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Mary Stephens Dewall

Mary Stephens Dewall
Retired Yolo County Librarian
People around here moved their sheep to the hills.

Mary Stephens Dewall comes from a family lineage that herded sheep along the Cache Creek during the turn of the 20th century. Her first job was sheep herding as a kid for 50 cents an hour and she looks back on the creek with fond nostalgia.

To this day, she finds peace and solace while visiting the Cache Creek Nature Preserve.

Can you tell me your name and your relationship to this place?

My name is Mary Stephens Dewall and I’m the niece of Kate Stephens Salisbury, who is one of the early owners of the Cache Creek Preserve property.  We’re in her barn where my father lambed many, many years ago, in the early 1900s. 

Could you describe where we are and what you see around you?

Yes, we’re in what I happen to know was a sheep barnthat resembles the one that I grew up with though some of the innards have been taken out. I see a wonderful old grain harvester and you pointed out a barn owl; I can’t imagine a barn without a barn owl. 

Is there anything you’d like to tell us just about the family history when you guys first came here?

My grandfather, George D., was a 49er and he and his brother, John D., came for the gold rush from Missouri like many old Yolo pioneers.   Anyway, they acquired a fair amount of land around here.   I really need to look up the documentation of the division of the land among the family—John D. had one child and my grandfather had thirteen. A well-known attorney from Woodland, Elmer Armfield, helped divide the land into pieces in such a way that each kid got a ranch—I think they bid on it according to their age.  Anyway, Aunt Kate was the eldest out of thirteen and she chose this piece [the Cache Creek Preserve Property].

Do you know of any activities that your aunt had done on this land? Such as farming?

Well this part would have been sheep grazing.  We were all shepherdesses, but across the road she usually always had wonderful tomatoes… That’s what I remember her raising when I was growing up. I’m sure they would have rotated that with something like wheat.  In those days we also raised barley because it went to England for malt.  And this area raised a famous Durham Barley in particular.

Did you help with the sheep?

Yes, actually, my first job was herding sheep for fifty cents an hour.

How was that?

Oh, it was fun. We had wonderful Greek and Basque sheepherders who were lovely to us kids. The people around here moved their sheep to the hills where the casino is—I used to run sheep up Highway 16 in the late 40s, if you can believe that.  The whole idea was to breed the lambs to sell for the Easter market in the east.  And we all raised our own sheep feed, wheat and alfalfa, so we always had natural, unadulterated food—I mean we had organic lamb in those days. 

Then you know, as a kid, you learn that you kept the bucks away from the ewes.  I remember babysitting bucks at different times to be sure they didn’t get out and in the wrong fence.  Another interesting thing was that the sheepherders prided themselves on the number of twins their sheep had. If a baby lamb died, they’d skin it and put the skin on a twin and the mother that lost the lamb would take it.  You would see little lambs with another skin on them.

Was your aunt successful with this land?

Yes she was very successful, but that was before gravel. I mean folks who bought it later and sold it for gravel were even more successful.

Could you tell me about this transition from her land to mining?

You know, I just wasn’t here at the time or involved with it. I just remember hearing my parents say that Aunt Kate’s land had been sold and I don’t remember who bought it—whether Teichert bought it right away or if there was somebody in between.  I think there was somebody in between, but I don’t remember.

Could you tell me about an activity that you have been involved with on this land?

Well—supporting the Conservancy and visiting it. I love to bring people here and there are still a lot of people even in Davis that don’t know this exists.

What impact has the Preserve had on you or others you know?

It’s just helped me to appreciate

the beauty of Cache Creek and how lucky we were to grow up on its banks. I love to garden and I don’t think I would have liked it so much if I hadn’t had such beautiful soil to learn in.

Why is this place, the Preserve, as a whole important to you?

Oh, I just think it’s wonderful they are trying to preserve what Cache Creek looked like. I grew up on the creek further west and always loved it. We had a lot of fun times there, skinny-dipping and smoking in a tamarisk bush when we shouldn’t have been.  Fort Cussing is what we called the bush.

Is there a certain memory that really stands out to you?

Our parents were playing bridge and we would visit Fort Cussing

with our cousins and we had to cuss to get in—mild cuss words compared to today. We would steal our aunt’s cigarettes and cut them in half and smoke them.  And out of the six or eight of us only one smoked and we all got it out of our systems. 

What have been some of your favorite experiences here?

Well I just think the beauty of the place and the creek. I guess you haven’t seen it flooded.  You see, they’ve changed the creek, but when I was a kid, it would flood all over.  That was always kind of interesting.  Our house was on high ground and I’m sure this one was too. The creek was just really wild.

Written by: 
Grace Son

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