The Back Country Land Trust recently announced that it has acquired thirty acres of unimproved land on Alpine’s historic Findel Ranch. The land is on the south side of South Grade Road, and east of the entry to Rancho Palo Verde.
The buildings will remain as property of heirs of longtime Alpine resident Mary Findel. Artists often assemble along the road to paint the scenic old barn and towering trees. Surrounding land will be an open space preserve.
The Findel Ranch has had other names – the Steil place, and “Rancho B. Damn,” alluding to a tendency for things to go wrong while Henry Steil was away. As with most western farm land, it is possible to ferret out a bit of history from federal homestead records.
Steil, German by birth, became a U.S. citizen in New York City in 1873. He was then 30 years old, and like many immigrants, followed the dictum of “go west, young man.” Eventually, he arrived at a place not yet called “Alpine” and found work on Nick Overmier’s place just behind the present Alpine Post Office.
Steil became aware of a very fertile and well-watered place owned by a distinguished-looking man of a venerably old California family. Cayetano Cota had a house and farm buildings on the property. A deal was struck, and Steil moved in. It was early August, 1883.
That fall, Steil and his father built a new house, which measured 12 by 26 feet and had a fireplace.
Five years later, he filled out homestead papers to obtain legal title to his farm. Answering questions on a pre-printed questionnaire, he itemized his crops and possessions, including the well, barn, shed, farm implements, two mules and four pigs.
Several neighbors filled out questionnaires attesting to use of the land. Ed Foss had a place at present Foss Road. Adam Beaty had a place near the south end of Tavern Road, but had not yet built the house, which now forms part of the Alpine Historical Society’s museum. Other names appearing in the file are Emery, just up the road, and John Love at present South Grade and Tavern Road.
Mary Findel lived at the Steil place for almost a half century. One of her most vivid memories was of her neighbor, a wild-looking old man who used to hire himself out to farmers. Mr. Castro’s place was just inside the present entrance to Rancho Palo Verde.
Castro must have had a lot of ammunition in the house. One day the place went up in flames and it sounded as if war had come to Alpine. Mary could only hope that nothing would penetrate her house.
From a nineteenth-century agricultural perspective, Steil picked a good place to homestead. Those who came later got poorer land. The National Archives in Washington has files on all those homesteads, which were almost always subdivided later into the lots of today. Anyone interested in the history of his own house or lot will get many clues by examining the underlying homestead filings.
Additional Information from Albert Simonson:
I found the Steil file:
Single. Bought house and improvements from Cayetano Cota 8/83. He and father built new house autumn ’83. 35 acres in crop, 2 1/2 acres trees and vines. Barn. 2 mules, 4 pigs.
Fourth year he sacked 140 sacks barley and 50 sacks oats
Worked for Nick Overmier. Born 1848, naturalized New York City.
For homestead searches:
From Joanne Findel Nichols, 4/5/06
Some of this is strange to me. I understand that Henry had is main place in part of Wright’s field. As far as my family knows the barn and buildings on this place were built by David West. Part of the front cabin was a chicken pen and when we remodeled it we found square nails that were used in 30’s. The barn also had square nails. It would ge good to look this up. Tell you more later as I will check with my friend Johnny Talamantes.