Back in the days of Old California, the ranchers of that Mexican province made it a custom to ride from ranch to ranch to help their neighbors with the spring roundup and other chores. Tied down to vast estates as they were for most of the year (a ranch of 35,000 acres was not uncommon), the ranchers and their families made the most of these visits. Their lonely lives were eased by a burst of dances, dinners and parties on what was no doubt known as the hacienda circuit. But like so many Latin customs which smacked of the finer feudal graces, that of the visiting ranchers, or los rancheros visitadores, vanished after the arrival of the aggressive Yanqui with his more practical but unromantic ways.
The custom probably would have wound up as a colorful footnote in a WPA guide or as a 23-letter word down in the Sunday crossword puzzle if it hadn't been for John J. Mitchell, a financier with a flair for the outdoors. Early in 1930 Mitchell, the owner of Rancho Juan y Lolita near Santa Barbara, thought it would be fun to try to recapture the spirit of Old California. He sent out invitations, and 65 friends showed up. They had such a dandy time on their one-day jaunt that one of the riders, T. Wilson Diblee, suggested the gathering formally adopt the title Los Rancheros Visitadores in honor of the ranchers of old.
Last May, with El Presidente Mitchell again leading the way, Los Rancheros Visitadores made their silver anniversary ride. This time there were 532 Rancheros and guests, who came from 36 states, Hawaii, Canada, France, England and Mexico. Accompanying them were 263 bartenders, horse wranglers, musicians and commissary men.
The organization of the Rancheros has changed somewhat over the years. They used to ride en masse, but after World War II growing numbers made it advisable to split into camps of up to 50 men each. There are such varied camps as Los Flojos, captained by Cotton Broker Charles West of Bakersfield, Calif.; Los Cholos, led by Western Artist Clyde Forsythe of Pasadena; Los Gringos, headed by Rexall Vice President John Bowles of Beverly Hills; and Los Charros, led by Dr. John Yarbrough, a Los Angeles obstetrician. One of the highlights this year was the banquet thought up by Contractor Paul Grafe of Whittier, Calif., captain of Los Picadores. Twenty-five bulls' heads provided by Rancher Hugh Walti of San Miguel, Calif. were wrapped in heavy brown paper and sugar sacks, buried in a trench under two feet of earth, then baked for 24 hours. It's reported the bulls' heads were delicious, on the order of beef tongue but with a more delicate flavor.
Other highlights included the annual Ranchero rodeo, the silver anniversary party given at Juan y Lolita and the inauguration of a new president, George J. O'Brien of Pasadena, a vice president of Standard Oil of California. O'Brien is far from being a synthetic Westerner: his maternal grandfather was a Butterfield overland stage driver between St. Louis and San Francisco.
Before a man is admitted to membership ($150 a year dues), he is invited to make a couple of treks to find out if he knows one end of a horse from another and enjoys the camaraderie of the ride. The Rancheros see to it that the guest has a chance to savor their informal spirit. One stable horse in the string is trained to get down in water. This horse is passed around among first-year guests and is a sure bet to dunk his rider in every stream.
Celebrities are not excepted from Ranchero informality. Actor Robert Montgomery was once invited. He came equipped with a valet and a supply of pink sheets. El Presidente Mitchell galloped off, gathered up all the perfume he could find at home and returned to douse Montgomery's bed, much to the actor's chagrin. Edgar Bergen, a veteran Ranchero who also received the perfumed bed treatment, always totes Charlie McCarthy along. Bergen rides; McCarthy travels in a trunk on a baggage truck. When asked, Bergen entertains, but he makes the ride primarily as a friend and fellow horseman. And that, in essence, is what marks the spirit of the trek. The riders simply like to spend a week living a California life that has long since been relegated to history. Los Rancheros Visitadores have fun, but as El Presidente has remarked, "It is the ride that makes the fun, not the fun that makes the ride."