The laws of mankind favor early adopters. From the industrial revolution to social media, fortunes were won and lost off the ability to recognize opportunity first and the courage to bet on that opportunity. Bernard Sinsheimer was such a man. The Sinsheimer family, who later anglicized their name to Sinton, immigrated from Burstadt, Germany to the U.S. in 1863 – the year ground was broken in Sacramento for the construction of the first transcontinental railroad – when Bernard was 15.
At the age of 26, he came to San Luis Obispo where he worked as a clerk for Pollard & Beebee. Two years later he purchased the business with his brother. The store they later built still stands today in downtown San Luis Obispo. Bernard almost immediately began purchasing land in earnest. By his early 50s he had acquired 5,000 acres in the Avenales area, half of which he subsequently lost, along with almost everything he owned, when he was unable to pay off a mortgage.
The turn of the last century was rife with opportunity for the enterprising and land hungry. Unable to own land in his native Germany, Bernard seemed intent on purchasing as much land as possible. Over the next 27 years, he would piece together land in what would become the Canyon Ranch near Shandon and reclaim the rest of the Avenales Ranch in the Los Padres National Forest.
The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed Americans to claim 160 acres of federal land. After meeting certain requirements, including living on the property for five years, the claimant could win title to the land. In the eastern states these 160 acre parcels were large enough to sustain a family. But in the remote, arid Avenales, 160 acres just wasn’t enough and most homesteaders would sell soon after they received title to the land. Bernard bought every parcel he could.
Land scrip, redeemable in federal land, was given to veterans of our country’s early wars but by the early 1900’s was nearly worthless in the Eastern states as there was no public land left. It was sold to speculators for 10 cents on the dollar who then exchanged it for large tracts of land in the west. Bernard acquired the Canyon Ranch from such speculators.
Bernard’s grandson Jim Sinton’s earliest memories are of working with the cowboys gathering wild horses and cattle at the Avenales Ranch. Raised in Burlingame and Hillsborough, he spent summers on the ranch and although he was raised with everything a young San Francisco could offer, always knew that the ranch would be his home.
The early days on the Avenales were right from a Zane Grey novel. While Jim and the men would ride into the Avenales on horseback, a trip that would take all day from the more accessible Canyon Ranch, Jim’s mother Flo-Flo came down with her friends on the train. A ranch hand was sent with a buggy to pick them up in Santa Margarita which was 35 miles away – a trip that probably took 8 hours. The days were spent playing bridge, talking, walking, and of course riding. BBQ’s and stories told by larger than life characters filled the evenings.
Jim would have liked to raise his family on the Avenales but settled on the Canyon Ranch instead so his children, Patricia, Gail, and Steve, could attend school in Shandon. Like his father, Steve also always knew that the ranch would be his home. His children, Julie and Daniel, were also raised on the ranch, attending school in Shandon and then Stanford University just as he did. Daniel is now raising his children, the 6th generation, on the ranch.
Explosive growth has dramatically changed the nearby landscape over the course of these six generations. Jim recalls a time when Paso Robles had 60 children attending school. Now there are about 5,000. Miles of ranchettes in what was once wilderness line the now paved roads. Through the generations, land has slowly been sold for a variety of reasons.
But stories of the land are inextricably woven with people who care for it and the Avenales is no exception. Values of stewardship and the desire to leave the land in better condition than when they found it ran deep through the generations. The Avenales is now owned by Bernard’s great great grandchildren in trust with the goal of preserving it for future generations. The plan was to mitigate the ever present pressure to sell off parts of the ranch by placing it under a conservation easement.
After seven years on the California Rangeland Trust’s waiting list, the 12,284 acre Avenales Ranch is finally conserved forever through a partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Board and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Bordering the Carrizo Ranch which is also conserved by California Rangeland Trust, the Avenales conservation easement brings the total connected acreage conserved by the Trust to nearly 40,000 acres. The Avenales also borders the Nick Ranch, conserved by the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County, and the Los Padres National Forest, bringing the total connected wilderness area to over 1.8 million acres.
Home to the headwaters of the Salinas River and Santa Maria River, the ranch provides breeding, migratory, and hunting habitat for a variety of species and is critical California red-legged frog and California condor habitat. The family is not only committed to conserving the ecosystem values – over the last 50 years many UC Cooperative Extension studies were conducted on the ranch and it was the original release site for Tule elk by the California Department of Fish and Game (now Department of Fish and Wildlife) over 25 years ago – they are also generous in sharing this piece of land with the public. Riding groups come to the ranch to ride and camp and several Sierra Club hikes occur each year.
As the Rangeland Trust nears its 20th birthday, the closing of this generational treasure brings with it a significant milestone. Already the largest statewide land trust in California, the addition of the Avenales Ranch brings the total conserved acreage in California Rangeland Trust’s portfolio to over 300,000 acres – something worth celebrating!
First published in the May 2017 issue of California Cattlemen’s Magazine