Guejito: California‘s Last Rancho

On September 20, 1845, Jose Maria Orozco, a customs agent, boarded his horse-drawn wagon and headed north from Old Town San Diego to what is now Valley Center to claim a piece of land covering three square leagues, approximately 13,298 acres.

The property was a gift from the Mexican Governor of California, Pio Pico, who had handed out similar vast parcels to other friends and patrons. It was one of 800 so-called Mexican Land Grant ranches awarded during a romantic period of history known as the “Days of the Dons”. Orozco named the place Rancho Guejito (pronounced wah-hee-toe).

Today all but one of those 800 land grant ranches is gone, carved up for developments, shopping centers, housing tracts, and towns. That lone surviving historic parcel is Rancho Guejito.

Located off Lake Wohlford Road on the east side of Valley Center, Rancho Guejito — despite its vast size — remains hidden but is just minutes from Valley Center Middle School and down  the road from Bates Nut Farm, a popular tourist destination.

The ranch has had eight owners over the past century and a half, and has grown to 21,400 acres or 36 square miles. It covers a vast portion of the area known as Bear Valley, the original name for Valley Center. And, except for a hacienda built 30 years ago as a residence for the present owners, the historic ranch is exactly as it was in 1845 when Orozco first laid eyes on the parcel, a naturalist’s paradise and a working cattle ranch.

Untouched by time, the property has been described as a ranch “that cattlemen see only in their dreams” and a place “where the old west is alive and well”. A rancher who ran cattle on the site for decades declared, “This is where the asphalt ends and the Old West begins”.

In the latter part of the 19th century, some 2,000 steers were driven to the ranch from the Oklahoma Territory in an event some called “The Great Valley Center Cattle Drive of 1884”.

A century later, 1984, there was a major cattle round-up at Guejito attended by famed ranch hands and country music singer Charlie Daniels.

The Valley Center Historical Society, which maintains a permanent exhibition on Rancho Guejito at the History Museum, has a significant archive on the property including copies of original maps, deeds and documents, many in Spanish, which was the official language of the territory in 1845.

California’s rancho period, romantically known as the “Days of the Dons,” covered less than 30 years, roughly 1816 to 1846. Vast tracts of land were parceled out lavishly to faithful friends and loyal followers of the Mexican Governors of California. These owners were known as “Dons”, translated as a Spanish nobleman or gentleman. It was a feudal-like era and they lived like kings.

Don Jose Maria Orozco was a justice of the peace and a customs inspector in San Diego when Governor Pico gave him the gift of Rancho Guejito. Four years earlier, Orozco had married Guadalupe Alvarado whose father, the influential and prominent Don Juan Bautista Alvarado, already owned an adjoining 13,000-acre ranch called El Rincon del Diablo (now the city of Escondido).

Orozco built an adobe home, raised great herds of cattle, and hosted countless fiestas, many of which attracted guests from 60 miles away. Governor Pico and his wife attended a fandango and rodeo at the rancho. Orozco and Guadalupe raised three children, Agustin, Trinidad and Luisa, during their nine-year residency.

More than a century after the original Orozco family settled on Guejito, 60 or more descendants still live in Valley Center, although none has a proprietary interest in the ranch. Most of the modem-day family members spell their name Orosco. A mountain range called Orosco Ridge can be found on modem-day maps in the area of San Pasqual Valley, and there is a street named Orosco Truck Trail.

Except for a rare tour — the Valley Center Historical Society has sponsored two such events over the past two decades — precious few have seen the unspoiled vastness of the ranch. Mostly chaparral and grassland, cattle graze over much of the property.

The ranch boasts great stands of the county’s rare Engelmann oaks, and there are reports that 16 species of raptors, among them the Golden Eagle, make their home on the property. There are also prehistoric American Indian sites, archaeological resources, and the presence of some endangered species of animals. It is not uncommon for a mountain lion to approach a visitor. An adobe house on site is believed to date to 1859 and there are remnants of a once-active winery.

Comprising more than 90 contiguous parcels, the ranch has grown over the years from its original historic size of 13,298 acres to approximately 23,000. The largest single addition came in 1940 when the adjoining Vineyard Ranch at 4,500 acres was annexed to Guejito. The most recent acquisition was the purchase of the equally historic 100-acre Rockwood Ranch in 2006.

Vineyard is best known as the site where the largest-ever California Grizzly Bear was weighed in 1866, giving Valley Center its original name of Bear Valley. The Rockwood property, at the south end of Guejito, boasts an historic house, built in 1883. A classic Victorian barn, dating to 1882, was destroyed by the wildfires in 2007.

The present owners of the Guejito, Rancho Guejito Corporation, have done much to retain the flavor of a time when life in pastoral California was simple, feudal and, in retrospect, romantic. Although the owners have flirted with future development of the property, it remains a working cattle ranch and a virtual time capsule from 1845.

In its commitment to the preservation of local history, the Coates family donated $100,000 to the museum’s endowment fund in memory of the family patriarch.