We gather on the patio of Esther Isaacson’s house at El Chorro Ranch on a bright April morning. There is a springtime intensity — the sun is almost too warm, the earth is humming, but mercifully, the wind has settled. Esther has lived in this house since 1941, but perhaps to put our presence into perspective, she points out an oak tree that’s at least five hundred years old.
This beautiful land, located midway between Gaviota and Lompoc, belonged first to the Chumash Indians and was later a part of La Purisma Mission. It was subsequently obtained by the Santa Barbara Presidio to provide beef for the soldiers — at this point it was called Rancho Nacionale. Later, it was renamed Rancho San Julian and was acquired by Jose de La Guerra, part of 50,000 acres which stretched from Vista del Mar to Jalama Beach. Baine Isaacson, Esther’s husband, bought several hundred acres from Bill Dibblee in 1939. This was El Chorro Ranch. Two Clydesdale horses and a kerosene stove completed the picture.
Esther speaks of a man named Frank Beggs –he was of the generation of Dibblee Poett’s mother — whose father had been manager of Rancho San Julian for several years. Young Beggs went to school on horseback, and could be seen riding adeptly through the hills without a saddle. He made the acquaintance of Fernando Librado, an old Chumash who used to live in a cave near what is now Vista de las Cruces School. Fernando told him that he wanted to hitch a ride with Beggs to go to Mt. Tranquillon, an extinct volcano (on what is now the south part of Vandenberg Air Force Base.) He wished to obtain certain plants and herbs which only grew in the rich volcanic soil. Beggs agreed to take Fernando partway to the mountain, and he did so more than once. The two became friends, despite the chasm of culture and age. It is interesting to imagine these unlikely companions traveling over the hills, perhaps more alike than not.
Esther seems as rooted and right as the oak tree here. We ask her where she grew up. “I am a local yokel,” she replies. Her father, Anton Ibsen, was one of the original builders of Solvang. He arrived with a group of Danes in 1910 who purchased land to establish a community where their language and customs would be preserved. The only structure there at the time was the mission.
Esther was the second baby born in Solvang to a Danish family. Her childhood was wonderful. Solvang was a village where, as Esther puts it, “Everybody did everything together, and they made a great occasion of it!”
At Christmas, there would be an enormous tree with live candles. Men would stand by holding long sticks with wet rags around them just in case a branch caught fire. There was no Santa Claus, but there was candy for the kids, and Scandinavian folk dances. “It was a matter of getting together with everyone. That was the fun of it,” says Esther.
Esther attended Solvang School and Atterdag College, both of which have since been torn down. “I can’t even prove I’ve been educated,” she jokes.
She remembers playing “kick the can” as a child, and another game called “Alley, Alley Olsen Free”. In the latter game, a ball was thrown over the schoolhouse; then one team tried to get to the other side of the school house without being caught by the other team.
There was one place in town to see movies, and in those days, they were all black and white and silent. You had to be able to read the words to understand what was going on. “I learned to read at four,” Says Esther, “so by five, I was the expert. Some of the others couldn’t read, so they always wanted to sit near me.”
“There was a young boy who played piano for the movies. That was the only noise in the theater, except for the laughter. If the movie got very exciting, he would just forget to play! Then there would be no sound at all.”
“One time, we had just seen a movie called Covered Wagon, which was about the old West, cutting down trees, clearing the land. My cousins and I were inspired by this. We decided to use my uncle’s cornfield. We took our little wagons, and we brought saws, and we chopped down stalks and cut beautiful roads all through the cornfield. My uncle wasn’t too happy.”
Church was an important part of life in Solvang. There was also a gymnasium where people gathered and “that’s where all the celebrations took place.”
Esther became a schoolteacher and taught several different grades. “Some of the kids could not afford shoes,” she says, and “they had to walk a long ways. There were no buses.”
Several of Esther’s students came from Los Olivos. There was a blacksmith who lived there whom everyone thought was a terrible man. One day he was killed in a mysterious explosion that “blew him through the roof”. The cause of the explosion was never explained, and no one seemed to care. The only thing Esther remembers is that none of her Los Olivos students came to school that day.
Esther had dreams of travel. “I was never going to be a farmer’s wife or a rancher’s wife,” she says emphatically, “That would be the living end.”
Life, of course, doesn’t always work out according to plan. Esther met and married Baine Isaacson in 1939. She tells an amusing story of her first experience at the ranch.
“The first time I came here, there had been sixty-four inches of rain. It washed out this road completely, and we had to walk very carefully across the slide. My husband wanted to show me how wonderful it would be. As we came to the gate, he said ‘I bought a new Caterpillar tractor, and I’m proud of it.’ And then, ‘Oh, no!’ All you could see was the smokestack and the seat. It had all sunk down in the water. Now it was up to me to cook the dinner, and there was that cursed kerosene stove. I didn’t know how to use it. And my husband couldn’t get that tractor out of the mud for several days.”
During World War II, the house was kept dark at night with black-out curtains and drawn shades. “My husband had to check the beaches at night,” she says. “One day, I actually saw a little submarine.”
There was no telephone when the Isaacsons first moved to El Chorro. Baine finally built eight miles of line and let people hook up. Thereafter, whenever someone had a problem with their telephone, he would fix it for them. He did it as a service and never got paid. “He was a very nice man,” says Esther.
Esther learned to love life at the ranch. She visibly brightens when reminiscing about the days she spent here with her husband, raising their three sons. Her youngest son, Bob, and his wife Sally, are spending the morning with us. We ask Esther if she has a favorite spot on the ranch.
“I guess it’s kite hill. There’s a special place for kites right up on top. It overlooks a big puddle…when it rains it fills up to make a nice lake. We used to have a kite-flying day. There’d be as many as forty-seven kites flying at one time from that hill.”
We linger on the image of forty-seven kites dancing in the wind. As if that weren’t joyful enough, she talks of treasure hunts to which she would invite all the children. She would spend a month preparing — digging a hole, burying a chest (but not before applying red paint here and there to look like blood), mounting old cowboy hats with arrows to trees, leaving clues all over the ranch. The kids would have the time of their lives following the clues and unearthing the treasure.
Baine loved steam engines and built four or five of them, so the ranch even had its own miniature railroad. The kids enjoyed riding around on what Bob fondly refers to as “El Chorro Railroad”.
Bob brings up yet another unusual memory. When Vandenburg Air Force Base first started shooting missiles off in the 1950’s, they would often blow up in the air. He recalls seeing huge green explosions at night. This was all very exciting to the kids, for whom it was a veritable fireworks show.
After Baine passed away, Esther took some time to travel. She has been to Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Indonesia, Australia, Mexico, and Alaska. “I liked it all,” she tells us. “I love people. I love strange places. People were so interesting, so friendly.”
But there’s no place like home. Esther’s love for El Chorro Ranch and the memories it holds is obvious. She wonders aloud if the children know how lucky they are to live in the country. “It is a privilege to be here,” she says. She rises from her chair, leans on her cane, and goes into the house. She returns with three boxes of popsicles.
Author’s Note: The visit described above took place in the 1990s with students of Vista de Las Cruces School. I returned by myself to visit Esther about ten years later, in 2007. For a write-up of that subsequent visit, see “The Lady of El Chorro” on the Still Amazed blog portion of this website right here.