The 87,000-acre Coe Park is located near Morgan Hill, south of San Jose, in the Diablo Range. The park is the largest in northern California. It began as the Pine Ridge Ranch, a 12,230-acre cattle ranch owned by Henry Willard Coe, Jr., from 1905-1943. Coe’s daughter, Sada Coe Robinson, repurchased the ranch in 1950 and in 1953 donated it in memory of her father to Santa Clara County, with the intention it become a park. She wanted to preserve open space and wilderness for residents of the growing urban Santa Clara County to enjoy.
In 1953 the Henry Willard Coe County Park opened. In 1958 it became a state park. Over time other ranches were added to the park, and it grew from its original 13,000 acres to its current acreage.
Driving through Coe Park, it’s easy to imagine how things were decades ago, when the valley was filled with ranches, fields, and orchards, most of it now housing developments and office parks. Serendipity brought us to the Visitor Center on a day that volunteer historian Teddy Goodrich was onsite. She shared wonderful stories about the Coe family, the ranch, and what the locals did for entertainment back in the day.
“The women were tough,” Goodrich noted, telling a story about Sada taking on trespassers, shotgun in hand.
Ranching was hard work. It incorporated more than keeping tabs on the grazing cows, which was done on horseback. The cattle wandered the hills feasting on grasses until it was time for the ranchers and ranch hands to herd them to the towns of Madrone and Coyote, where the cattle were loaded onto trains bound for the slaughter houses in south San Francisco.
In between, there was endless maintenance on fences and ranch buildings. Ranchers and ranch hands built stock trails, planted grasses such as hardinggrass, baled hay, and fed stock. Branding was done when the calves were two to three months old. It was a big social event. Different ranches had different brands so the cattle could graze together. Branding made it easy to separate the herds when they were driven to market.
Other social events were dances held at local schools and at Madrone Soda Springs. Teddy explained all the ranchers went. They came back in the dark, giving the horses their heads for the return trip. The ranchers and people who worked for them didn’t have money to stay overnight in a hotel.
Ranchers didn’t eat beef because cattle were their cash crop. They hunted deer, squirrels, rabbits, rattlesnakes, and birds, and ate fruit from the abundance of orchards, including apricots and French prunes. Homesteaders grew potatoes. Trips to a general store were rare because of the distance and expense; town was about thirty miles away.
Gardening was tough because water was always an issue. During the rainy winter months there was water in the seasonal creeks and lakes, which could at times overflow. The creeks ran dry in the hot summer months.
Stoves were rare on the ranches. They cooked on hearths and baked in the ashes. Dutch ovens and cast-iron spiders on legs could sit over the coals. Extra coals could be placed on top of a Dutch oven. The Visitor Center has a Dutch oven on display.
Today, it’s not cattle but hikers and campers who enjoy the lyrical, rolling hills and spectacular views of the Santa Clara Valley. Sada Coe Robinson would be pleased: “May these quiet hills bring peace to the souls of those who are seeking.”