Wrangling Wide-Open Ranges

The Life, Times, and Legacy of Louise Hanson

Paul Wellman

It is no secret that Santa Barbara County is home to an impressively vast collection of environmentalists as formidable as you will find anywhere in the country. However, in a plot twist as refreshing as it may be surprising, it isn’t from these familiar ranks of professional earth guardians that our singular most impressive and generous act of land preservation in recent memory ​— ​if ever ​— ​comes. Rather, for that, we have to head west to the open spaces of Gaviota and the rolling green hills and oak-tree-dappled land, a roughly Manhattan Island–sized cattle ranch near the intersection of highways 1 and 101 that stretches as far as the eye can see, and Louise Hanson, the woman who calls it home.

In late February, with remarkably little fanfare considering the significance, the 98-year-old Hanson, her heirs, and the folks from the California Rangeland Trust announced a deal that permanently protects every square inch of Hanson’s sprawling and mostly untouched 14,000-acre ranch from ever being subdivided, bulldozed, or paved over. In other words, thanks to Louise Hanson, a colorful and occasionally cantankerous cattle rancher originally hailing from Orange County, much of the inland country of Gaviota is going to stay country.

If familiar battle lines are to be believed, such a large-scale preservation power play is anything but typical in ranching/agricultural communities. All too often, long-steeped stereotypes pit the traditional environmental ethos of conservation and preservation against the bottom-line interests of career farmers or cattle operators, the roles of heroes and villains flip-flopping in accordance with the number of Stetson hats in the family closet.

Louise Hanson
Courtesy Photo

But in truth, the situation is not nearly as adversarial as first-blush judgments may have you believe. After all, a healthy and sustained Mother Earth is paramount to both pursuits ​— ​an unequivocal fact that has never been lost on Hanson. A no-nonsense, straight-talking woman who knows deeply the rewards and rigors of a long day’s work, Hanson, interviewed in 1994 as part of the California State University Oral History Program, summed up this truth long before her sizable land dedication would memorialize it in permanence. “I think almost all ranchers are actually part of the environment; we live along with the environment,” said Hanson. “I mean, that’s part of our life ​— ​to preserve it and take care of it and be a part of it.”

When you pull back the curtain of her anything-but-ordinary life, the fact that Hanson, the youngest daughter of celebrated El Toro, California, rancher Lewis Moulton, opted to place her beloved property ​— ​a holding she painstakingly and slowly pieced together by acquiring some eight previously individual Gaviota properties over several years ​— ​in a forever-protected agricultural conservation easement, specifically crafted to make sure the land stays in ranching, comes as no surprise.

Just ask Lunn Courson, one of Hanson’s oldest friends from the area and one of the current residents on Hanson’s property. “She loves her land and her cattle and her horses. Those are probably three of the biggest things to her, and they always have been,” said Courson, who has known Hanson since she relocated to Gaviota in the early 1970s. “When she was still able, she would be out on the land every single day, fixing fences or cleaning water troughs or whatever else job needed to be done,” she continued. “She just loves it that much and wanted to make sure that nothing would change [out here] even after she’s gone. (Laughs.) She never did like being told what to do with her land.”

Hanson knew firsthand the painful fate that awaits when a longtime family ranch gets disassembled and eventually steamrolled by the march of development. The dissolving of her father’s nearly 22,000-acre Rancho Niguel, a property that lives on in Orange County lore, was the primary motivator behind Hanson’s move to Santa Barbara County with her husband Ivar more than 30 years ago. It no doubt underscored her decision ​— ​there was no financial incentive or motivation ​— ​to overlay her own ranch with a binding conservation easement as part of her estate planning. “We started moving in 1968,” remembered Hanson in her oral history. “The El Toro area was becoming too crowded and the taxes too high. There was no more room to really ranch, and so we moved. … I finally got everything up [in S.B. County] by 1972, where I was lucky enough to find ranching country very much like old Orange County. … I’ve been here ever since. It’s a beautiful place.”

Louise Hanson

An Unlikely Environmentalist

Closer inspection of Hanson’s life offers insight into her donation that goes well beyond the obvious land-use lessons learned from El Toro. With the perspective of time, it becomes clear that Hanson, a steadfast individual in every sense of the word, is the perfect blend of the values instilled in her by her parents, a combination that uniquely prepared her to be both a lifelong rancher as well as an undeniably classy global citizen with a well-tuned, big-picture worldview. In short, Louise Hanson is, in many ways, a modern-day embodiment of Thomas Jefferson’s “educated farmer” ideal and the guiding values of ancient Rome’s Academy of Arcadia.

Born in 1914, it was evident early on that she was very much her father’s daughter and, by all accounts, took almost immediately to the ranching world around her. In her own words: “My involvement on the ranch was total and all consuming. I always felt so important when our foreman let me help him part out fat steers for market or cull heifers for replacement. That was really great; one felt awfully good to be able to do it. I was into everything: teams, saddle horses, cattle, farming, everything.”

Taking a cue from her mother, she was also interested in education. After being tutored for much of her youth by a governess, Hanson enrolled at Pomona College, graduating in 1936. Still, she felt that her schooling wasn’t done. “I had quite a bit of experience on the ranch, but I knew I needed to learn something else, so I did,” said Hanson of her decision to spend a couple post-Pomona years at Davis Agricultural College (now UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences) studying animal husbandry, economics, and farming. She also supplemented her education with an impressive amount of travel ​— ​domestic and international ​— ​during her formative years, including regular family trips throughout California and one big adventure just after college with her mother to Japan and China by way of British Columbia and Alaska, a journey of epic proportions during any era, but especially impressive considering it was carried out by unaccompanied females prior to World War II.

By 1940, Hanson had met and married her first of three husbands, Dean Brown. A cattleman with ties to the Santa Ynez Valley, Brown introduced Hanson to the charms of ranching life in S.B. County. In fact, the couple was married on Brown’s family ranch just outside Santa Ynez. Although the couple eventually divorced, the union introduced Hanson to another cattleman, and her future husband, Henry Wineman, who also had Santa Barbara County ties, including a family cattle operation north of Santa Maria. In her 1994 oral history, Hanson noted specifically the many similarities between the Wineman family setup and what her family had been doing in El Toro over the decades. “We passed some very pleasant years back and forth between the two ranches,” mused Hanson.

She became a widow when Wineman died of a heart attack in 1959. At this point, Hanson, who had long since taken over managing the day-to-day business at El Toro, was, along with her family, in the beginning stages of dividing up the ranch. Though it would take close to two decades, eventually the once-mighty Rancho Niguel would be parceled out of existence, and the Moulton heirs would move on, looking for greener pastures in which to raise cattle. Hanson’s big sister Charlotte and her husband, Glen Mathis, had moved by 1971, relocating to a ranch in the Hollister area; the very next year, Hanson was permanently settled in Santa Barbara. “There are so many fond memories of those days [at El Toro] that are gone forever,” said Hanson in 1994. “I will say that life here in Santa Barbara County is much the same as El Toro, thankfully.”

With a sunup-to-sunset work ethic and a marked passion for animals, Hanson ran one of Santa Barbara County’s most successful cattle operations for several decades on her sprawling Gaviota property.
Paul Wellman

Making a New Home

“Classic old California,” said longtime Gaviota rancher Bill King of his first impressions of Louise Hanson upon meeting her 35 years ago. “She could sure ride and rope. She had this slow big loop and was a pretty good hand.” Even so, one could hardly have blamed Hanson if she had opted to leave ranching behind after the tragic death of her third husband, Ivar Hanson (the couple married in 1966), in a brutal tractor accident just off Highway 1 in 1979. Instead, she did the exact opposite.

Going against the grain of the typical “divide and sell” plot lines that have played out bitterly for ranching families throughout California over the past 40 years, Hanson began expanding her land holdings as well as her cattle operation, the latter peaking at more than 2,000 head of commercial cattle during its day, not including her breeding program. She acquired neighboring ranches such as the De la Vega, the Llanitos, Las Cruces, the Golondrina, and El Callejon on her way to eventually assembling eight properties into the 14,000-acre “Hanson Ranch” that exists today. The ranch connects country spanning three canyons on the inland side of Highway 1 ​— ​from the bottom of the grade up and over to the San Julian Ranch ​— ​as well as the west side of Highway 101 as you head toward Buellton. The land also runs straight over the Santa Rita Hills and down to Santa Rosa Road, creating an impressive network of contiguous open space that serves as a critical component of the Gaviota watershed.

All told, Hanson owns much of what motorists see the moment they turn onto Highway 1 and head to Lompoc ​— ​the world-class beauty and timeless feel due to her resolve to keep the land essentially as it was when she first moved to town. As Jenny Hardin, who along with her dad, Bill King, leases land from Hanson on which they run their family cattle, said recently, “It is scary to think what all this could look like if it wasn’t for Louise. She is a pretty special lady.”

Louise Hanson
Sally Isaacson

While there is no doubt that Hanson’s land-use legacy will be celebrated in the years ahead, in the stories that flow from folks like Hardin, King, and others who have known, worked with, and lived next to Hanson over the years, it is respect and genuine love that resound in the telling. With her penchant for well-timed cuss words and love of ice cream, her habit of leaving notes on cattle gates and offering unsolicited stern (if not gruff) ranching advice, her fiercely outspoken nature and surprising sensitivity for her animals (Hanson is quick to give a verbal lashing to anybody she feels is mishandling an animal), anybody who has ranched or farmed the Gaviota neighborhood since the late 1970s is sure to speak fondly of her. As Jill Alexander, Hanson’s full-time assistant for the past 15 years, said, “She isn’t the most outwardly friendly person, but when it comes down to it, I am not sure there is anybody more caring.”

Though now mostly bedridden due to failing health, Hanson ​— ​who essentially ran the ranch with little help, save for one hired hand and the occasional influx of seasonal workers ​— ​was still in charge of the day-to-day goings-on at her property until two years ago. She rode her land and roped calves for brandings well into her eighties; once physical limitations forced her out of the saddle, she helped cull heifers and presided over her brandings (which, by all accounts, always featured Hanson’s patented Rocky Mountain oyster burritos and less than ice-cold beers to keep the cowboys from getting too comfortable) from a vantage point atop a fence and surveyed her ranch via automobile. “She was up at five every morning, on the phone by six handling any business, and out the door no later than seven,” said Alexander. “She ran this entire place basically just herself and one cowboy. … Maybe the only time in her life she ever really left the land and ranching was that trip to the Orient with her mother. … It was always about the cattle with her. Everything we did out here was about the cattle. … And it still is.”

From 1972 to 1990, she donated cattle for Santa Barbara’s annual Fiesta/Old Spanish Days rodeo and even competed on a few occasions in the team penning competition, taking home top honors more than once. She was buyer number one for many years at San Francisco’s Cow Palace annual bull sale, an honor that granted her first-refusal rights on that year’s “Super Bull,” which she often did. And, if she decided to buy the winning bull ​— ​or any bull for that matter ​— ​she would drive it back to Santa Barbara with her trusty yellow Cadillac and matching bright yellow trailer.

She was named Santa Barbara County Cattle Producer of the Year in 1993, was the first woman ever made an honorary member of the storied Rancheros Visitadores as well as the S.B.-centric Vaqueros de los Ranchos, and famously scoffed when it was suggested that she should join the “cow belles” instead of the then male-only Santa Barbara County Cattlemen’s Association.

Telling of the first time she ever met “Ms. Hanson,” Jenny Hardin described going with her dad to potentially purchase some of her cows several years ago. “I remember we were talking strategy about how much we could afford to pay when we pulled in, and there she was, in her mid-eighties, standing in the back of her pickup gathering in 50 cows all on her own and looking good doing it. I said to my dad right then, ‘I’ll give her whatever she wants.’ I mean, I hope I can do that when I am her age.”

<b>A LIFE LESS ORDINARY:</b> Very much in her element on the Hanson Ranch circa the 1970s, rancher Louise Hanson, à la Thomas Jefferson’s educated farmer ideal, has lived a life full of on-the-land education as well as in-class studies at both Pomona College and UC Davis and impressive amounts of pre-WWII international travel.

Back to the Future

It took five years of careful negotiations, but by early 2013, Hanson, her heirs (her sister Charlotte’s two children), and the California Rangeland Trust officially closed the deal that places the entire Hanson Ranch in an agricultural conservation easement ​— ​a move purposely made by Hanson to keep her property permanently in ranching.

The bestowment, which wasn’t made public until late February, was especially sweet for Rangeland Trust CEO and founder Nita Vail, a fourth-generation rancher who herself has deep family ties to the Santa Barbara farming and ranching community. “This was a really emotional one for me,” admitted Vail, whose nonprofit conservation group has helped facilitate the lasting protection of more than 275,000 acres of private rangeland in California since 1998, including one of the state’s undisputed heavyweights, the Hearst Ranch. “Not only does it send the message that ranching still matters and will continue to matter on the Central Coast, but it was a situation where our mission statement was in perfect alignment with the wishes of Louise and her family. … It was a real honor to work on this.”

<b>DON’T FENCE ME IN:</b> Nearly the size of Manhattan Island (or exactly equivalent to the square mileage of the City of Santa Barbara), the “Hanson Ranch” was pieced together slowly by Louise Hanson starting in 1972 and eventually grew to include eight previously individual properties that span much of the land between Highway 1 and Route 246 and Highway 101. All of that land (as shaded with green in the above map) is now protected thanks to Hanson’s recent deal with the California Rangeland Trust.

Describing Hanson as a “beautiful woman with quite a presence and absolutely no bullshit,” Vail explained that since their first meeting it was clear that Hanson’s overarching desire was simply to see her property remain intact and used for real cattle ranching in the years ahead ​— ​two things that the Rangeland Trust is now charged with delivering and protecting in the courts, should it ever come to that. “[The Hanson Ranch] is a real jewel, not just in Santa Barbara County but in the entire state. This feels really big,” summed up Vail.

Late last month, the morning after three days of wicked northwest winds had wreaked havoc along the Highway 1 neighborhood and sucked the last lick of moisture out of what had already been a dangerously dry winter, Bill King and his daughter Jenny Hardin met me on the property to talk story. Wide-open, soul-nourishing views of an old California, long since paved over in most places, provided the backdrop as the two recounted tales about their landlord, some fit for print and some not so much, but all colored with respect and admiration and, perhaps above all else, thankfulness. “It’s getting harder and harder to find good ground to run your cattle on,” lamented the King family patriarch. “We are so fortunate to have Ms. Hanson and now this deal she and her family have made with the Trust.”

Listening to her father talk, Hardin chimed in: “In a lot of ways, she has saved us and everyone else who leases land from her now. … She is just the type of person you aspire to be like.”

“I don’t think I have the guts to be like her,” King said with a laugh, before adding, “I wish I could.”

As Hardin concurred with her dad’s sentiments, I noticed a red-tailed hawk soaring above, eventually landing at the tip-top of the tall pine tree in whose shade we were standing. It occurred to me then: For those who call Santa Barbara County home, or those who simply pass through on occasion and appreciate the breath of rural fresh air that bookends most of Highway 1, there only had to be one Louise Hanson to make a difference that will last for generations to come.


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