Tale of two ranches



When Irvin Barnard joined the Kaweah Colony, the struggling co-operative endeavor gained one very important asset. Comrade Barnard had considerable capital and was able to purchase a 240-acre tract of land at the lower end of the North Fork canyon for $2,000.  After the period of road building, with tent settlements at Advance and elsewhere up canyon, the move marked the final phase in one of the most colorful chapters in California’s history: the Kaweah Colony.

One poetically inclined colonist described the area of this new Kaweah Colony townsite:

The canyon broadens here—

with calm incline

The hills up-billow 

from the oak clad plain;

The river ripples blithely 

over stones

Or rolls thru pools with 

soothing undertows.


But don’t get me started on the Kaweah Colony. The last time I started writing about those old-timey North Fork hippies, it resulted in over 100 columns for this newspaper. I don’t think anyone is prepared for something so long-winded ever again.

In recent years, I have repeatedly promised (or threatened, depending on your point of view) to start submitting articles to the Commonwealth again. Now I have come upon a subject that is part western legacy, part present-day show-stopper, and part future and continuing asset for the community. 

Amazingly, they recently relocated right here to the lower North Fork, where “the canyon broadens with calm incline” and “the hills up-billow from the oak clad plain.” But the sounds of the “river rippling blithely over stones” are now complemented by the thundering hooves of horses and the excited voices of adventurous young girls. 

When I learned that the world-famous Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls are now based in Three Rivers, at a property that I have written about on more than one occasion, I decided I had to learn more. 

* * * 

It was while having a beer at the Gateway that I fell into conversation with a congenial fellow one barstool over. He wore a cowboy hat and had a voice like a rodeo announcer. 

We got to talking about the Chilcott place up past the Roping Arena and its connection to the Kaweah Colony. I explained that it was the location of the Kaweah Townsite during the last days of the colony, and later was owned by the Redstone and Hopping families, who were prominent members of the failed co-operative endeavor. 

I mentioned that the Hopping brothers ran a stagecoach to Sequoia National Park during those early days when the Colony Mill Road was still the only road into the park. 

It was about then that I had to confess (okay, brag) that when it came to questions about the Kaweah Colony, he was talking to the right person. I had actually written a book on the subject. 

There is no way this didn’t sound like a blatant boast. Just like now, I suppose.  

But it’s key to the story, so I include it, even if it makes me look like a bit of an ass. Chad Nicholson (by now I knew my barstool companion’s name, and he actually is a rodeo announcer) explained that his wife ran the Riata Ranch, which had recently relocated to the Chilcott property. 

The world-famous Riata Ranch now in Three Rivers? Color me impressed. 

And, yes, of course I’d heard of them. I’m not a total city boy. I’ve been to a rodeo or two. Or at least the Woodlake Rodeo more than once.

I have also previously written about the Chilcott’s Redstone Ranch. The former site of the Kaweah Colony was later owned by Dr. Forest Grunigen (a Hopping descendent) who sold the property to Bob and Janine Chilcott in the 1980s. 

With an appreciation for local history, they named it “Redstone Ranch” and for many years raised Percheron horses on the property. 

For several years, the Chilcotts hosted Woodlake High School-Class of 1924 reunions with Dr. Grunigen and several of his classmates. I was fortunate to attend one of the last of these reunions in 1999 and featured an account of it in a biography of Dr. Grunigen that I co-authored.

And my experience with two more things qualifies and motivates me to write about Riata Ranch. Horses and show business. Make that three things. Horses, show business, and pretty young women. 

I have fond memories of helping bring horse and actress (portraying Eva Evans, the “Train Robber’s Daughter”) together on stage at the Fox Theatre in Visalia. And how many sitcom producers get to work with a horse as talented as Gunner and actresses as lovely as Kat and Beth? 

And so it wasn’t long before I contacted Jennifer Welch Nicholson, Chad’s wife and the executive director of Riata Ranch International. At the time of this writing, I have already spent a couple Saturdays at the former Redstone Ranch, watching Jennifer work with the young girls and talking with her about the past, present, and future of the Riata Ranch. 

I plan to spend a lot more time at the ranch and with the performing Cowboy Girls on tour later this year. And if you haven’t gathered by now, I am destined to write a multipart series on the Riata Ranch for The Kaweah Commonwealth. 

In coming installments, I’ll look back at the history of the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, all the way back to its founding in 1957 by the late Tom Maier.  I’ll profile the talented performers and their spectacular trick riding and roping and take readers behind the scenes. 

I’ll highlight the training of young girls and the wonderful life lessons they learn at Riata. I’ll trace the path Riata took to Three Rivers and how their relocation came to be. 

And finally, I’ll look at the future goals and plans for Riata as, from here forward, it becomes a Three Rivers institution. 

In the meantime, join me this Saturday at the old Kaweah Townsite, the former Redstone Ranch, for a Riata Open House. Located where the North Fork canyon “broadens with calm incline” and “the hills up-billow from the oak clad plain.” (Okay, 42390 North Kaweah River Drive, beyond the Roping Arena.) 

I hear there will be food, prizes, riding lessons, and the world-famous Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls will be performing! It all starts at 10 a.m. I hope to see y’all there.

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