Working Ranch

by Paul Zimmerman  September 1981

The early settlers of Leisure World recall having to drive up El Toro Road quite a piece to a little store for groceries and a lot farther if they wanted to have dinner out.  Those pioneers also remember Standard Oil at the corner of El Toro and Paseo de Valencia was the only gas stop for miles around.

In this day when there are almost as many service stations, super markets and restaurants (not to mention banks, savings and loan, department stores, etc.) as stars in the galaxy, the [com]plaints of the first residents seem reasonable enough.

“Not so,” said one Ed Salter. We feel sure he will be forgiven for smiling with disdain, because as a boy in his ‘teens, young Salter labored over Leisure World acres for his share-cropper father on what once was the famous Moulton Ranch. In those days life was self-sustaining.

“I used to milk cows in a barnyard where the Standard station now stands,” the retired citrus grower, then living in Orange, recalled with forgivable nostalgia.  On the spot that now is Delaney’s Restaurant [Laguna Hills City Hall], I harnessed spans of mules to plow the fields in what is now Leisure World [Laguna Woods Village] and take our grain to the El Toro railroad station [which no longer exists].  We raised wheat and barley on what is now the golf course. We had another 80 acres that now is the Laguna Hills Mall. Many a time I worked that ground with an 8-mule team hitched to a 3-share plow. We called it sub-soiling back in 1912.”

The Salter ranch home stood where the Orange County Fire Station is now located. The barns, granary, livestock yards, etc., sprawled over what now are the Hyatt Motel restaurant complex and adjacent parking.   Ed Salter recalls, with mingled poignancy and amazement, how the bulldozers and graders came in one day to obliterate his home site and change the contour of the hills on which he once toiled so hard and long as the hills became the most remarkable retirement community in the world—Leisure World of Laguna Hills, that is.

“I often used to drive past on the San Diego Freeway. One day my home was gone. Then buildings began to take its place. You people followed,” he said with mingled emotions.   For Ed Salter time had eased the pain of those years of hard labor and difficulties now long removed. Yet he was a bit tentative when he said, “They were happy days, I guess.”

Horace and Sarah Salter, after once farming what is now Knott’s Berry Farm (their home was situated at the site of Independence Hall’s replica), moved their family of seven to the Moulton spread in 1912 when they leased 1,600 acres. The rent was one-fourth of their crop output.

Other neighboring share croppers at the time were the families of Gene Ahren and Barnie Clinard. “We raised wheat, barley and black-eyed beans.  After our harvest we helped our neighbors; at a dollar a day.” He says the price was right because boys didn’t get as much done as their elders.

It was not all work. In the off season Ed remembered hunting trips and he didn’t, have far to go. It was Aliso Creek, which runs through Leisure World.

“There was plenty of game—deer, quail, anything you wanted. And other animals you didn’t necessarily want: skunks, coyotes, wildcats, fox.”

During the fall and winter the Salters got their education at a little school house on El Toro Road.
“After school we’d hurry home and work until dark, pitching hay, chores around the place. We did about six hours of work in two and a half hours before it got dark”

Ed recalls a high point in his young life. That came when he was 14 and he graduated from eight to 14 mule teams; when he got to drive the wagons laden with tons of sacked grain to the rail siding.

“Driving 14 mules hitched to heavy wagons is a tricky business. Wagon and team strings out about 70 feet. Even when you have a great lead mule, and we had one named “Babe”, it is tough. One thing you can’t do with a 14-mule team and wagon is back up.  My father attached bells to the hames of Babe’s harness so other wagons could hear us coming and avoid trying to pass at turns and narrow points in the road.

“In those days it was important to get to the railroad siding, where the box cars were to be loaded, ahead of the other folks. Otherwise you could spend the better part of a day just waiting your turn.
It got to be a game to see who could get there first. We worked out a system. One of us climbed to the windmill tower where we could see the station and also keep an eye on rising dust, indicating wagons of our neighbors were on the move.”

Mules–4 miles per hour

Because the Salters lived closer to the railroad they had an advantage. Once the train was in and the neighbors started converging, they could hastily hitch their wagons and hit the road.

“A team of mules hitched to a wagon averaged about four mile an hour, so usually we had a pretty good edge.”

A bumper crop in 1918 heralded the beginning of the end for the Salters as share croppers.
“We had an unusual harvest. There was a food shortage at the end of World War I so prices went up. After we had sold our grain and beans, dad splurged. He bought two automobiles, new clothes for all of us and things for mother she’s always wanted, but we couldn’t afford before. He still had $20,000 left over.”

So the Salters started looking around. In 1920, after buying a 20-acre citrus ranch near Corona, they turned their backs on the Moulton land that today is Leisure World.   In 1977 Ed Salter still was raising oranges, now on a limited scale, but he continued tilling the soil even though he had graduated from a span of mules to a tractor a long time before.   At the age of 74, at that time, he admitted his mind never quite accepted the transition of his old homestead on Moulton Ranch.

As he drove by on San Diego Freeway, Ed Salter still remembers the rolling hills—now the beautiful retirement community in Laguna Hills—as the land he once tilled with a span of eight mules hitched to a three-share plow.
(Edited 12/1/2014)

About the Author: Paul Zimmerman’s more than four decades as a newspaper reporter started with the Nebraska State Journal while he was an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska. Less nomadic than most newsmen of his era, he held only two jobs thereafter. He spent a dozen years with the Associated Press. His 30-year span as sports editor of the Los Angeles Times was interrupted by army service in World War II. After two years as an infantry officer in the CBI, he was assigned as officer in charge of all army publications in ETO, including five editions of Stars and Stripes and three editions of Yank magazine. Mr. Zimmerman lived in Leisure World and served as public relations director for Rossmoor Corporation.