As we drove up to the old Hunewill Ranch House near Bridgeport, California, we passed a large rock on our right inscribed with the message "Welcome Home." This was our first inkling that the Circle H Guest Ranch might be more than a well-maintained ranch in a picturesque setting surrounded by cattle and horses. We discovered later that guests, wearing huge grins, return to this ranch year after year. They leave misty-eyed, dabbing away tears.
A Bit of History
The 4,500-acre Hunewill Ranch was founded in 1861 by Napoleon Bonaparte Hunewill and his wife, Esther. Napoleon Bonaparte Hunewill's ancestors were French Huguenots from Alsace-Lorraine. Bonaparte's father was in the War of 1812, and his grandfather served under George Washington in the Revolutionary War. Known as N.B., Bonaparte grew up on a farm in Maine, where he learned blacksmithing, and how to build stone walls and fences.
In 1852, N.B. ventured west to seek his fortune by mining for gold. It took him six months to sail from Maine and around South America's treacherous Cape Horn until finally landing in San Francisco. After six years of placer-mining (that is, mining free gold, rather than lode deposits) on the Yuba River, he amassed a sizable fortune in gold nuggets and dust.
N.B. then returned to Maine to visit his family. During this visit, he fell in love with Esther, a local girl, and married her. He and Esther journeyed back to San Francisco, this time crossing the Isthmus of Panama, which took three months.
South of San Francisco, N.B. and his brother-in-law successfully operated a sawmill in Woodside. During this time, N.B. and Esther had their only child, Frank. When floods destroyed the mill in 1861, N.B. took his family east over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the mining town of Aurora.
There, N.B. observed a need for lumber. He found a promising location around Buckeye and Robinson Canyons. By 1862, he'd built a house, filed for water rights, and begun operating two sawmills. Lumber was hauled to the flourishing town of Bodie on massive log wagons, each pulled by 16 oxen.
In 1872, N.B. bought meadowland to graze his oxen; he also acquired some cattle. The cattle were branded with the letter "H," which eventually became known as the Circle H brand.
In 1880, N.B. built the present-day Hunewill Victorian-style ranch house. He hauled granite rocks from the nearby foothills to build the cellar and two-foot-high foundation. Bricks for the two chimneys came from a brick kiln in Bodie, now a famous ghost town. The interior wood and furniture were shipped from San Francisco. He built a beautiful, gracious home designed to last a long time. And it has.
In 1883, N.B. and Esther's son, Frank, married a young woman named Alice. Alice and Frank had four children, one of whom died in infancy. Both N.B. and Esther loved Alice very much. Because Alice enjoyed music, N.B. surprised her with a Steinway piano that he bought from a mining engineer. This beautiful piano is still in the house today.
This underlying thread of respect, acceptance, and welcoming spirit is alive and well in the sixth generation of today's Hunewill family.
Frank and Alice's son Stanley was the first Hunewill cowboy. Stanley Hunewill loved the ranch and cowboy way of life. In 1928, he married a schoolteacher named Lenore. During the depression years, cattle prices were very low. It was during this time, at Lenore's urging, the couple decided to try guest ranching along with their working cattle business. It was a successful venture. Lenore handled the guest-ranch business; Stanley worked the stock. Their son, Stan, was born in 1934.
When his mother Lenore died in her early 90s, Stan found official land-grant papers in a box under her bed. Land grants were issued to the Hunewills from Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harris, and Grover Cleveland. We sat next to Stan in his office as he showed us these papers. It was an eerie feeling looking at the signatures of long-dead presidents.
The Hunewill Magic
Today, the sixth generation of Hunewills live and work on Hunewill Ranch, which is situated at 6,500 feet elevation in Bridgeport Valley, Mono County, California. Mono County is located east of San Francisco, near Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The old Victorian-style ranch house is surrounded by Lombardy poplar trees planted by N.B. in 1880. The house is framed by irrigated grassy meadows, and beyond that, by towering mountain ranges. The majestic mountains of the Eastern Sierras, including the glistening peaks that mark the boundary of Yosemite National Park, circle the ranch in silent repose.
Remnants of the past intermingle with present times. For instance, the barn is a fine example of old-time craftsmanship. The lumber was logged by N.B. from Buckeye Canyon and was delivered by an oxen-drawn lumber wagon. It was constructed with pegs, not nails. As we gazed around the dim interior, we noticed a family of owls sheltered in the cool recesses of shadowy beams.
Much to our delight, one of N.B.'s ox carts was displayed on ranch property. The cart's huge wheels are actually made from cross sections of large Jeffrey pine trees. We saw how tough those times must have been for both man and beast!
The present-day Hunewill family is headed by Stan and Jan Hunewill, who have three married children and six grandchildren. Stan Hunewill met his wife, Jan, 50 years ago when he was working on the ranch and she was a guest. Stan and Jan are described by both guests and employees as the "greatest people on earth!"
We spent a number of days with the Hunewills and succumbed to their magic. Kindness, respect, patience, work ethic, and a sense of humor prevail. Guests and employees are treated like family. Being with Stan and Jan Hunewill is like being in a real-life Bonanza setting on the Ponderosa with Ben Cartwright and his three sons.
Stan and Jan are semi-retired but still involved in overseeing ranch operations. We spent quite a bit of time with Stan. He has a gentle sense of humor, blue eyes that twinkle when he smiles, and the ability to make you feel right at home.
The Hunewill's three children, their spouses, and some of the grandchildren help in day-to-day ranch management. Son Jeff is involved in holistic ranch management; his wife, Denise, is ranch bookkeeper.
Daughter Megan and her husband, Justin, are head wranglers. They also run herd on three beautiful children! The youngest child, Aspen, was wearing a diaper and didn't say much, but she roped her little heart out as she threw loop after loop at a plastic steer head.
And last, but certainly not least, is Betsy and her husband, Jon Elliot. Betsy manages the office with smiles and efficiency. She also entertains guests around the campfire with sing-a-longs and dances on talent night. Denice Elliot, Jon's sister, is responsible for the delicious, homemade pies and baked goods. We'll happily attest to the fact that her chocolate-chip cookies are superb!
Riding the Ranch
Today's trail-riding guests can choose from several ranch packages, including the Memorial Day Weekend Package, Spring Cattle Work, the Horse Lover's Package, the Buckeye Canyon Roundup, the Autumn Getaway Weekend, and the Annual Hunewill Ranch Cattle Drive.
You'll find myriad opportunities for safe riding. You can herd cattle, ride in the meadows and mountains, splash through water on hot days, ride slowly, ride swiftly, or not ride at all.
One guest, Sue Hovey, told us her husband was reluctant to ride, because he had no experience. But after taking lessons at the ranch, he now loves it. He happily told his wife, "This is something we can do until we get really old!"
Sue went on to tell us how the Hunewills match people with appropriate horses, and treat each guest with kindness and respect while teaching horsemanship. Sue's animated voice and shining eyes emphasized the enthusiasm of her words.
The Annual Hunewill Ranch Cattle Drive in November is for serious intermediate-to-advanced riders. It involves moving 600 to 750 cattle 60 miles from Bridgeport, California, to Smith Valley, Nevada. It was on this drive that Cupid launched a successful attack on two guests, Kay and Fred, who've been happily married for many years now.
Guests are encouraged to tell the wranglers the length, difficulty, and type of ride they're interested in. No boring, nose-to-tail, stay-in-line rides here!
Hunewill Ranch also offers all the activities that naturally arise from old-fashioned hospitality. Life moves at a slower pace. Folks visit with one another and create their own entertainment.
On our hay-wagon ride, the sky was black velvet and studded with diamonds. We sat on bales of straw and sang songs. Later, we discovered that one happy vocalist was the doctor who'd met his wife on the November cattle drive. Other activities are riverside barbecues, square dancing, talent night, campfire sing-a-longs and s'mores, roping, and horseback games.
A 'Spiritual Place'
Rain On The Sage is a book of poetry co-authored by Hunewill employees, guests, and a Hunewill friend/neighbor, Ken Gardner. It refers to guests as the Greater Hunewill Family.
It's difficult to explain how strongly this family feeling comes across. It's what separates this guest ranch from others. Guests feel they're a part of a very special ranching family. A family whose roots are anchored deep in the grassy meadows; a family whose values are exemplified by treating everyone the way they'd like to be treated.
Children blossom here! They run free in the great outdoors, use their imaginations, climb trees, get dirty, and find ways to be useful. Twelve-year-old Ronnie Wyman has been coming to the Hunewill Ranch for seven years. His heart's desire is to become a Hunewill wrangler.
The sixth generation Hunewill children welcome and play with children of guests as though they were long lost cousins who have finally arrived. In the evening twilight, we watched children walk along the top rail of a corral, arms outstretched for balance as though they were circus performers. The children played with goats and dogs, practiced roping, helped with simple chores: they were a vital part of ranch life.
Ron and Jeanette Tingley feel the ranch is a spiritual place, where guests feel total acceptance. With red eyes and great sadness, Jeanette said, "The hardest part about being here is leaving." She'd just taken her last ride and put her horse away.
The ranch has become intertwined with many guests' family history. We met a couple with two small children who were here with their parents. This same family has been coming to the ranch for more than 30 years; the ranch's roots have become part of their family tree. The "Welcome Home" rock rings true.
"I love working here so much I'd do it for free!" announced Sallie Joseph, a longtime Hunewill wrangler. "This is a job that feeds your soul."
I was taken aback by her enthusiasm. Those were strong words coming from a woman who teaches horsemanship to young children. There's a great deal of work and responsibility involved in her job. She and her son, Jay, are both employed by the Hunewills, but don't feel like employees. They feel like part of an incredible family and fortunate to be doing what they love, and to get paid for it. Indeed, many poems in Rain On The Sage were written by Sallie Joseph; she freely and eloquently expresses her love for her job and way of life.
Art Black was a wrangler on the Hunewill ranch for more than 40 years and is considered a member of the Hunewill family. He now zooms around in a red motorized cart; the ravages of time have taken a toll on his legs but not his spirit. He's an artist, as well as a fascinating conversationalist; a modern-day Charlie Russell. While we visited with him, he quickly and casually drew us a picture of an Indian mounted on horseback.
We also met an interesting 20-year-old student from Jamaica named Renee who was majoring in hospitality. As part of her studies, she had to work at a resort, or in this case, a guest ranch. Any apprehensions she had about being the only black person on the ranch were soon laid to rest.
"The Hunewills don't see skin color, they just take you for who you are," said Renee. She was having a great time working on the ranch, because everyone, including guests, were so friendly.
Children of former employees and guests come back to the ranch to work. Dewayne Leonard, a retired policeman, works every other week as a wrangler. He says he's living his dream.
A paragraph from Sallie Joseph's poem, "Rain On The Sage" (from the book of the same name), captures the ranch's essence:
There's a feeling of having no boundaries,
Of being able to go as far as you please-
Of being lured toward distant horizons
Where freedom floats along on a breeze.
So, when you pull up alongside the old Victorian house and see "Welcome Home" written on the big rock, you're home. The Hunewills mean it.