PROFILE: Oldest Ranching Family Celebrates 150 Years on the Gaviota Coast
Story by Guner Tautrim and Eric Hvolboll, images courtesy of Orella family archives
Family farmers are an anomaly along the Gaviota Coast – an anachronistic remnant of the past. Of the few ranching families left today on the coastal plain west of Goleta, only a handful date back into the 1800s. The most deep-rooted of these is the Orella family.
Five ranches in the Refugio area are still owned and operated by descendants of Bruno Orella and his wife, Mercedes Gonzales y Guevara.
Bruno Orella was Basque, born in Spain in 1830. After arriving in California during the gold rush era, he worked in the 1850s for the Gonzales family at their cattle ranch on the Oxnard plain, which they had received as a Mexican land grant in 1837. In 1858, Bruno Orella married Mercedes Gonzales y Guevara, the daughter of his employer, Leandro Gonzales.
Mercedes Gonzales y Guevara was born in Santa Barbara in 1841. Her family arrived in Santa Barbara and San Buenaventura in 1782. They were soldiers and settlers in Spain's colonization of California, and included indigenous Cahitan, Mexican, Black, Spanish and mestizo people from what is now Mexico.
One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1866, Bruno and Mercedes Orella moved to the Ortega adobes at the mouth of Corral Canyon between Refugio and El Capitan. The adobes are County Historical Landmarks, and are now owned by ExxonMobil.
Beginning in 1866, the Orellas purchased Refugio Canyon and then Venadito and Corral Canyons from the Ortega family, that had received the ranchos as land grants before the American conquest of California. The Orellas' ranch spread from the Tajiguas ridgeline to El Capitan Canyon, and included Refugio Beach.
The Orellas also maintained an adobe home on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara at the southwest corner of Figueroa Street. The adobe has been remodeled, and is now Aldo's Italian Restaurant.
In the 1880s, Bruno Orella invited three of his nephews from Spain to come to California and seek claims on public lands north of his ranch. All three, Julian Orella, Patricio Alegria and Ramon Saralegui, established ranches in upper Refugio Canyon before 1890.
When Bruno Orella died in 1901, his land was subdivided into 10 ranches for 10 of his children. The ranches produced sheep, cattle and then in the early 1900s, walnuts, lemons, lima beans and tomatoes. Garbanzos and avocados were farmed after 1950.
Over the ensuing century, eight of the 13 Orella family ranches were sold. Five, however, are still owned by Orella descendants.
In upper Refugio Canyon, Frank Alegria and Joyce Saralegui Orsua and their families live on their ancestors' two ranches, which their families have owned for about 130 years.
On the coast just west of El Capitan, the Erburu family, descendants of Juana Orella Erburu, have maintained their ranch overlooking the channel for 150 years.
At the mouth of Venadito Canyon and on the hills overlooking Refugio Beach, Mark Tautrim and his family operate Orella Ranch. In upper Venadito Canyon, Mark Tautrim's aunt, Elizabeth Erro Hvolboll and her family raise avocados on her grandmother Josefa Orella Erro's La Paloma Ranch, with its iconic 114-year-old single-board wooden ranch house. Both ranches date from 1866.
These five families have lived, ranched and farmed on the Gaviota Coast as neighbors and cousins for six and seven generations. While this span of time is very significant in California history, it of course pales to the Chumash people’s occupation of the coast for over 10,000 years. In fact, the historic period since the late 1700s is probably less than 2% of the time the land was occupied by Chumash people. Two of their largest villages, Kuyamu and Mikiw were located on the ocean bluffs at the mouth of Dos Pueblos Canyon. “Dos Pueblos” translates as “two villages” – named for these two villages.
There are a number of interesting historic sites on the coast in addition to the Corral Canyon adobes, including Refugio Cove, which was a prominent smuggling site during the Spanish and Mexican eras, the Vicente Ortega adobe at Arroyo Hondo (1842), Gaviota Pass and pier, built for Hollister/Dibblee cattle shipping (1875), Point Conception Lighthouse (1881), Vista del Mar School (1927) at Alcatraz, the World War II German POW camp (1944) on the Edwards Ranch, and the Pico adobe (1871) atop Refugio Pass – Ronald Reagan’s Western White House during the 1980s. Sadly, other landmarks such as the Den Adobe and the Naples Chapel at Dos Pueblos, as well as the 1916 Gaviota Store, have been lost.
Other families, including the De la Guerra-Dibblee family northwest of Gaviota Pass, the Giorgi family near Las Cruces, and the Dreyfus family in Eagle Canyon, have also operated ranches in the area for over a century.
Local stories and history are recounted in J. J. Hollister’s book, Gaviota Boy, Elizabeth Erro Hvolboll’s book, Mi Refugio, and artist Chris Chapman’s books, Portraits of Gaviota and earlier this year, Stories of Arroyo Hondo.
If you spend enough time on the coast, you’ll undoubtedly meet some of the Orella family or visit their isolated ranch homes. If you’re familiar with the rugged beauty of coast and nearby mountains, you’ll understand why they’ve stayed living there now for 150 years!