Alisal Ranch’s Old Oak Topples Into History : Alisal Ranch’s Old Oak Topples Into History

Times Staff Writer

Debbie Apodaca was putting up decorations in the dining room when she noticed out of the plate glass window that the Alisal Ranch’s old oak was leaning.

As it quickly became apparent that the tree was toppling, she thought it eerie that there seemed to be absolute silence; it was almost as if she was watching a dramatic scene on TV in slow motion, with the volume turned off. Then the oak hit the ground with a crash so loud that she could imagine it reverberating to the farthest reaches of the 10,000-acre ranch.

“It was like the first seconds of an earthquake,” recalled Apodaca, who has worked at the Alisal for five years. “You don’t really know what happened. It takes a while for the meaning to sink in.”


Thus did a historic California resort lose its landmark.

In the first hours after the tree dropped, however, there was little time to ponder the loss, to think of the towering oak as a monument to which settlers had hitched their horses from the time California became a state; or which, in more recent years, served as a huge umbrella sheltering guests as they began the walk to their cabins across the footbridge over the creek.

Smashed a Water Main

The oak came down just short of the bridge, the force sending one of the limbs four feet into the ground, where it smashed a water main.

When Apodaca and other staff members and guests rushed out to assess the damage, the immediate task was to make sure that no one had been caught underneath the branches. But they found there was one good consequence to the winter storm--after a couple of days of rain and strong winds, no one had been outside that afternoon; there were no casualties. Next to take care of was the water gushing from a broken main, which was creating a small lake on the lawn.

It was not until the following morning that the emotional fallout began to settle. Employees stood looking at the rubble, shaking their heads. Several women drove over from town and gathered keepsake branches and sobbed, “My daughter was married under there.”

The backhoe operator, called in to help clear the mess, understood how they felt; he had been one of the last people for whom the tree served as a wedding chapel.

Needed Biggest Equipment

Even the crusty wranglers stopped by to pay their respects, in the process reviving the debate over whether Flying Ebony, the 1925 Kentucky Derby winner raised at the ranch, had been buried by the oak.

Then came the truck with Kirk Meloling, the woodsman who regularly provides the firewood that keeps smoke coming out of the chimneys of the Alisal’s 66 suites all year.

“They had called me and said, ‘The big one came down,’ so I brought my biggest equipment. I knew it would be the biggest tree I’d ever worked with,” Meloling said.

“But I saw these women crying and I decided there certainly had to be something better to do with it than use it as firewood. There had to be a way to commemorate its existence.”

-- -- --

The Alisal was part of an 1843 land grant issued to a son of Jose Raimundo Carrillo, who had assisted Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola in his 1769 march up the California coast. The rolling fields soon were used to raise cattle, an enterprise that has never ceased to provide much of the livelihood of the property.

When subsequent owners decided to open the ranch to a few dozen guests in 1946, the idea was that the same cowboys who tended the herds would guide the paying visitors in their spare time; the practice remains the same today, when there may be as many as 200 guests and 2,000 head of cattle.

Although just a couple of miles down the road from the more than a little bit touristy “Danish” town of Solvang, the Alisal seems a world away from that crowded cluster of pastry shops, antique stores and mainstream motels. There is no neon to block out the stars, nor TVs or phones in the rooms to disrupt the crackling of the fireplace.

Of course, with rates of $185 or $235 a night (two meals included, but riding, golf and tennis extra on weekends and in the summer), it’s not exactly like “roughing it.”

Each accommodation includes a bedroom, living room and two baths. Indeed, the guest list is likely to include a familiar face or two and a family that brings along the maid to look after the kids.

It is the beauty of the surroundings, however, that makes it understandable why so many People magazine-type personalities have plunked down millions for ranches around the Santa Ynez Valley, or why President Reagan returns so frequently to his retreat, often described as being in Santa Barbara, but which really adjoins the Alisal’s southeast boundary.

Reagan’s ranch sits 2,200 feet high atop the Santa Ynez Mountains, which separate the valley from the ocean. Cattle, horses and deer are the most visible wildlife--the deer wander down to feed on the golf course fairways in the late afternoon--but riders also may come across the tracks of bear and mountain lion on the hills.

Also the trees. Los Padres National Forest covers the mountains and sneaks down into the foothills. The hillside pastures--green in the winter and golden dry in summer--are dotted with live oaks, looking like creatures from a child’s nightmare with their gnarled, twisted limbs, many draped with moss.

Dominant Tree

There are sycamores as well, including a row of the tall shade trees on each side of the entrance road into the ranch. Alisal means clump of sycamores in Spanish, but there is no dispute that the landmark oak had long established itself as the dominant tree on the ranch.

It was about 70 feet tall, with the branches spreading almost that wide. When Meloling surveyed the tree, he found that the trunk was 18 feet around, and a count of the growth rings placed it somewhere between 275 and 340 years old.

A slice through one section of trunk also revealed several rings of another variety--metal ones attached to stakes, which had been driven into the wood to hold horses’ reins. Most had long since been covered by new growth, and their position deep in the trunk indicated that some had been pounded into place more than a century ago.

But its location, as much as the size or age, explained why the tree became the model for the oak drawn as the Alisal’s logo and why it was the favorite object for guests to photograph.

In the flats at the entrance to what had always been the ranch’s living area, the tree was at one end of an oval lawn. From the other end you could take a picture of the oak silhouetted against the mountains, with the footbridge under the branches and a corral just off to the right--a picture pretty much summing up the place.

Poking Around

Bill Nicholas, one of the wranglers who helped open the Alisal to the public 42 years ago, said he had been poking around the foot of the tree with a visitor not long before the fateful storm, looking for a plaque:

“We had this horse raised here, Kentucky Derby winner, that even when I came here no one knew quite where he was buried. But they had this, what do you call it, bas-relief” (which he pronounced “base,” as in first base) “of him in some stone at the base of that tree. It had gotten grown over, but two weeks before the tree comes down, this guy from the Kentucky Derby Museum comes around and wants to know where the horse is buried.

“Well, I’ve heard over the years that it’s under the tree, between the tree and the office and that he’s buried under the corral. But you know what they say about history: ‘History is whatever two people agree to.’ So I go to Jake (Copass, another old wrangler) and say, ‘Let’s tell this guy the horse is under the tree.’

“The guy comes and I show him the spot. Then he goes over to Jake and Jake says: ‘Well, people have always told me that when you’re riding around the corral, you’re riding on top of Flying Ebony.’

“So,” Nicholas lamented, “it was all ruined.”

Official Storyteller

Nicholas still is among about a dozen wranglers who guide groups along the ranch’s miles of trails, and he is the official storyteller of the group. At the midpoint of the Saturday morning breakfast ride, the busiest of the week, he entertains the assemblage in a clearing in the woods as they finish their eggs, potatoes, pancakes and Canadian bacon.

He twirls his rope, recites some local history, sings the cowboy’s confessional ‘bout how he got his education “Out Behind the Barn,” then satisfies the curious by pointing in various directions and telling them where they might find the ranches of, say, John Travolta, Jimmy Connors or Bo Derek.

And there’s a mandatory caution that if you take your mount three-quarters of a mile up the hill thataway, the men you meet on horseback are likely to be Secret Service agents.

One can imagine that, given his storytelling bent, wrangler Bill may someday have visitors speculating whether a little white lie brought the oak down. But he’s not yet ready for such a yarn. “No,” he said, “just some big winds and a mightly old tree.”

-- -- --

It was a great relief that no one found the bones of Flying Ebony when workmen dug about the tree as they began getting the Alisal back to normal. The trunk and limbs would have to be removed, the ground repaired and decisions made: What to do with the spot? What to do with the tree?

“It’s not feasible to put another oak tree there,” Rick Graham, the ranch assistant manager who is in charge of day-to-day operations, said. “You just can’t replace it.”

“Our thinking now is we’ll probably put a rose garden there, or a gazebo,” he said, still mulling the matter.

One advantage of a gazebo is that it might become a new place for people to be married. Nevertheless, Apodaca, who is Graham’s assistant, plans to call several families that had already made reservations for weddings under the tree this summer to let them know the news and give them the option of canceling.

As for the fallen timber: “When a tree comes down on the ranch we usually use it for firewood,” Graham said. “But in this case, a couple of places in Santa Barbara wanted parts of it. And one of our woodcutters had some ideas.”

Meloling was determined that there be a memorial of some sort. Thirty-five now, he has been working around the woods of the valley since he got out of high school. “I told them I’d donate my work,” he said.

Museums Want Pieces

His first task will be to cut the cross-sections requested by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

Then there’s the matter of the horse: “We’re going to cut the plaque out, then put it on a platform with maybe a picture of the tree. I’d like to see it go right there where it fell,” Meloling said.

Then there’s the bulk of the trunk, now being stored literally out behind the barn, where it is fenced off to prevent tampering while the wood is allowed to cure in the sun, a process that could take a year.

“There are some good qualities to that wood,” he said. “There’s some nice furniture to be realized if it’s worked right. I’ll make fireplace mantles or whatever they want--tables, chairs.”

“All of this would justify its existence,” said the man who saw the women cry, then searched the oak for metal hitching posts, each a link to a different generation of cowboys. “It would be a shame to see it all go up in smoke.”

For reservations, contact the Alisal Ranch, 1054 Alisal Road, Solvang, Calif. 93463, phone (805) 688-6411.