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Phil Reader
Posted: Tue Jun 12, 2007 9:44 am Reply with quote
Joined: 16 Apr 2007 Posts: 392 Location: Live Oak
Mexican Rodeo Grounds in Live Oak
By Phil Reader

The mid-county region of Santa Cruz County is an area of rolling bench land that is crisscrossed and scared by a series of deep gulches running north/south, following a course from the foothills to the sea. One of these oak tree lined, sagebrush-covered ravines is known as Rodeo Gulch. During the early 19th century, this part of the county was the “common lands” of the Villa de Branciforte . According to time honored custom the land surrounding a spanish population settlement was held in “common” for use as pasturage and agricultural purposes.
Branciforte founded in 1797, was slow to develop both socially and economically because of its location on the remote frontier of Spanish North America. This isolation and lack of support from the motherland caused the early pioneers to rely totally upon their own initiative for survival. What emerged was a vast system of cattle ranching based upon the production of hides and tallow - leather, candles and soap. They bartered these products with passing merchant ships for the other necessities and niceties of life.
At the time, the Province of Alta California was a vast open range with a few scattered settlements strewn out along the coastline. Once each year, usually in April, vaqueros (cowboys) from the ranchos were sent into the fltlands and ravines to round up the wild range cattle and newborn calves. It has been said that the Mexican/Californio vaquero was the most skilled and brave horseback rider in the world and his use of the reata, or lasso, was without parallel.
The purpose of this gathering of stock, called a Rodeo (or “rodear” in Spanish), was to separate the herds from various ranchos and, the of branding calves and yearlings. This was done under the watchful eye of an official called the Juez de Campo or “Judge of the Plains.” It was his role to adjudicate all general disputes over the ownership of stock and to be present at the rodeos to pass impartial judgment on the ownership of unbranded cattle.
Locally, these rodeos were held at various spots across the county. One of the most important locations was in a deep gulch in what was to become the Live Oak district. The current frame of reference would be just south of where Highway 1 crosses Rodeo Creek, across from the drive-in theater or “flea market.” This location was used by the ranchos between Villa de Branciforte and the Soquel River.
Prior to the round up, Vaqueros and Indian servants from near by ranches would go down into the ravine and clear cut the area of trees and brush. These trimmings would be pulled to the rim of the gulch creating a huge amphitheater, corral or holding pen into which the cattle could easily be driven.
On the appointed day, gaily dressed and superbly mounted vaqueros would begin the separation of the herds according to the brand on the animals flanks. After this sorting was complete, the calves, yearlings, and older unmarked steers were roped, hogtied and branded. When the herds had been sorted and the last animal branded, then began the grisly work of the “Mantanzas” or slaughtering.
Certain chosen animals were driven back down into the holding pen and killed. They were stripped of their hides, for tanning, and flesh, for processing. In a final step, the tallow and lard was gathered up and pressed into leather bags. The products and byproducts of the rodeo were put in air-cooled adobe sheds to await the arrival of the trading ships.
In early California, the rodeo was a grand and formal affair and much anticipated by whole population. One last event would conclude the rodeo season - a great fiesta that could last as long as two weeks. Wine and whiskey flowed freely and all danced the colorful fandango.
Records in the Branciforte Archives indicate that the first inventory of stock was taken in 1808 with a total of 1550 animals counted. In 1817, the Governor of Alta California sent orders to the villagers of Branciforte to begin a yearly “gathering” of cattle. In 1828 the inventory read that there were 2500 cattle in the area. It appears that it was at about this period of time that the actual formal rodeos began in Santa Cruz. The “hide and tallow” industry was now reaching its peak and the local ranches were fully self-sufficient
This date also coincides with the time when the Mexican government began to grant huge tracts of land to some of the pioneers of the Villa. Foremost among these “grantees” were members of the Rodriguez and Castro families.
On July 28, 1834, California Governor Juan Figueroa deeded to “Don” Francisco Rodriguez 1500 acres of land lying between the Soquel River and “Arroyo del Rodeo.” The grant is identified as “Rancho Arroyo del Rodeo.” It is obvious that the place name “Rodeo Gulch” was already in common usage at the time of the grant. The site was an established rodeo ground when Figueroa transferred the title.
Two years later on December 24, 1836, then Governor Juan Batiste Alvarado granted the adjoining tract of land to Francisco’s brother, Don Alejandro Rodiguez, choosing the name “Los Esteros,” the Estuaries or Lakes. However shortly after settling his family on the land, Don Alejandro changed the name to “Rancho Encinalito del Rodeo. The meaning in Spanish is, “The Ranch of the little Live Oaks of the Rodeo.”
So from these ranchos, we derive three place names that have a bearing on the history of the district: Rodeo Gulch, Live Oak and Twin Lakes.
For the next two decades the annual rodeo continued to play an essential role in the life of the Spanish Californios. A third brother, Jose Brijido Rodriguez moved into the area and built an adobe on the hill overlooking the rodeo site and became known as the unofficial “keeper” of the grounds. Shortly thereafter a recently widowed sister, Margarita Rodriguez y Perez took up residence there performing domestic tasks such as cooking for the vaqueros and brewing up a “brisk” form of whiskey made from cactus. She was also acted as hostess at the various rodeo oriented events and fiestas.
This grandiose lifestyle continued until the American take over of California just prior to the gold rush. But neither Don Alejandro or Don Francisco lived to see that day because both died in 1848. The Yankees quickly gained control of the land, but cattle ranching continued to be a major source of revenue. The rodeo grounds continued to be in constant use under the American flag with Jose Brijidio and Margarita still hosting round ups for the new settlers.
However, a series of devastating droughts in the late 1860s all but wiped out the vast herds of cattle and brought to an end the era of the ranchos. In 1879, Jose Brijido Rodriguez died at the age of 80 and his heirs sold the old rodeo grounds to Portuguese whaler Antonio Maciel.
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