Los Rancheros Visitadores was the brainchild of a small group of prominent Santa Barbarans who were horse lovers and wished to commemorate the important role horsemanship and ranching had played in the history of the South Coast.
The generally accepted story concerning the founding is that in the spring of 1929, cowboy artist Ed Borein suggested to his friend Elmer Awl that they gather some buddies together for a few days of riding and camping in the Santa Ynez Valley. Borein had spent a good part of his youth as a working cowboy in California and Mexico. Today he is considered one of the finest artists to portray the range life of the American West.
Awl, a Pennsylvania native, had moved as a child to Pasadena and eventually matriculated at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where he studied horticulture. After managing a large estate in Pasadena, Awl came to Montecito to manage the estate of the Armour family, El Mirador. Awl had met the famous Chicago meat-packing family while in Pasadena.
In 1922, the Armour daughter, Lolita, married John J. Mitchell Jr. Mitchell was a successful aviation executive, director of the company that became United Airlines. Among the properties the Mitchells came to own in the county was the Juan y Lolita Ranch just south of the town of Santa Ynez. Mitchell, like Awl, was an avid rider and interested in the ranching history of the region. It appears that Awl told Mitchell of Borein’s idea. That summer, while attending a meeting of the Bohemian Club of San Francisco, Mitchell began to consider the idea of forming a men’s club centered around horseback riding that would salute the ranching lifestyle.
The idea lay dormant until the spring of 1930. In April, Awl and Harvey McDonald, who worked at Juan y Lolita, organized a short six-mile ride of some 65 men capped by a lunch at Mattei’s Tavern. One of the riders was Thomas Wilson Dibblee, a descendant of the De la Guerra family and owner of Rancho San Julian. Reportedly, it was Dibblee who came up with the name Los Rancheros Visitadores (The Visiting Ranchers) for the new group.
The Rancheros’ first official trek began May 9, 1930, and lasted four days. A group of 90 men rode from Dwight Murphy’s Los Prietos Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley to Nojoqui Falls. Among the participants were, in addition to those already mentioned, some of the most prominent citizens of the South Coast: county supervisor Sam Stanwood, newspaper publishers Reginald Fernald and Thomas Storke, and philanthropist and yachtsman Max Fleischmann. During the next few years, the organization solidified, and membership grew to include riders from all over the state. In the late 1930s, Walt Disney took part, aboard his horse, Minnie Mouse. Clark Gable rode in 1939. Ronald Reagan would ride in the 1970s.
Los Rancheros Visitadores numbers almost 700 members today and is international in scope. Selected members sit on the board of Los Adobes de los Rancheros, a separate charitable organization. And every spring, the Rancheros mount up for their traditional trek through the Santa Ynez Valley.