Billy Post dies at 88; Big Sur's resident authority
By By Elaine Woo
Aug 02, 2009 | 12:00 AM
In the patch of paradise called Big Sur, Billy Post was the last cowboy. A direct descendant of one of the early settlers of El Sur GrandeEl Sur Grande, the 19th-century name for the coastal wilderness south of Monterey, he herded cows, built roads, trapped bobcats and sold the fur.
When, in 1992, a prime chunk of Post land became the exclusive Post Ranch Inn, he settled in as resident sage and nature guide, charming guests with his tales of Big Sur in the frontier era, when there was no Highway 1 and Monterey was a three-day cattle drive away.
"He was a piece of history . . . a great steward of the land," said Thomas Steinbeck, son of novelist John Steinbeck, whose family has been entwined with the Posts for almost 100 years.
Post, whose great-grandfather was one of Big Sur's first homesteaders, died of cardiac failure July 26 in Monterey, said his daughter, Linda Lee. He was 88.
Of mixed Yankee and Native American heritage, the self-described "smoked Irishman" led guests at the Post Ranch Inn on 90-minute nature walks every day from his early 70s through his mid-80s. When arthritis threatened to end his hikes, Post, dressed in denims and a cowboy hat, rolled across the rugged terrain on an off-road Segway. He named the two-wheeled transporter Buck, after his favorite horse.
When he could no longer handle the Segway, he gave up the walks but not the talks. He installed himself in the resort's restaurant and shared his love of the land over breakfast with anyone who wanted to listen.
He gave his last talk two weeks before his death.
"Billy will really be missed by our community," said Mary Trotter of the Big Sur Historical Society, who knew him for 35 years. "He was," she said, "a symbol of the old days in Big Sur," when survival depended on self-sufficiency, a quality that Post, a jack-of-all-trades, surely inherited.
His great-grandfather was William Brainard Post, a Connecticut emigrant who landed on the shores of Monterey in 1848. He hunted grizzlies, opened a butcher shop and married a Native American of the Costanoan tribe in 1850 before staking 160 acres of land in Big Sur. His son, Joe, eventually expanded the family's holdings to 1,500 acres, which included the land now occupied by the famous Ventana Inn.
One of the Posts' hired hands in the early 1900s was a teenage John Steinbeck, whose letter thanking the family for stagecoach fare back to Salinas is preserved at the inn as one of the earliest samples of his writing.
The fourth generation of Posts began with Billy, who was born Joseph William Post III in a Monterey hospital on Aug. 24, 1920. Growing up on the ranch with his sister, Mary, he rose at 4 a.m. to perform his chores before the hourlong ride to the one-room school in town. He split wood, plowed fields, wrangled horses and raised livestock. To pay for college, he trapped raccoons and sold the pelts.
Aiming to become a veterinarian, he completed two years at UC Davis before World War II intervened. Post served in the Pacific with the Marines and was among the first Americans to see Nagasaki, Japan, after it was bombed.
After the war, he returned to work on the family ranch, where he helped build the Rancho Sierra Mar cafe and campground, now part of the Ventana resort. He raised two daughters on his own after his first marriage, in the 1950s, ended in divorce and made a living for two decades as an electrician for Caltrans.
In 1969, he married Luci Lee, a businesswoman and mother of two. She survives him along with daughters Linda, of Seaside, Calif., Gayle Forster of Marina, Calif., and Rebecca Post of Olympia, Wash.; seven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
A few years after his retirement from Caltrans in 1979, Post was walking through the redwoods with Mike Freed, a San Francisco lawyer who had bought some land from Post for a solar-powered house. Freed proposed that Post join him in building a resort on the ranch. Paying the taxes on the land had become burdensome, so Post agreed to sell 98 acres and become a limited partner in the project. He sealed the deal with a handshake and a shot of Jack Daniel's.
The developers, who also included Myles Williams, a former member of the New Christy Minstrels, agreed that the resort had to be environmentally sensitive, an absolute requirement in development-averse Big Sur. But Post set one other condition: Freed and Williams had to buy him a new tractor so that he could excavate and grade the land himself.
"He was probably on that tractor a good year," Freed said in an interview last week. Post, heading into his 70s, completed all the excavation for the first 30 rooms, cleared land for roads and also helped install the electrical wiring. In the process, only one tree out ofthousandshad to be removed.
The Post Ranch Inn became the first resort to open in Big Sur in two decades. With its organic architecture -- sod roofs, avant-garde treehouses and guest rooms built into the oceanfront bluffs -- and per-night rates ranging into four figures, it quickly earned a reputation as one of the world's top luxury resorts.
At Post's suggestion, each of the rooms is named after a Big Sur settler and has a vintage photo of the individual. Ten rooms added in recent years are named after local pioneer women because, Post said, "they did all the work."
Post launched the nature walks on a meandering path appropriately dubbed Billy's Trail.
Celebrities such as Robert Redford sometimes joined his groups, but what dazzled Post were natural wonders: the "fairy ring" of redwoods deep in the forest, the mountain lion that once tagged along at a respectful distance, the vistas of sea and mountain from 1,200 feet above the Pacific. He identified every tree and flower, demonstrated his immunity to poison oak by chomping on some, and pointed out where he once set trap lines for the raccoons whose skins helped finance his education.
He also shared Native American myths and yarns about the immigrants, cowboys and scalawags who populated Big Sur in the early days. Some of his tales, including one about the supernatural visions that saved his great-grandmother from a wicked storm, inspired Thomas Steinbeck to write his first collection of short stories, "Down to a Soundless Sea" (2002).
"He was a fabulous storyteller because he was very dry. . . . I could have filled three volumes with his stories," Steinbeck said.
Post sometimes wondered what his great-grandfather would have thought of the old homestead today. "In many ways, I'm still a rancher," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune some years ago, "only now I'm cultivating a crop of vacationers."