The South Coast over the years has been the cradle of a number of inventions and products. Perhaps no product with South Coast origins, however, is as well-known as ranch dressing, served in restaurants worldwide, its tang used to liven up foods from fried zucchini to corn chips. It was the brainchild of one Steve Henson.
Henson was born in tiny Thayer, Nebraska, in 1918. At 16, under the impact of the Depression, he rode the rails to California. Here he worked at various occupations until, in 1949, he and his wife, Gayle, moved to Alaska. There he enjoyed success as a plumbing contractor in and around Anchorage and at age 35, he was able to retire. The couple settled in Santa Barbara, but after a year and a half, Henson found himself restlessly searching for something to do. He had always been attracted to ranching, so in 1956, he purchased the Sweetwater Ranch up on San Marcos Pass. He soon renamed the spread Hidden Valley Ranch.
The idea was to operate Hidden Valley as a guest ranch, offering fishing, riding, hiking, and other outdoor activities. The ranch also offered hearty home-cooked meals. Guests were particularly taken by the unique dressing that graced the salads. Henson had come up with the recipe while trying to keep his hungry work crews happy in Alaska. The dressing was made with buttermilk and mayonnaise and was enlivened with herbs and spices such as garlic, onion, pepper, and parsley.
Word began to spread about this wonderful product. Henson mixed up a batch for his friend, Audrey Ovington, owner of Cold Spring Tavern, and the tavern became the first establishment away from the ranch to offer the dressing on its menu. By 1957, Kelley’s Korner, a store at Hollister Avenue (now State Street) and La Cumbre Road, was selling small packages of the dried herbs and spices and could not keep them on the shelves. In one two-day period, the store sold more than 140 packages.
Obviously Henson was onto something. He began a mail order business at the ranch with packages selling for 75 cents apiece. It was not long until the operation had taken up every room in the family home. By the mid-1960s, the guest ranch, which had never done all that well financially, had been completely taken over by the mail order business. By the late 1960s, the Hensons were filling orders from all 50 states and more than 30 countries.
By the early 1970s, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing had grown much too big for its home. Processing had to move offsite, and the ranch became the corporate headquarters. For a time, the dressing mix was blended at Griffith Laboratories in San Jose then shipped down to Los Angeles to be packaged in a 65,000-square-foot facility at the rate of 35,000 packets every eight hours. Operations were later set up in Colorado and in Nevada.
In 1972, Henson sold the business to the Clorox Company and settled down once again to a life of leisure and travel. Ranch dressing remains incredibly popular. An online search yields over 2 million results. And to think it all started in the mountains above our fair city.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Santa Barbara Independent, 122 West Figueroa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101.