Preserving the traditions & conserving the land

History / Legacy

History - Past to Present

The El Sur Ranch was originally formed as one of several hundred ranchos created during the 1800s, in California’s Spanish-Mexican period. The El Sur grant was made in 1834 by Governor Jose Figueroa to Juan Bautista Alvarado. The ranch was managed and then assumed by Alvarado’s Uncle, Captain John Rogers Cooper. Early records indicate a 5-year contract signed in 1843, to lease El Sur to John Dye, a Kentucky native who used the ranch to raise mules. In the 1850s, El Sur was again leased to dairymen who milked cows and produced cheese for the Monterey market. Cooper himself, at this point, began to use the ranch to run his own herd of beef cattle.

Land cultivation began on the El Sur Ranch around the turn of the 20th century. In 1905, Martha Cooper Vasquez filed a notice of appropriation announcing her intent to divert water from the Big Sur River for irrigation use on the coastal terrace north of the Big Sur River. The irrigation plan was prepared for Mrs. Cooper by Monterey County Surveyors.

Until the 1920s, Captain Cooper and his descendents, who were to become some of the largest landowners in Monterey County, continued to use El Sur and its natural meadows for beef and dairy cattle and began experimenting with agriculture along the coastal plain, including artichokes and peas. In 1928 the ranch was bought by Harry Hunt. In 1932, Hunt installed an irrigation system using two centrifugal pumps mounted to a concrete foundation still in place today. Hunt’s irrigated agricultural uses including alfalfa, barley, corn, potatoes and carrots. The land was converted back to pasture in 1938. Electricity reached Big Sur in 1948, allowing Hunt to design and build a new irrigation system north of Big Sur River in 1950. The well, pipes and valves laid out in 1950 are still used on El Sur Ranch today.

In 1955, Cortlandt Hill bought El Sur Ranch from Harry Hunt. Since 1955, the Hill family has retained the property and manages the land in a manner that preserves its historic pastoral beauty, much to the benefit of Big Sur’s many sightseers.

Legacy - A Heritage of Community, Culture and Conservation

El Sur Ranch, a family owned and historic California coastal ranching operation, has since its inception, recognized its responsibility to the spectacular coastline that defines its western most boundary. El Sur Ranch’s commitment to the preservation and protection of coastal ranching and its environs has also included its role as neighbor to those within the greater Big Sur community. Examples of the Ranch’s commitment have been and continue to include the Ranch’s leadership and participation in numerous community projects such as: implementation of tree re-planting and erosion-control programs, the removal of non-native, invasive plant species, as well as involvement in a variety of scientific environmental studies that have substantially improved our understanding of this diverse and spectacular environmental resource.

The rugged and relatively pristine nature of the area has seen its share of natural disasters and is visited regularly by conflagrations such as the massively destructive fires that roared through parts of the community in 2008 and 2016. Demonstrative of the Ranch’s sense of duty to its neighbors and to the community, El Sur Ranch’s owner has consistently participated in local fire fighting efforts. Indeed, Mr. Hill received an honorary lifetime membership in the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade for the ranch’s contribution of resources and personnel in fighting the Big Sur Fire of 2008. The Ranch was also recognized for its support of fire-suppression efforts in 1977, 1986, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2016. This continues a Ranch tradition of providing both fire fighting equipment and resources to the Brigade for the protection and benefit of the community and the passing public.

El Sur Ranch also extends its support to law enforcement in an area whose vast geography would tax any emergency or law protection effort and is a major supporter of the Big Sur Health Center.

El Sur Ranch understands and appreciates the importance of coastal ranching and its preservation as a part of California’s heritage. Responsible coastal ranching remains a key element in the protection of open space and of a ranching culture and heritage that has been disappearing all too quickly from the California landscape. The need for preserving coastal ranching is described in The American Farmland Trust 2008 prediction that some 2 million acres of farmland in California could be gone by 2050. The importance and significance of safeguarding sustainable agricultural land as a public policy priority is recognized within the California Coast Act, Section 30241, “The maximum amount of prime agricultural land shall be maintained in agricultural production to assure the protection of the areas’ agricultural economy….”

Spirit, beauty and a sense of strength in the wilderness describe this windswept coastline but also describe the lifestyle and unique cultural heritage provided by this family ranching operation, where the Hill’s next generation is inolved in daily chores and livestock management. El Sur Ranch occupies a unique niche in both the landscape and in the spirit of the Big Sur community. The State of California and the Big Sur community continue to benefit from the Ranch’s respect for open space and its preservation of a lifestyle that defines an independent spirit.

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