For hundreds of years before Europeans ever saw the northern Sonoma coast, the gentle Pomo Indians made seasonal treks to the coast to hunt, fish, and gather foodstuffs. The Pomo lifestyle epitomized the philosophy, " Live lightly on the land." Pomo houses were simple, cone-like dwellings of sticks and bark.
They loved singing and dancing and games. They played ball and swam, and enjoyed daily saunas in their small sweathouses called "temescals." These were dug into earthen mounds and fires built inside. Contests were held to see who could remain inside the longest, before rushing into a nearby stream to cool off. The temperate environment made few demands. Simple grass skirts and animal skins were enough clothing in winter.
The sea provided a rich harvest of salmon, crab, abalone, clams and mussels. Berries, nuts and acorns were plentiful on land. The rough seas and rugged terrain of the North Sonoma coast provided splendid isolation and provided an important barrier, fending off the ships of the white man until 1812.
In the spring of 1812, Ivan Kuskov, a peg-legged officer of the Russian American Fur Company, was the first white man to walk this coast. With a group of 120 Russians and Aleut Indians, he was looking to establish a trading station and base to hunt sea lions and otters. Although Spain claimed this territory, none of its subjects had ever visited; so Kuskov did not seek any permission for his endeavor. He gave the nearby Indians three horses, three pairs of breeches, three blankets, two axes and a handful of beads in exchange for the 1000 acres to establish Fort Ross.
In contrast to the Pomos, Kuskov and his men struggled to obtain a livelihood by tilling the soil, planting orchards, raising livestock, logging redwoods, and harvesting sea otters. When the sea otters were nearly depleted in 1839, the Russians sold their holdings and departed. The new owner, a Swiss rascal named John Augustus Sutter, also owned large areas in the Central Valley, where gold was later discovered, setting off the California Gold Rush.
Ernst Rufus, a German officer in Sutter's bizarre militia , was given an area north of Fort Ross and called it Rancho de Hermann. Rufus paid about $12.00 for the land, maps, and approval stamps. Later, after renaming his holdings "German Ranch," Rufus sold a portion to Captain William Bihler, who had made his way around Cape Horn to San Francisco to seek his fortune.
"Dutch Bill" Bihler set up headquarters at Black Point near the site of the present day Sea Ranch Lodge, and built the town of "Bihler's Landing." This settlement boasted a hotel, blacksmith shop, shingle mill, general store, post office, and a saloon. The Gold Rush brought about large demands for beef, hides and timber, which created a booming business for Captain Bihler.
The first stagecoaches began rattling up the coast from the Russian River. The Redwood Empire Railroad established three horse-drawn rail lines through the forest. By the end of the 1870s, sailing ships, known as "dog schooners," loaded tan bark, oak wood and millions of board feet of redwood lumber at Bihler's Landing. San Francisco's demand for lumber to accommodate its feverishly growing population was met by timbering the vast forests of the Sonoma and Mendocino coast.
By 1900, the tide was turning. The Gold Rush had faded and with it the demands for beef, hides and lumber. The Pomos were decimated by famine and disease, the forests nearly destroyed, meadows overgrazed, and the towns nearly abandoned. Wild fires, erosion and sheep grazing continued to take their toll. The "German Ranch" changed hands several times and was later renamed Rancho Del Mar.
The small, whitewashed Del Mar School, which was built for the mill workers' children in 1905, still stands next to the highway, near the north end of Sea Ranch today. The Black Point barn near The Sea Ranch Lodge, and the Knipp and Stengel ranch barn five miles north, also stand as reminders of those times. Following the 1906 earthquake and fire, San Francisco again looked to the North Coast for the lumber to rebuild.
A brief re-awakening took place during Prohibition. Once again, schooners stopped by the rocky shores, however this time, it was to off-load barrels of whiskey and rum from Canada and Mexico. Black Point and Del Mar Landing served as the dropping-off points for this illegal bounty. San Francisco was once again getting its supplies from the north. With repeal, the ships no longer came calling and this part of the Sonoma Coast again reverted to pastoral times. In 1941, the 5200 acre Rancho Del Mar was auctioned off for back taxes. For $125,000 dollars, Ed Ohlsen, a sheep rancher,acquired the property, and with his brother, raised sheep for the next 20 years on the coastal meadows and bluffs.
The land was rediscovered for its beauty by architect and planner, Al Boeke, who began to conceptualize the possibilities of a second home community that harmonized with and was not injurious to the environment. Boeke approached the Hawaii based Castle and Cooke Inc. with his idea of "building clusters of unpainted wooden houses in large open meadow areas and not allowing fences or lawns." In 1963, Castle and Cooke, through a subsidiary, Oceanic California Inc., purchased the entire 5200 acre ranch for $2.3 Million Dollars. A number of experts were attracted to the challenge by Boeke's enthusiasm for his ideas of stewardship of the environment.
Massive studies of native plants, animals, soils, and climate were conducted. Logging slash and debris were removed from the forested areas. The logged and overgrazed areas were replanted with thousands of trees. To reverse the effects of erosion and to provide wildlife refuge, native grasses and wildflowers were reseeded.
Lawrence Halprin, renowned landscape architect, drew on the Pomo Indian's earlier philosophy, "live lightly on the land," in his contribution to the overall master plan for the development. The plan incorporates a set of building guidelines that require homes to be designed and sited to blend all structures onto the natural setting and minimize the visual as well as physical impact upon the landscape.The name itself reflects a continuity and respect for the past, as Rancho Del Mar has simply been translated into the English equivalent, The Sea Ranch, which has become world-renowned for being environmentally sensitive.
The architectural firm MLTW (Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker) created the unique Sea Ranch design with Condominium I, near Bihler's Point, and a number of the early homes. Joe Esherick developed the concept of the "Hedgerow Homes" along Black Point Reach and also designed the first phase of The Sea Ranch Lodge. Robert Muir Graves, recognized as one of the foremost golf course architects, blended a Scottish Links style, championship length, course into the natural landscape.
Soon, The Sea Ranch began to draw unprecedented attention in the American press and in architectural journals throughout the world. Within months came the first of what was to be a long list of environmental and architectural awards for this new community.
In May, 1991, Charles Moore was presented the Gold Medal Award of the American Institute of Architects, architecture's highest honor. This was in recognition of decades of an unfailing pursuit of design excellence, education, and professionalism. At the same time, The Sea Ranch Condominium I Unit was awarded the AIA's Twenty-Five Year Award. This award is given each year to a building project, completed 25 to 35 years ago, which exemplifies a design of enduring significance that has withstood the test of time. Other buildings so honored include Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, both in New York City, and Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The 1991 Honor Awards Jury noted that Sea Ranch is "profoundly conscious of the natural drama of its coastal site" and has "formed an alliance of architecture and nature that has inspired and captivated a generation of architects."
The Sea Ranch
The goal of the developer was to create a community where one could come to escape the rigors of city life, walk the more than 10 mile long bluff trail in solitude, beachcomb on the sandy beaches, hike through the quiet redwoods, or simply sit on a headland such as Bihler's or Black Point to observe the whale migration in season. Other activities provided include two solar heated swimming pools, tennis, basketball, and volleyball courts, stables for boarding horses, a private airport, and The Sea Ranch Golf Links, in 1990, rated by Golf Digest "one of the five best 9-hole golf courses in the world." In summer, 1996, the course was expanded to 18 holes, and was nominated for consideration for Golf Digest's "Best New Course of The Year" designation. The course was voted into the "top 20 new affordable courses, "(out of 430+ courses) and was the top rated new course for California. The Sea Ranch Golf Links is now listed in Golf Digest's "Places to Play" and Fodor's Travel Guide.
The original 5200 acres of The Sea Ranch eventually became 2310 individual building sites on 3500 acres, half as dedicated,common, open space, and the remaining 1500 acres as forest preserve. The other 200 acres became Gualala Point County Park and campgrounds.The private road system totals more than 40 miles. The building sites are provided with underground utilities; water, electricity, telephone, and TV cable. By 1988, all of the individual sites had been sold. As of December, 2000, more than 1500 homes have been built, and an average of 75 new homes per year have been constructed for the past several years.
The majority of the individuals attracted to the lifestyle of this area, quite expectedly come from the San Francisco Bay Area. As in the early years, the area is drawn upon as a resource for many of the needs of the Bay Area population. Now, instead of beef, hides, lumber, and the illegal imports from Canada and Mexico, the resource is escape from the urban and suburban life, if only for an occasional weekend. This resource is the natural beauty of this coastline, the abundant wildlife, the many species of wildflowers, the sealife, the redwoods, and many, many other facets. Those that have been able to make The Sea Ranch a full-time experience are authors, artists, composers, as well as people in aviation, consulting and others who need not occupy an urban office on a regular basis. Some are active in the Gualala Arts group, the theater group, the community garden, and all sorts of other activities.