Fans of cowboy lore know that the sprawling, multi-acre working ranch—and, at its hub, a gracious (if imposing) Victorian-style dwelling—is a mainstay of novels, films, and television shows depicting the great American west. Those imposing Victorian homes, in fact, often become as much a character of the story as the people themselves.
Here's an example: Owen Wister’s celebrated novel The Virginian—and the various film adaptations, as well as the much-admired 1960s television series—would lose its sense of place, as well as considerable heart, if not for the reassuring anchor of Shiloh Ranch.
Then there’s the beloved Ponderosa, home to television’s Cartwright family during the 14 years that Bonanza dominated prime time television. As well as the Reata and Ladder ranches of classic motion pictures Giant (1956) and The Big Country (1958) ... Goose Bar Ranch of the Mary O’Hara My Friend Flicka series of books ... and on and on and on.
Yet all of these ranches are fictionalized versions of the real thing, and most are located in places like Texas and Wyoming. How could it be that in this highly urbanized area we call the Saddleback Valley, a ranch and its headquarters existed which was equal to—and in some cases, surpassed—Shiloh, the Ponderosa, or any of the others?
But in fact there was such a place, and its name was the Niguel Ranch.
EMPIRE BUILDING, LEWIS MOULTON-STYLE
In May 1991, Charlotte Moulton Mathis, then 81 and the eldest daughter of Lewis and Nellie Moulton, was interviewed by Bettie Webber, a representative of the Orange County Pioneer Council and the California State University at Fullerton Oral History Program. The interview took place at Charlotte's ranch near Hollister, Calif.
Three years later, in March 1994, her younger sister Louise, who had recently celebrated her 80th birthday, also was interviewed by Webber at Louise's ranch near Lompoc, Calif.
During the course of these two separately-held interviews the sisters discussed their Boston-born father and how he became a California land baron.
Louise: In 1874, when he was twenty years old, my father took a boat to the Isthmus of Panama , crossed by train, and took another boat to San Francisco.
Charlotte: After a few days he caught a San Diego-bound boat which landed him at Wilmington, from whence he proceeded by stage to Santa Ana.
Louise: He got a job on the San Joaquin Ranch working under Charles French. He and Mr. French bought a flock of sheep, and my father eventually bought out Mr. French. He ran his sheep on rented land from Oceanside to Wilmington.
Charlotte: He used to carry with him a seven-piece portable house, and when he was renting land on the present site of Long Beach, his was the only house between Alamitos Bay and Wilmington.
Louise: In 1881 he bought Jonathan Bacon’s band of sheep and rented his 1,600 acres.
A LIFE-LONG PARTNERSHIP BEGINS...
At this point Charlotte interjects that “I would like explain that in that day and age, Niguel was pronounced “nee-well” ... [it] was not a Spanish name; it was an Indian name, and it was pronounced “nee-well.”
Then she speaks of the French Basque émigré who would become her father’s trusted business partner and co-owner of the magnificent Niguel Ranch.
“In 1874, the same year in which Daddy came to California, came from the Basque country in Europe to the United States. On the same ship was his future wife, Marie Eugenie.
“Mr. Daguerre was employed immediately in the sheep business and after eight years, having become experienced and more proficient in this line, went into it for himself. He rented land on the San Joaquin for a time and was also in partnership with Don Marco Forster in [San Juan] Capistrano.
“In February of 1895, Father purchased Rawon’s 17,000 acres, and a few months later Mr. Daguerre bough a one-third interest in it. In 1899 they bought Bacon’s piece. From time to time they acquired other bits of property not belonging to the original grant, until the ranch comprised 21,723 acres.”
Louise adds that “Father was able to acquire this vast property due to hard work and an uncle in Boston, who loaned him money, which he repaid promptly.”
As becomes evident in both interviews, the business partnership formed in 1895 between the two hard-working ranchers would presage the long and successful personal relationship between the Moulton and Daguerre families.
...AND RANCH HEADQUARTERS EVOLVES
When did Lewis Moulton trade in that portable house for the not-so-tall but definitely dark and handsome home we see in the photo?
As of this column’s posting, your intrepid El Toro & Before columnist has yet to establish an actual building date. But it’s doubtful that Moulton’s first wife, , would have married a man who couldn’t have provided her with a proper home. Their marriage took place in 1885, about a year after Lewis had contracted with Rawson to rent the Niguel Ranch.
Also, it’s important to remember that by the time Lewis went into partnership with Jean Pierre Daguerre, the latter and his wife already were activity engaged in raising a family, namely Domingo, then 11 years of age; Juanita, 10; Grace, 8; and Josephine, 6.
It seems probable, then, that the compound shown in the photo accompanying this story had its beginnings in the early 1880s, if not a bit earlier during Rawson’s ownership. And this much is known: The house in the foreground, apparently constructed of dark wood, was the home where Charlotte and Louise grew up, whereas the house nearby—white and two-storied—was that of the Daguerre family.
Whatever the genesis of the Niguel Ranch compound, as the century drew to a close the Lewis Moulton and Jean Pierre Daguerre partnership was approaching the five-year mark and thriving.
CHANGE COMES TO NIGUEL RANCH
The same could not be said, however, for . For whatever reason, in the summer of 1899 Emma was served divorce papers and Lewis soon became one of Orange County’s most eligible bachelors. This period of bachelorhood came to a close, however, when Lewis married , a Washington state schoolteacher and the daughter of El Toro shopkeeper John Gail, in 1908.
The first 10 years of the new century were halcyon years for Niguel Ranch and its inhabitants. The ranch was thriving. The Daguerre children were growing towards adulthood, with the eldest and only son, Domingo, showing obvious ranching aptitude and skills. And after a long courtship, Lewis Moulton had taken a bride. Their first daughter, Charlotte, was born two years later, on January 21, 1910.
Then in 1911, tragedy: the team of horses Jean Pierre Daguerre had been driving were frightened by an automobile and his wagon overturned, killing him.
But not the professional and personal relationship between the families. Mrs. Daguerre had never mastered English, but Lewis was conversant in that language as well as Spanish, and so, bolstered by her 23-year-old son and younger daughters, the Moulton-Daguerre partnership continued.
One of the first decisions the two families made after Jean Pierre’s death was to switch from sheep herding to cattle.
“During Mr. Daguerre’s lifetime, when dry years made the ranch pasturage insufficient for the needs of the sheep, he and the herders sometimes used to drive the flocks up into the Bishop country,” Charlotte later recounted. “Sometimes they drove them up to Big Bear to feed in the meadow, which has since become Big Bear Lake.”
But now that Jean Pierre was gone, the joint decision was made to sell the sheep and restock the ranch with cattle.
Even in 1912, Charlotte added, her father was aware that “with southern California’s rapid development, it would soon be well-nigh impossible to drive the flocks to distant pastures.”
TWO FAMILIES, ONE OPERATION
A happy diversion occurred on December 30, 1914, when the Moulton’s second daughter was born. And unlike her older sister, whose debut took place in a Los Angeles hospital, Louise—later to become the acknowledged horsewoman of the family—was born at the ranch.
Although the Daguerre offspring were young adults by the time Charlotte and Louise came along, upon reading the interviews with the latter, the closeness between the two families becomes evident. In addition, a series of photos showing around the compound were taken outside the Daguerre home, and at least one shows Mrs. Daguerre riding in the cart with Louise.
That closeness takes on another aspect when, during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, both Nellie and Charlotte fell ill. Charlotte was the first to recover, but her mother—closely attended by a trained nurse—remained confined to her bed when the Daguerre’s son returned from a business trip to San Diego with what at first seemed to be a bad cold.
That cold turned out to be the flu.
“Mother knew that Domingo—we called him Dom—was ill,” recalled Charlotte more than 70 years later. “She was aware of a car coming in and turning, and backing, and when Daddy came in she said, ‘Domingo died.’ She sensed that it was the hearse.”
After Domingo’s death, Mrs. Daguerre soldiered on, her daughters and the Moulton family providing both emotional and practical support. Josephine, her youngest daughter, showed a particular talent for management, and after Mrs. Daguerre passed away in 1931, it was Josephine who shouldered her family’s side of the partnership. Then upon Lewis Moulton’s death in 1938, just weeks away from his 85th birthday, Nellie, 59, took on the Moulton partnership mantle.
That partnership continued until, according to Charlotte, around 1950 or 1951, when the Daguerre sisters decided to move on.
“Eventually the ranch, which had been operated as a whole, was physically divided by one-third [and] two-thirds, and the partnership dissolved . . . [Louise and I] had 14,000 acres, or a little over, and they [the Daguerre sisters] had a little over 7,000 acres.”
ADIOS TO ALL THAT
In due time the sisters sold their property, which is now known as Laguna Niguel, and retired to various homes in Laguna.
As for the Moulton side, “Mother eventually reached a point where she wanted to take it easier, so she built a house on the ranch, down on the coast where it joined Three Arch Bay . . . at that point Glenn [Charlotte’s husband] and I moved from Santa Ana, where we had lived for five years, down to the old ranch house. Then Glenn and my sister Louise co-managed it.”
After a year’s illness, Nellie Gail Moulton passed away in 1972, close to her 94th birthday.
“Mother left about 250 acres to Chapman University,” Louise told Bettie Webber. “Eventually it was sold for $18,357,000. The area was developed into the Nellie Gail Ranch, which was Mother’s maiden name. It is an elegant area of large homes with small ranch-type property.”
Earlier Charlotte had provided Ms. Webber with details about their own decision to leave the area. “Eventually Louise and I divided the ranch between us. Of course, as the years went on it became very evident that the end of the cattle business was in sight. . . . Orange County was filling with people.”
So, Charlotte said, a land swap was arranged. She and her husband moved to one of several northern California ranches that were part of that swap, and Louise and her third husband, Ivor Hanson, relocated to a 13,500-acre ranch in Santa Barbara County that had also been acquired in the trade.
In the meantime, it was obvious that a growing population of consumers would require shopping malls. An excellent place to plop a few such conveniences was determined to be the old Niguel Ranch compound. Today, then, this area is occupied by the Laguna Hills Mall and the Oakbridge Village shopping center.
I suppose we all need places to spend our money. But the 10-year-old horse-crazy kid in me—that same kid who grew up watching My Friend Flicka and The Virginian, and who these days revels in Elizabeth Taylor’s first reactions to the rugged grandeur of Reata in Giant, and Gregory Peck marveling at the well-appointed Ladder ranch home and expansiveness of the ranch itself—will always long for just one last view of Niguel Ranch, before it was broken down to make way for progress.