freeway. If they liked boating I’d take them to Folsom Lake.”
The on-site close included easy-to-digest financing. Most of Wildman’s prospects signed on the spot.
The good times lasted until the early 1970s, when another recession struck. By then, Henderson had a new pile of debt with the First Mortgage Investment Company in Miami, Florida.
News stories of the day took differing approaches to what happened next. A national publication reported that FMI created a shady holding company in 1972 to hide $15 million in losses incurred by foreclosing on Henderson. Local reports state that Henderson and Richie sold their interest to the World Land and Investment Company, a division of FMI.
Pearson’s not sure which version is correct but recalls Henderson as “a guy who could sell ice to Eskimos” and his partner Jack Richie “an even better negotiator” returning from Miami satisfied.
The Henderson era was over. He went on to develop Rancho Murrieta.
Dorado Estates continued on as FMI’s development arm, selling prebuilt homes in addition to lots.Its first CEO was John Dyer, followed by Dick Smith, who became the face of the project, serving as CEO under close FMI scrutiny from 1973 to 1975. He’d previously managed Cameron Park’s Red Coach Inn and later ran the Dorado Estates Sacramento office.
“When the wheels came off and we all got fired, he was able to slash overhead and keep FMI happy,” said Pearson.
Under Smith’s stewardship, Dorado Estates built and sold model homes throughout Cameron Park with a sales force working out of a model village located on Heights Drive.
Smith is credited with convincing his friend Sam Gordon, the “Hof Brau King of Sacramento,” to purchase the aging Red Coach Inn.
Gordon had recently sold most his Hof Braus to Denny’s, and brought both know-how and capital to Cameron Park, opening the iconic Gay Nineties themed “Sam’s Town” on the site in 1968, thus resurrecting Henderson’s original vision for a western-themed commercial project called “The Stockade” south of Highway 50.
Sam’s Town was a brilliantly conceived roadside attraction with just the right combination of food, booze, games and shtick. It became a destination stop for a pre-air conditioned generation of Bay Area families.
Jerry Burke, a sales trainer for Henderson in the early 1970s, picked up adjacent land a few years later and built his own, less ostentatious western-themed commercial project, Burke’s Junction.
By 1977 FMI management decided they wanted out of Cameron Park, and announced an auction of the remaining 500 developed lots and 700 acres of raw land.
The broker who sold the most lots would get rights to the high-profile A-frame.
Ken Cook, a young vice president for Sacramento-based Kiernan Realtors, put together an impromptu partnership that included his mother, Cameron Park Realtor Barbara Cook, fellow Realtor Sue Cox, Pearson and others to bid on the lots.
“We wanted that A-frame,” said Barbara Cook from her Cameron Park home.
They won, paying as little as $2,000 for residential lots, $4,000 for prime lots and airpark runway lots as low as $10,000, she said.
Most of the lots went back on the market the next day.
Dick Smith and Sacramento lumber store magnate Lloyd Gabbert also bid, and won the purchase of all the unimproved acreage, much of which was along Cameron Park Drive. They also got the golf academy. See story, page 11.
Through all the fortunes won and lost Cameron Park continued to grow, and is now largely built out. But the story isn’t over. A new group of visionaries, working with the Community Services District, is working to create a “downtown” in Cameron Park, and stands committed to ensuring that the catch phrase coined by Evelyn Pearson in the early 1970s, “a special place to live,” remains true.