Hunewill Guest Ranch Annual Cattle Drive
The Hunewill Guest Ranch is nestled at the foot of California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada. Founded in 1861 by Esther and Napoleon Bonaparte Hunewill, the 4,500 acre spread now boasts more than 2,500 head of cattle and 170 horses. Every fall ranch cowboys drive the cattle the 60 miles from Bridgeport, California, to their winter pastures in Smith Valley, Nevada, keeping alive a century-old tradition.
Napoleon Bonaparte Hunewill’s ancestors were French Huguenots from Alsace-Lorraine who settled in Maine, where Hunewill was born in 1828. At the age of 24, Hunewill voyaged to San Francisco to seek his fortune in the gold fields of California. His efforts were rewarded with a sizable fortune in gold dust and nuggets, and he soon returned to Maine to visit his family, meeting and marrying a local girl named Esther Ann Hughes while there.
Hunewill and his new bride returned to San Francisco, where they spent a year providing lumber for the gold fields before deciding to try their luck at mining. They headed east in ox-driven covered wagons over the Sierra Nevadas during the summer of 1861 bound for Aurora, a new gold and silver camp in the Utah Territory. Noticing the local need in Aurora and burgeoning Bodie for more lumber, Hunewill rode into Big Meadows (near present-day Bridgeport) to investigate the heavily timbered mountain slopes overlooking the beautiful valley. By the winter of 1861, he had filed for water rights and homesteaded 160 acres, where he would build his first sawmill.
In 1872, Hunewill acquired even more land—where the Hunewill Guest Ranch is located today—and built a two-story Victorian house, which still serves as the ranch’s main accommodations. By 1879 he had decided to venture into the cattle business, and he continued to work on the ranch until the day he passed away on December 6, 1908.
Hunewill’s grandson Stanley took over the management of the ranch after his grandfather’s death. Having grown up riding horses, Stanley became the first full-time Hunewill cowboy, raising prize Hereford cattle and registered Morgan horses. To avoid constantly feeding the cattle during the harsh winters at the ranch, Stanley decided in 1910 that it was time to winter the cattle in a lower and warmer elevation. He bought property in Smith Valley, Nevada, about 40 miles northeast of Bridgeport, and in 1931—with the Depression in full swing—Stanley and his wife, LeNore, decided to combine the cattle business with a guest operation, which has been a successful venture ever since.
When I arrived for the ranch’s centennial cattle drive in 2009, I gathered with a group of 25 guests inside the ranch’s wooden barn. Most of them were return guests who had developed friendships over the years. Fred Shean had been coming for 30 years; 21 years ago on the drive, he met his wife, Kay. Betsy Elliott, a member of the Hunewill family, gave us a brief overview of the next five days, as well as some pointers on horse safety and “cow sense.” The objective: Driving more than 600 head of cattle for 60 miles to their winter pastures.
“We are proud and happy to be able to carry on this tradition—be prepared for all types of weather!” announced Elliott. At the sound of the dinner bell, we all congregated toward the dining room where a tasty dinner was served family style. Friendships were rekindled while everyone warmly greeted the newcomers.
The next morning, I stepped out of my cozy cabin into the chilly mountain air. After a hearty breakfast, we gathered by the barn where head wrangler Megan Wright and her assistant Jay Joseph matched us with our horses. The sun slowly warmed up the grasslands and shed a golden light on the meadows surrounding the ranch by the time we headed out.
We picked up the herd in a boggy pasture south of town. In the distance, the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas loomed over the valley. After following a highway for a few miles, we veered off on a sandy trail bordered on one side by the Walker River and on the other by sheer cliffs. We worked hard along the way to push cows out of thick willow patches.
We broke for lunch on the north side of a reservoir dam, where the chuck wagon waited for us with a display of tasty vittles. We took turns eating while the rest of the group kept an eye on the herd. After lunch, we resumed the drive for the day. The sun was disappearing behind the ridges by the time two riders finished taking a count as the herd went through the gate: 626 head. Back at the ranch that evening, we all shared the highlights of the day around the dinner table.
Now I’m left with poignant memories: the camaraderie shared by all, the sweet scent of sage or pinyon floating in the air, the grinding noise of the wooden wheels of the chuck wagon on a dusty trail, the sound of a bygone era, the musky smell of horse blankets as you unsaddle your horse at the end of the day, the light clatter of the cattle’s hooves on the highway, the bite of the cold wind in the early morning, the majestic beauty of the Sierra Nevadas’ jagged peaks, the vastness of the Nevada desert, the smell of rain and wet dirt before you even feel the first drops, the celebration at the bar of the Bridgeport Inn after the drive, but most importantly, the rewarding feeling of accomplishment, of having contributed to history and the pride of carrying on the myth of the range-riding cowboy.
For more information, call 760.932.7710 or visit www.hunewillranch.com.
See the Hunewill Ranch in C&I’s “Best of the West” feature in the June issue.