Prior to the Gold Rush, the economic life of California was centered around the cattle industry. A few hundred head of stock brought from Mexico by the early settlers, multiplied into thousands by the 1800s and by 1825 grazing lands to support the herds grew to the point where hundreds of square miles were required to support a single mission’s herd. Life on the great ranches followed ancient customs, laws, practices brought to Mexico by the early Spanish and transferred to the Californio’s. Stock were grass fed year-round, and ran basically wild on the open ranges. Cowboys were required in large numbers because of the absence of fences. Grain was planted by hand labor and reaped with sickles and bound in sheaves. Threshing was accomplished in a flat, hard circular fenced area. Horses were used to trample out the grain. Winnowing was accomplished by tossing the wheat against the wind. Grinding was done by hand or water driven gristmills. The Gold Rush changed many lives, but agriculture was in the background as a main stay of economic security for many established families.
As early as 1849, produce gardens in Tuolumne County were planted to meet the local demand for fresh fruits and vegetables. Vineyards and orchards planted during the Gold Rush were irrigated by water from placer mining ditches and flumes. Twenty years later, fresh produce was shipped by wagon over the Sonora-Mono Road to the new gold strikes in Bodie and Aurora on the east side of the Sierra Nevada.
Fruit, apples in particular, became one of the county’s oldest agricultural products. Many trees were planted during the Gold Rush and irrigated by water from placer mining ditches. When placer mining dropped off in the 1870s and hydraulic mining was outlawed (1884), many of the water supply systems were abandoned making irrigation of orchards very difficult. Yet by 1910, apple products shipped by the Sierra Railway were a major export of Tuolumne County. With the revival of gold mining in the 1890s, the apple industry boomed again.
Early 20th century was a time of change for most industries of Tuolumne County. Gold mining was declining, replaced by lumber as a major employer in the county. Agriculture, particularly in fruit (apples) showed significant growth. Stock raising however, was still the dominant ongoing agricultural activity.
From the late 1890s to 1920s, Tuolumne County agriculture (livestock, hay and grain and fruit) was a major activity, with livestock being the most important. There were a number of large ranches in Tuolumne County. Cattle were driven into the mountains in the spring to pasture, then returned to the foothills for winter. Livestock became very important and profitable with the Sierra Railway as a major source of exporting outside of the county. Livestock exports increased during WW1, more competitive meat processing continued in larger facilities located outside Tuolumne County, such as Central Valley and the Bay Area. Hay and grain production in Tuolumne County remained here because of local consumption demand.
Today, California’s ranching enterprises are as diverse as any in the world. Most California ranches are family owned and operated, and many have been in the same family four or five generations. For the past 150 years, many Italian families have become one of the main sustaining groups in the ranching industry and continues to the present day.