Moving 500 cows with calves fifty miles
without using any trucks
by Marv Dealy
Driving down Highway 120 early one morning near Rainbow Pools east of Groveland, I was astounded to see a bunch of cattle being driven down the road herded by a number of cowboys straight out of Hollywood central casting, accompanied by a few dogs that were clearly there to help with the work.
I knew there were relics of the gold rush all around, but didn’t know there were still cattle drives going on in this part of the country, and I needed to find out more about this one taking place almost in my back yard.
I found out that what I saw is called the Erickson Family Cattle Drive, and that the drive happens each spring and fall when cattle were moved between grazing areas just to the west of Yosemite Park and an area some fifty miles to the west of the park near Lake Don Pedro.
I was able to sit down with Tim Erickson, grandson of the man who started this family cattle drive tradition years ago, to learn more.
“It all started with Tim Carlon, my grandfather, who was born on Crooks Ranch outside Groveland in 1858, the oldest of seven or eight kids,” Tim told me. “The family would go to Yosemite on vacation in the summer time and in 1872 his dad drowned in the Merced River up there, so my grandfather went to work to help support the family.
“The Carlon family had the ranch Stuart and Steve Crook are on now,” he continued. “Bill and Mary Crook bought the ranch from Jim Phillips family (relatives of the Carlons) about sixty years ago. My grandfather worked in the mines, including, we think, the Mary Harrison Mine in Coulterville. We don’t have documentation to prove that but that’s what people have told us.
“Somehow my grandfather purchased some land and some livestock and he bought Ackerson Meadow from John Ackerson around 1892. Then he bought some land down around Coulterville and La Grange and Snelling. As time went along a lot of people were moving to cities to work in factories because they couldn’t make it on their farms, and some of the property he picked up for the amount of back taxes owed.
“My grandfather would trail the cattle from near Merced Falls to go up as far as Yosemite Creek and White Wolf, which he owned at one time before it was part of Yosemite Park. My uncle Bill Welsh, who died a couple of years ago at 97, told me they’d be moving seven or eight hundred head of cattle and maybe three hundred head of horses on each drive back then. My grandfather would lease the horses to the Park Service for the summer and they’d run the cattle loose in the forest on a grazing permit.“My grandfather had water rights that came out of the middle fork of the Tuolumne and he irrigated Ackerson Meadow and cut hay on it. He lost the water right when San Francisco was building Hetch Hetchy Dam. He had a little slaughter house in Ackerson Meadow. He’d butcher four or five steers a week and take them over to Mather in a wagon for the crew building the dam.
“My grandfather started the cattle drive in the late 1800s. He married my grandmother, Jane Murray, in 1915 or 1916. She was a widower with three children and was pregnant with her fourth when her former husband died. My Uncle Bill was one of those four. After the fourth one was born she met my grandfather. She was from Groveland and she married someone from San Francisco named Welch, a lobbyist in Sacramento.
“She had one more child with my grandfather; my mother, Mazie, who was born in 1917. My grandfather owned the Groveland Hotel at the time and my mother was born in the northwest corner room, on the second story, on December 10, 1917. My uncle Bill would tell me about waiting tables at the Groveland Hotel when he was a little kid there, probably around the late 1920s or 1930s.”
I asked Tim about the route of the cattle drive and he said, “We start at Merced Falls, just northeast of Snelling. We come up Merced Falls road to Highway 132 to Granite Springs Road, up Penon Blanco Road, and cross Highway 49 at Haigh Ranch. We go up Cuneo Road then Ponderosa Way and travel on Hells Hollow Road, which comes out on Highway 120 at Kassabaum Meadow.
“Once we’re at Kassabaum in the spring we split the herd and a portion go to Jawbone and Cherry Valley down through Lumdsen Bridge. The others travel on Highway 120 and turn off at Packer Canyon Road just beyond the Rim of the World and are turned loose in that area toward Pilot Ridge and Crocker Ridge. Some of the cattle go to Drew Meadow and the Middle Fork area. In the fall, we gather the cattle into Ackerson Meadow. We start the fall cattle drive at Ackerson Meadow and end up at Merced Falls where the cattle spend the winter. We drive the cattle 45 or 50 miles in total each way.”
I asked Tim how someone could plan to see the cattle drive. “We start about the tenth of May, give or take five days or so. It’s about the first part of June when we go up Highway 120. During the drive we go on county roads, state highways, some forest service roads, and across ranch country. We keep riders ahead and behind with flags to slow the traffic. People used to drive cattle through Sonora up until the early 1970s, but there’s too much traffic there now.
“We use about ten to fifteen people to drive the cattle; we hire some cowboys, called day workers; they’ve been doing this for years and work for many different ranchers.
“I’m in the third generation of my family making this cattle drive and I have three children, two of whom are interested in ranching and are part of the cattle drive. We have U.S. Forest Service permits that tell us when we can turn the cattle loose and when we’re supposed to be off the grazing lands. It’s such brushy country that it’s hard to get them all off by the end of our permitted time.
“The only technology we use is walkie talkies radios. They help a lot. Otherwise you might have to say I’ll meet you at 3 o’clock at Camp 21 and maybe at 3 o’clock nobody shows up and you wonder what happened. Did they get cattle and track ‘em out a different way? Should I stay? So you stay as long as you can because you don’t like leaving when you say you’re going to meet there. Then you might scratch something on the ground or put an arrow or paper hanging on a tree indicating where you went. Now, with the walkie talkies, we’re much more civilized.
“In the fall we use maybe four or five cowboys to do the round up work and it takes five or six weeks to find most of the cattle.”
I asked Tim if there are similar cattle drives in California, and he said “Yes, but most of them probably aren’t on major highways. We get a lot of people who come through when we’re driving who are tourists who thought cattle drives stopped around the time of the Civil War. Visitors from other countries say ‘Oh, this is the highlight of our trip.’ We try to get along with the tourists and keep traffic moving when we’re going along a highway. Sometimes we have to stop traffic, but we work hard to keep them moving.”
If you’re in the neighborhood, you should see this cattle drive yourself, it’s not something you’ll soon forget.
Rebecca Harvey has produced a calendar with cattle drive images. For more information, call 209 878-3055 or visit www.1photo-op.com