In 1937, Baine Isaacson brought his young bride, Esther, to El Chorro Ranch, a tract of hills and oaks on Highway 1 just outside of Lompoc that was once part of the original Rancho San Julian land grant. 75 years later, El Chorro remains a working cattle ranch, and Esther Isaacson has just celebrated her 100th birthday, a steadfast presence in these sometimes-wobbly times. She is as rooted here as the California oaks and says that she never wants to be anywhere else.
A few years ago, I walked down a dirt road and climbed the wooden steps to the back porch of the old house and found her sitting in the sunlight, gracious and chatty. She recalled her less-than-romantic first look at the place: “We had an awful lot of rain that year, tremendous rainfall. I stood before a plowed field, and all I could see was the top of a brand-new tractor that was buried down in the mud with just the smokestack sticking out. Baine had just gotten this tractor. He hadn’t even seen it yet. He said, ‘Well, I have some great potatoes. You’re gonna have to cook us dinner.’ And he just left me. There was a kerosene stove, but I didn’t know how to work it. I didn’t know how to do anything! I didn’t know whether to weep or to laugh. Baine returned a few hours later, and he was mud from top to bottom.”
Esther had been a teacher in Solvang and the daughter of one of the town’s original Danish settlers. “They were pioneers who came from Denmark to build a colony,” she explained. “My father, Anton Ibsen, was a carpenter, and he came there in 1910 to build the college. When he first arrived, it was all men. If you were to be married, you had to build a house for your wife before you married her. My father was so busy that he asked my mother not to come right away, but she didn’t get the letter in time. She came down by railroad from Seattle to San Luis Obispo, wearing a beige suit and carrying a little white dog and a potted plant, and that’s all she really had. Of course, he wasn’t there to meet her when she arrived. She finally got someone to lock her in the baggage room for the night.
“When my father did show up, instead of talking to her, he had a long list of errands. People wanted things. They wanted medicine, they wanted aprons, they wanted hoes and hats, and all the other things they couldn’t get. He had to fill everybody’s longing. Thirteen women wanted hats! He’d try each one on and say, ‘This would be Mrs. Jensen …’ and, ‘This would be Mrs. Larsen …’ By this time, my mother wondered, ‘What kind of person am I going to?’
“The only way to communicate with the older people in those days was in Danish, but I also spoke English and learned to read it very early — it was absolutely necessary in order to read the captions of the silent movies! I was an expert at 5, and the ones who couldn’t read always wanted to sit by me in the theater. There was a boy who played piano during the movie, and if it got too exciting, he would forget to play, and then there’d be no sound at all.”
Esther attended Atterdag College, which no longer exists. (“I can’t even prove I’ve been educated,” she joked.) She loved being a teacher and living in town. For fun, young people went square dancing or got together for volleyball, badminton, and tennis, and it was at one of these social events that she happened to meet Baine. “I was never going to be a rancher’s wife,” she said. “That would be the living end!” But love derailed her, as love sometimes does, and she gamely set out for her new life in the country, learning as she went along.
“We didn’t have a truck or a car,” she said, “and it was a long way to Lompoc. We grew vegetables, corn, potatoes … the essentials. It was very different and rather alone, so we made good friends, and our ranch became a place where people came to visit and sometimes stay for a week or two. We had soldiers here and famous cowboys.”
During the war, the house was darkened at night with drawn shades and blackout curtains. In the 1950s, when Vandenberg started launching missiles, there were strange explosions in the sky, exciting to the kids. “We raised an awful lot of children here, not just our own three sons,” said Esther, recalling treasure hunts, kite flying, and even a miniature steam railroad.
Esther expressed pride in her family and in the fact that El Chorro remains a working cattle ranch, recalling how Baine’s long-ago vision and community involvement helped preserve the area for agriculture and keep it free of billboards and development. Today El Chorro is permanently protected by an agricultural easement. Remembering how our Gaviota Writers’ Group used to meet here by a great old oak on a hilltop meadow, I asked Esther if she had a particular favorite spot on the ranch. She looked momentarily baffled by the question.
“The whole place is special to me,” she said, and I realized it should have been obvious. “It’s a privilege to be here.”