by Joanna Metheny
Most locals are familiar with Caswell State Park. It’s our closest State Park, and lies right at the edge of town at the end of Austin Road along the Stanislaus River. The park offers visitors hiking, fishing, camping, swimming beaches, and plenty of infamous mosquitoes. Caswell is home to a rare native oak riparian forest which provides habitat for countless species of wildlife, as well as miles of scenic trails to meander along. The forest itself is an endangered habitat and part of only 2 – 5% of California’s original native riparian forests. While the park draws hundreds of visitors seeking recreation each year, many of them are not aware of the area’s vibrant past.
While most of us today are familiar with the Central Valley’s patchwork of agriculture, just 200 years ago, the area was home to vast grasslands full of pronghorn antelope and elk, forests with grizzly bears, and rivers flowing with steelhead trout, salmon, and plentiful waterfowl.
Few people lived here, save small tribes of Native Americans from the Yokut tribe. These natives lived along the river, hunting, fishing, and practicing vegetation management to sustainably manage the forest resources around them. Fur trappers would make their way along the river, where they found bountiful game. In the late 1700s, the Spanish began colonizing the Bay Area, and gradually began exploring further inland, trying to draw the natives they encountered to Mission San Jose in order to convert them and provide a more “civilized” existence. While they introduced the Yokut to horses and agriculture, they unfortunately also introduced them to foreign and sometimes devastating disease.
Likely the area’s most famous early resident, Estanislao was a rebellious Christian Native American who deserted Mission San Jose and then started an uprising of natives amongst several local tribes of Yokut and Miwok. Soldiers unsuccessfully tried several times to capture Estanislao in order to punish him for leaving the mission, and his uprising subsequently grew larger. The situation escalated and Estanislao’s group began attacking Mexican soldiers, stealing horses, and murdering people, which then caused the Mexican government to take action and assemble a huge army to defeat the natives. In the late 1820s, there were a series of 4 battles between the Mexican forces and Estanislao’s uprising. The Mexican army was mostly thwarted by native fortifications, and ultimately Estanislao evaded capture, only to later turn himself into Mission San Jose where he was pardoned. His legend lived long after he did, and the river to the south of Ripon was eventually named the Rio Estanislao, or the Stanislaus River as we know it today.
More than 100 years later in 1940, ranch foreman Jesse Franklin discovered a cannonball on the Caswell Ranch property. It is believed dated to the era of Estanislao and suggests that the Caswell Park area may have been the site of one of the four battles between him and the Mexican army.
Sometime around 1860, after California had become a state, a family by the name of Pope purchased a large area of land along the Stanislaus River, to the south of what would become modern-day Ripon. The Popes raised cattle, timber for fuel, and would frequently host sportsmen as well as feed wandering desperados.
In the early 1900s, the Pope’s ranch was passed down to perpetual bachelor brothers Henry and Fred Wille. The “Wille Boys”, as they were known, made a living forging plow equipment, deer hunting, and farming beans, grapes, and timber. They found the trees along the river, while plentiful, to be lacking in much use beyond firewood.
In 1915, local prominent cattle rancher Thomas Caswell purchased 700 acres of river area acreage from the Willes, 200 of which was comprised of the dense forest surrounding the river. Caswell thought the tranquil landscape would be an ideal place for children to thrive, and gave up the land to the local Presbyterian Church in hopes of starting a working farm orphanage for homeless teenagers. While there was considerable local support, including private funding, the orphanage unfortunately did not come to pass, and Caswell once again found the river frontage in his hands.
While the family began to farm alfalfa and beans on the land, they took pains to preserve the native forest land, a tradition upheld by sons Henry and Wallace, after Thomas Caswell’s passing in 1927. The brothers hired ranch foreman Jesse Franklin in early 1937. Franklin and his family moved onto the property during a wet and rainy February, where he once recalled, “The mosquitoes were so bad that we had to wear masks and jackets to keep them from eating us up.”
In 1950, Thomas Caswell’s grandchildren, Helen and Jennie, continued his legacy and desire to see the river area bring joy to others, by donating the riparian oak forest to the State of California. The state added additional lands and in 1958, the 258 acre Caswell Memorial State Park officially opened. Today it provides a rare area of untouched habitat for several threatened and endangered wildlife species, as well as glimpse of what the Stanislaus may have looked like hundreds of years ago.
About the author: For nearly a decade, Joanna Metheny has been a freelance writer specialized in the coverage of local topics and community interest stories. A Central Valley transplant and Bay Area native, Joanna permanently relocated to Ripon and hasn’t looked back once. She loves the city’s proud agricultural history and small town feel. Joanna enjoys spending her time in the community, tending her garden, and discovering local secrets along Ripon’s backroads.