By Debbie Teofilo
Special to the Sun
Every visit to the Rankin Ranch in Walker Basin near Caliente confirms that it is so much more than a cattle ranch. The latest field trip there with the Kern River Valley Historical Society proved to be no exception.
Yes, you are surrounded by thousands of acres of gorgeous pastureland with grazing cattle and horses, barns, and white ranch houses. But even more memorable is feeling the heart and history of the founder’s family, which continues to run a successful family business after 154 years of hardship, adaptation, and triumph. It quickly becomes evident by their own example that strong family values and perseverance make a powerful combination for achievement. You leave the ranch feeling optimistic about the future knowing that all of us should be able to put those same successful principles into practice in our own lives, too.
Rankin Ranch was founded by Walker Rankin as a cattle ranch in 1863 during the Civil War. He became a ranching pioneer by being the first to import and raise White Faced Herefords in the area, a breed that the Rankins still maintain. His original 640 acres has grown to 31,000 acres today, and Rankin Ranch is now one of the oldest and largest family-owned ranches in California.
The ranch has since expanded its business to raising crops as well as cattle. Owner Bill Rankin likes to say, “We have always been grass farmers, but because people won’t eat grass, we’ve had to raise cattle to eat the grass and provide the beef as food, instead.” His son Jason grows and sells grain hay and alfalfa, and the ranch now grows crops for other companies on contract, such as broccoli, carrots, and other grains.
There have been many business setbacks and family tragedies over the six generations at the ranch. The family always worked together as a team–male and female, young and old–to support each other in hard times. Bill’s wife, Glenda Rankin, likes to share these stories with the younger generation, saying “Kids should know where they come from and what the family has gone through. Knowledge of family joys and hardships will create an important bond and a lasting sense of pride for each generation that follows.”
When founder Walker Rankin died in 1918, his wife Lavinia ran the ranch with the help of her family members. Their son, Lee, sold his property in Onyx and moved with his family to the ranch, which thrived under his management. Lee and his wife, Julia, were both tragically killed in an automobile accident on Christmas Eve in 1929. Lavinia moved temporarily to their second home in Bakersfield to be with Lee and Julia’s teenage sons, Leroy and Billy, so they could finish high school there.
After college, the two young men returned to operate the ranch together during difficult economic times while the country was recovering from the depression. Billy died at the early age of 27, leaving his brother Leroy to run the ranch alone. When Leroy died at age 42, his wife, Helen, was left with three children and a ranch to run.
In order to preserve the long family heritage, Helen made the decision to manage the ranch herself rather than selling it, which would have been the easier option. She learned ranch operations and managed the ranch, rode with the cowboys, and raised her children, all with success. Her son, Bill, the current owner of Rankin Ranch, returned to run the ranch after his graduation from college. He was faced with great responsibility, but to this day, he says, “God has created no work on earth that offers a more rewarding life.”
In 1965, Helen decided to start her own business venture to supplement the often unsteady income generated from their cattle business. She opened the doors of Rankin Ranch to overnight guests as a “dude ranch” for six months each year so they could share their Western ranch lifestyle and gracious hospitality with vacationers from around the world. The popular guest ranch continues to thrive over 50 years later. Because the Rankin hospitality makes guests feel like part of their extended family, sixty percent of them return for future vacations and others come back to work at the guest ranch.
Bill and Glenda Rankin’s four children all grew up on the ranch, and are now making individual contributions to the business by starting their own agricultural enterprises and educating others about the industry. Three of them still live on the ranch with their own families who continue to assist with the cattle and guest ranch operations.
In addition to Jason’s crop raising business, daughter Sarah and her husband raise bees for pollination and sell honey products and goat milk soap. Daughter Amanda specializes in selling USDA certified Rankin Ranch beef directly to the public and to Kern County restaurants, including Coseree’s Deli at Rio Bravo Ranch and Temblor Brewing Company in Bakersfield. Daughter Rebecca is a teacher and librarian in Bakersfield who is involved in educating the public and other teachers about the cattle and agricultural industries through seminars and the California CattleWomen organization.
The Rankins have always been very involved in their communities and their industry, having had founding and leadership roles in the Kern County and California Cattlemen’s Associations and CattleWomen organizations. Rankin Ranch appears on lists of California Great Ranches and Historic Dude Ranches, and has been the subject of articles in many publications. Earlier this year the family and its unique occupation was profiled on the Travel Channel’s “Life’s a Trip” series with actor Patrick Warburton and his son.
In spite of their successes and accolades, Bill Rankin feels most blessed for his greatest accomplishments: raising a wonderful family and caring for the land entrusted to him. He recently stated, “The history of Rankin Ranch was created by a cast of characters as American as our founding fathers, and our family’s efforts are remembered by loyal descendants eager to follow in their footsteps. We are proud of our family, our ranch, and our country.”
A statement by a family friend appeared in a Rankin Ranch cookbook which echoes the sentiments of anyone who comes to know the Rankin family and its ranch: “You are guardians of a vanishing way of life and we applaud your efforts to preserve it.” In these uncertain times, our own futures may depend upon it.