Two-family cattle ranch survives the test of time on Palomar Mountain
By J. Harry Jones
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
December 11, 2008
For seven generations, the Bergmans and Mendenhalls have been driving cattle up Palomar Mountain in the spring and back down to its lower valleys in the fall - a ritual much the same today as a century and a half ago.
The blended families have been major property owners and ranchers on the mountain since it was best-known for renegades and rustlers. Enos T. Mendenhall, who came to the mountain in 1860, was the first family member to run a cattle ranch on its slopes.
Santa Ana winds were blowing through Mendenhall Valley yesterday as about 175 head - 75 of them calves - were prodded south by eight men and women on horseback.
As winter sets in, the cows and calves must be moved from their summer home in French Valley to winter grazing land in Love Valley, about nine miles southeast and 2,500 feet down the mountain. The move keeps the animals out of the cold and snow that will arrive soon and puts them at an elevation where new grass for grazing appears earlier in the spring.
Cattle "are the continuous thread that runs through the 150-year history of the family," Dutch Bergman said. His son, Wesley, and granddaughter, Megan, 16, - sixth-and seventh-generation mountain residents - both herded cattle yesterday.
It was tough work, but the riders clearly enjoyed themselves on a crystal clear day.
"Hey Cow! Hey Cow! Hey Cow!" yelled Nancy Ellis, prompting a few stragglers to get back in line. The Lakeside woman has been coming up to Palomar Mountain with her horse for several years to help with the drive because she loves it.
"GO! GO! GO!" Dutch Bergman screamed at the laggards from the back of his horse, P.J.
P.J. had a much longer name, Bergman said, but he shortened it because "when you want to cuss him out you don't want to waste your breath."
The families own about 3,500 acres on the mountain. They've sold thousands of adjoining acres over the years to the U.S. Forest Service but still run their cattle there. Five family members and one employee regularly work the property, called Palomar Mountain Ranch, of course.
Despite the timeless qualities of a cattle drive on horseback, the family is not above a few modern twists.
Wog Bergman, 81, Dutch Bergman's father and the family patriarch, spent most of yesterday's drive observing from the comfort of his pearl-colored Cadillac Escalade. His legs have been broken too many times, he said, to be riding a horse and chasing cows.
The ranch also has a new Web site - palomarmountainranch.net - intended to attract the visitors and income needed to prevent its Southern California lifestyle from disappearing.
"We do anything that we can to make a profit," Dutch Bergman said. "Running in the black with Southern California agriculture operations is a huge challenge. If somebody wants us to do something for them and are willing to pay us, we will do it."
Television producers have filmed commercials on the ranch, weddings have been held there, and group camping and horseback riding are available.
The families also own heavy equipment used to maintain the miles of dirt roads on their property. "If somebody wants a pond built or a road, we'll do that," Bergman said.
The families slaughter some cattle for food and sell grass-fed beef, but most cows are sold to other ranchers for breeding or for fattening before slaughter.
The fall's drive down the mountain began a bit later than normal this year because the weather has been good. On Monday, the cattle were rounded up from French Valley, a pasture west of the Palomar Observatory at about 5,500 feet in elevation, then led to Mendenhall Valley a few miles southeast.
Mendenhall Valley is huge and nothing like what most people envision when they think of San Diego County. "If you plopped somebody down in here and didn't tell them where they were, they might guess Wyoming," Bergman said.
Only the Palomar Observatory, overlooking the valley to the north, gives away its true location.
On Tuesday, all the straggling cows and calves were rounded up a second time. Yesterday, the herd was led to Dyche Valley, a few more miles away.
The herd should be deposited in Love Valley, northwest of the intersection of State Route 76 and East Grade Road, by tomorrow.
After that, plenty of work will remain. Last year's Poomacha fire burned about 300 acres of the ranch as well as miles of fencing.
"That's been our project this summer; we've been doing a lot of fencing. When I say 'we' I mean him," Bergman said, pointing at Wesley, who smiled and nodded.
But the ranching families of the mountain don't seem to be pining for easier lives.
"Palomar Mountain is a real special place. I don't think there is anything like it near it," Bergman said.
"When visitors see the pastures, they can't believe it. It's not only a special place to us. It's a special place."