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The rise and fall of the Walker Ranch

Following is a reprint of a 2009 Village Life story

Charismatic frontier women defined Serrano’s predecessor

Most of Serrano was once 2,800-acre Walker family ranch. It rose to prominence early in the century on the backs of colorful western characters that could be torn from the pages of Steinbeck or Stegner, strong-willed men and especially women who made and lost fortunes and families. By 1940 the ranch was lost to creditors.

The youngest member of the last Walker brood to inhabit the ranch is still around to tell the family story. Patricia “Pat” Walker Johnson is an active 81-year old hiker and kayaker, now living on a much smaller ranch in Shingle Springs.

Other Walker women of note include Sarah Tully Wallace, Johnson’s great grandmother, who allegedly refused a marriage proposal from Brigham Young, and later in life knew James Marshall, but spat on his statue. Johnson’s grandmother’s first husband, Anton Russi, built up the ranch but died mysteriously while his wife was falling for his countryman, Frances X. Walker.

At the turn of the last century El Dorado Hills was a sleepy ranch community known as Clarksville, settled by immigrants and former miners, most of which raised cattle or sheep. By the late 1800s the more ambitious had grown original homestead claims through marriage, acquisition or more nefarious means.

Walker was one such man. In a 30 year period surrounding the turn of the last century Walker expanded his holdings to 2,800 acres in Clarksville and 3,500 acres in Blackwood Canyon, south of what is now the Alpine Meadows Ski Area near Tahoe City, filling the pastures with up to 800 head of cattle bearing his brand, the single letter X.

It would take his oldest son Tom Walker a fraction of that time to lose it all.

In an ill-fated attempt to insure that the family ranches would remain vital for future generations, Frank Walker sent his son to business college in Sacramento. Management of the family ranches passed to Tom Walker around 1920.

It was a smooth transition at first, but the underlying economics of cattle ranching eventually unraveled for Tom Walker. With Sacramento beginning its eastward sprawl, Clarksville ranchers began selling their pastures to developers for a handsome profit.

But Tom Walker never realized any of those gains. By the time Alan Lindsey began buying up local ranches in the late 1950’s to create El Dorado Hills, the Walkers had been off their land for over 20 years. A series of misfortunes, many of which remain unexplained, led the Walker ranch into decline earlier, during the late 1930s.

The details of how Tom Walker lost one of the area’s most prominent ranches likely went to the grave with him.

At age 25 Tom Walker was a golden boy, a strikingly handsome, well educated man of means from a prominent family that was well established in both Clarksville and Tahoe City. In 1917 he married Eva Belle Miser, a lovely, petite and apparently frail 16-year old from an equally prominent Shingle Springs ranch family.

Five healthy and precocious children followed over the next dozen years. The couple and their children became active members of the Clarksville community. At its peak, their ranch bordered the Clarksville town site on the south, and spanned the area between what is now El Dorado Hills Boulevard and Bass Lake. To the north it bordered the Dixon ranch.

Tom and Eva Belle Walker’s first child, Marcella, or “Marc” as she was called later in life died recently at 91. Her daughter and grandson, Roberta and Randy Richardson, researched the family genealogy several years before her death. This piece gratefully acknowledges their work.

Pat Walker came along in 1929, the last of the five children. She shared a room with her sister Mazie in the two-story frame ranch house located in what would later become Serrano’s Village Green Park.

Many El Dorado Hills residents recall the Walker barn, which stood beside the Serrano Visitor Center as the last vestige of its namesake ranch before being torn down around 1990.

Today Pat Johnson and her daughter Kathy McPherson have their own barn on Johnson’s five-acre ranch near Ponderosa High School.

McPherson is a life-long equestrian who raises “rescued” wild horses and donkeys, and also works with special needs children through the Ride and Shine therapeutic riding program. She’s also an active weaver who spins her own yarn.

McPherson taught for many years at Buckeye Union School District. Her husband Dan was a principal in the district.

Both of the modern-day “Walker women” enjoy the attention Clarksville and its ranch history has received in the last few years.

Greener pastures
High sierra pastureland was essential for Clarksville ranchers. Cattle could thrive on the area’s native grasses most of the year, but ranchers had to seek “greener pastures” during the dry summer months.

The Walker children have fond memories of summers at the family’s Blackwood Canyon ranch. Each May Tom Walker staged a cattle drive up through Georgetown to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where men and cattle rested for the final push up the Rubicon River through steep Hellhole Canyon, and finally over the summit to the lush pastures east of Lake Tahoe.

Older sister Marc “loved horses and disliked being a girl,” according to family records. The future rodeo queen had to wait until she was nine to take part in the annual cattle drive. Her younger brother was taken along at age five. Marc’s outrage lives on in family genealogy and Pat Johnson’s memory.

“Marci was always strong-willed,” said Johnson. “But she lost that battle.”

In addition to managing the Sierra ranch each summer, old photographs show Tom Walker in front of a butcher shop bearing his name in Tahoe City. He apparently went into business with a member of Clarksville’s Tong family.

Johnson’s mother was born Eva Belle Miser, and attended Buckeye School 70 years before her granddaughter Kathy would teach there.

Johnson was just 18 months old when her mother succumbed to a bad case of pneumonia two days after Christmas in 1930.

Thus began a downward spiral in which Tom Walker would lose his ranch and leave the care of his children to his brother. Family records indicate that Walker was “apparently devastated” by the loss of his wife, and “seemed unable to manage his young family or the family properties.”

The events following Eva Belle Walker’s death at age 30 are unclear, but Tom Walker grew scarce in Clarksville. “Dad just kind of took off, I guess,” surmised Johnson. “He was never around.”

Elder sister Marc, only 12 at the time, stepped up as head of household, and became a mother figure to her younger sisters. “She took good care of us,” recalled Johnson. “When she wanted to go somewhere, she put a pack saddle on one of the mules and put Mazie on one side and me on the other and took us with.”

Tom Walker’s younger brother Gene, a life-long bachelor, soon arrived at the ranch to juggle a father role with his career as a state policeman.

Sister Gertrude was adopted by relatives in Marysville, but the remaining four siblings stayed on at the Walker Ranch and attended school, often unsupervised.

Johnson was five years old in 1934 when her Uncle Gene moved the four remaining Walker children into his Roseville home, thus ending the Walker family history in Clarksville – almost.

Tom Walker remains a shadowy figure at this point in the family story, absent to his family but still involved in the two ranches, apparently making poor decisions.

His children thrive under the care of their older sister and uncle, who manages a transfer to Lake Tahoe each summer, continuing an uninterrupted Walker family tradition of summers at the Sierra ranch.

Two years later Tom Walker reemerges during a picnic at Bass Lake. The remnants of the Walker family reunited with other Clarksville ranch families each year for an annual Mother’s Day gathering at the reservoir.

Johnson remembers a well-outfitted couple pulling up in a big car. “Someone said that man was my father,” she recalled. “I honestly didn’t recognize him.”

Tom Walker had a new wife on his arm. Rose Greiner was a hard-working, no-nonsense woman who owned and personally managed three ranches in Woodland.

Johnson vividly recalls the look of astonishment on Greiner’s face upon meeting her husband’s children. Walker had apparently failed to mention his preexisting family to his new wife.

Following the awkward introductions, Johnson remembers that Greiner regained her composure and insisted on helping raise the children.

The two youngest, Pat and Mazie. were just eight and nine at the time. They soon went to live with their father on Greiner’s Woodland ranch.

Johnson spent the balance of her grade school years in Woodland living under Greiner’s sometimes strict rules. She thrived, doing ranch chores and staying active in school and music. Years later she would inherit one of Greiner’s ranches, and use the proceeds on the Shingle Springs ranch she shares with her daughter’s family.

Johnson attended college at Chico State, where she was named queen of the “Poly Royal,” Cal Poly’s annual two-day western celebration in 1948.

The all-male technical school had a tradition of outsourcing its queen election to a different co-ed college every year. According to newspaper reports, all-American ranch-girl Pat Walker “overwhelmed” her new-found subjects in San Luis Obispo.

In return for the royal treatment she received during campus visits, the university publicity machine got endless interviews for the school newspaper and yearbook, covers for their trade journals and dozens of glamour photos featuring the shapely sophomore.

Johnson posed with a massive bull for the cover of “Hereford Journal.” She cuddled baby chicks for “Pacific Poultryman,” and was a stunning almond orchard sweater girl for “Almond Facts.”

Unlike her prissy predecessors, 1948’s “borrowed sovereign” was a genuine rancher, a fact which endeared the coed to Cal Poly faculty and students. “When they posed me with the sheep and the sheers, I was ready to start sheering,” she said.

Pat Walker was still receiving letters from lonely Cal Poly undergraduates when her father died of cancer in 1949.

Walker descendents disagree about where Tom Walker went wrong, but generally hold that he was never the same after his first wife died. The Great Depression surely played a part.

Tom Walker’s sister, Agnes Walker Shinn told local archeologist and historian Melinda Peak that her brother Tom mismanaged the family ranch and lost it to creditors in the late 1930s. Johnson recalls him being a good rancher in Woodland, but poor with financial matters.

“The Saga of Lake Tahoe,” a comprehensive telling of the region’s history, lays blame on unnamed family who convinced Walker to forego cattle for sheep, resulting in “financial suicide.”

The Walker ranch in Clarksville ended up in the hands of the Faustino Silva family, who only lived there a brief time, but nonetheless got their name on the prominent El Dorado Hills road which borders Serrano.

81 year old kayaker
At 81, Johnson is still clear-eyed and vigorous. She’s the founder and driving force in the Hangtown Hikers, leading weekly day-hikes into the Sierras and several camping trips each year. She’s also an active flat-water kayaker.

Johnson attributes her vigor to hearty frontier genetics, pointing to her colorful ancestors, and also to her remaining siblings, who are all going strong in their 80s.

The story of how the once-prosperous Walker family lost their 2,800-acre Clarksville ranch and its stunning 3,500-acre summer counterpart east of Lake Tahoe has enough intrigue to merit a TV mini-series, or at least an episode of Cold Case.

Powerful progenitors
Tom Walker inherited the family ranch lands from his parents, Francis X. and Maria Louisa Wallace, “Frank” and “Lou.”

But Frank Walker wasn’t Lou’s first husband. She originally married Anton Russi, one of the many Swiss dairymen who populated the Clarksville region following California’s Gold Rush. An 1894 – 1895 Clarksville directory lists Russi as a dairyman with 320 acres. Ranch maps from the era clearly indicate that what became the Walker ranch was once the Russi ranch.

County records indicate that Russi finalized purchased the Clarksville ranch and summer grazing land near Lake Tahoe from William D. Rantz in 1879, five years after his marriage to Lou Wallace. The couple eventually had six children. Many of their descendents are still in the area.

Research done in the 1980s by local archeologist Melinda Peak suggests Russi was already on the land at the time of the purchase. Her records indicate that the ranch was thriving, producing 7,500 pounds of butter and 100 pounds of cheese that year.

In what might have been a fatal mistake, Anton Russi imported Swiss countrymen, including some relatives, to help at the summer ranch near Lake Tahoe. The family referred to these ranch hands as “Swiss milkers,” one of which was Francis X. Walker.

Pat Johnson shared the family’s most sensational rumor. “Grandmother fell in love with Walker and Russi died mysteriously shortly thereafter.”

Kathy McPherson, Johnson’s daughter, adds that family legend holds that Lou Russi may have been responsible for her husband’s demise, “She might have poisoned him,” she said.

A comprehensive telling of the region’s history, “The Saga of Lake Tahoe,” by E.B. Scott, 1957, mentions the incident. “When Russi died suddenly in the 1890s under mysterious circumstances, his widow married Frank X. Walker, a relative of her deceased husband.”

Walker may have been Russi’s cousin, according to family history, which doesn’t mention poison, but acknowledges that “Lou seemed to have a penchant for men from Switzerland.”

The Walkers expanded their holdings through the 1890s and early 1900s. Peak suggests that Walker moved the Clarksville ranch house and dairy operations to their final location at what would become the Serrano Visitors Center following the addition of 466 acres of the adjacent Fitch property in 1894.

Walker family history confirms Lou Walker’s reputation as a colorful, strong-willed frontier woman.

The family genealogy tells of her breaking horses while riding sidesaddle and driving a four-horse hitch over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Pat Johnson recalls a pet monkey in her grandmother house.

The “Saga of Lake Tahoe” continues, “Walker located his living quarters, corrals and milk house on the edge of the meadow where Tamarack Lodge was later built and managed the cattle business successfully for two decades … his stock wandered at will, even roaming the streets of Tahoe City until a county ordinance ended this practice.”

Leontine Miser Wallace
The eccentricity isn’t limited to Tom Walker’s side of the family. Eva Belle Walker’s family, which originally settled near Rancho Murieta, bought ranch land east of Clarksville in the late 1890s that included the Deer Creek Inn, a popular inn and tavern on the Sacramento/Placerville Road near present day Cambridge Road.

In an unusual twist in the family tree, Eva Belle Walker’s mother, Leontine Miser, divorced her husband after 16 years and eight children, and married into another branch of the Walker family tree. Her second husband was Charles Wallace, Lou Wallace/Russi/Walker’s brother.

Charles and Leontine Wallace had extensive ranch holdings in addition to the Deer Creek Inn. A volume of paid, “vanity” biographies written in the 1930s describes Leontine as an immensely popular hostess of the Deer Creek Inn, “a wayside house of public entertainment,” frequented by teamsters and local ranch families.

The popular watering hole had its own colorful past dating back its 1849 founding by “the Destroying Angel of Mormondom,” Orrin Porter Rockwell, the legendarily loyal and fierce personal bodyguard to both Joseph Smith, Jr. and Brigham Young.

According to 1993 research by Peak, Rockwell was in California to collect tithes from California Mormons for the new settlement in the Salt Lake Valley of Utah. He’d previously attempted to assassinate the Governor of Missouri, who signed the 1838 “Extermination Order” decreeing that Mormons be “exterminated or driven from the state.”

Rockwell reportedly returned to Utah after nearly being lynched by miners from Missouri and Illinois harboring a grudge against Mormons in one of the several mining camp saloons he established.

Sarah Tully Wallace
Family lore holds that Lou Wallace/Russi/Walker’s mother was also a charismatic frontier woman. Sarah Tully Wallace was 16, pretty and smart when she crossed the plains from Virginia to California in a covered wagon, according to family genealogy. By her accounts, the family moved on to California after Brigham Young, the founder of the Mormon Church, tried to buy her hand in marriage during a stop in Salt Lake City.

She also claimed to be a direct descendant of Pocahontas, a claim that family genealogists haven’t been able to substantiate. But the famous Indian princess’ son, Thomas Rolfe, had many descendants in Virginia, near where she was born.

El Dorado County historical records list her as the first teacher in Spanish Flat, a mining town established in about 1850. Her granddaughter, Pat’s aunt, Agnes Walker Shinn, taught school in El Dorado County for 40 years, and spoke to The Mountain Democrat about her grandmother’s teaching career in a 1994 profile. “My grandmother was the first school teacher that ever taught in El Dorado County. She started at a shed in Salmon Falls, teaching the miners to count so they wouldn’t get cheated out of their gold.”

Sarah Tully married Thomas Wallace from the adjacent ranch east of Clarksville in 1855, the couple had eight children, including Maria “Lou” Wallace and Charles Wallace.

Sarah outlived her husband by 40 years, during which time she reportedly got to know James Marshall. Her grandson, Jack Wallace told family researchers that Sarah thought Marshall was a lascivious old man who didn’t deserve all the recognition he received.

Family history holds that shortly before her death in 1926 at age 91, Sarah Wallace was invited by Coloma officials to attend the dedication of a large statue honoring Marshall. She reluctantly agreed to attend, but when the speeches were over and the crowd dispersed, Sarah approached that statue and displayed her true feelings. She spat on it.

Walker ranch progeny remembers 1930s Clarksville
Pat Johnson was born Patricia Walker, the youngest of five children on the prosperous Walker Ranch in Clarksville. Despite her mother’s early death and father’s absence, the fit 81-year old has fond memories of Clarksville in the early 1930s.

Her older sister and an uncle filled in as parents, but Johnson recalls the children fending for themselves in most things. “If we were hungry we went out to the garden and picked something and ate it,” she said “If we were thirsty we drank from the creeks. We swam in them too.”

Too young for school, Johnson nonetheless tagged along with her brother and sisters, the ranch being otherwise vacant except for a half-dozen cowboys responsible for the 2,800-acre cattle and dairy spread.

The cowboys also provided a semblance of security at the ranch house. Johnson recalls them hanging around the parlor in the evenings singing songs. “I still know the words to every cowboy song ever written,” she smiled.

Other Clarksville memories include a store, the school and a row of houses, many of which are still standing, she said. Johnson still wonders how the Griggs family, which included several children, fit into their tiny Clarksville home.

Young Albert Griggs gets credit as Johnson’s first boyfriend. After gifting her a necklace made of eucalyptus pods, the older boys taunted him, insisting that he close the deal with a schoolyard kiss. “We went round and round about that,” she mused.

The United School of Clarksville seemed to have a new teacher every year, said Johnson, recalling the awkward cowboy courtship rituals she witnessed in the one-room school.

“Each spring the cowboys come courting,” she said. “They’d show up stammering, hat in hand, wearing their one good shirt.”

The teacher received her visitor in the “ante” room near the door, “while we sat shuffling our feet,” she said. “Many a Clarksville teacher became a ranch wife that way.”

The school doubled as a community center at night and a church on Sunday. It was later moved a couple hundred yards west and converted into the picturesque Tong barn, still visible to the south from Highway 50 along Bass Lake grade.

The Walker barn, which stood in Serrano’s Village Green Park until about 1990, was another local social center. Johnson remembers festive dances and even full rodeos with the local cowboys. “They always said Dad should have run a dance hall instead of a ranch,” said Johnson.

Tom Walker would lose the ranch to creditors in the late 1930s.

She also recalls being warned to steer clear of Bert Fitch’s property, the crumbling remains of which are still visible along Silva Valley Parkway. “If his horses were gone, we’d cut through that way to get to town,” she said.

Fitch was one of Clarksville’s most eccentric residents. He lived in an unusual house, landscaped with exotic trees “and those magnificent rock structures,” she said.

Despite her family’s misfortunes, Johnson contends that the Walker Ranch in Clarksville was an ideal place to grow up. “Everybody took care of each other,” she said. “You couldn’t ask for more.”

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