John Willms and business partner John Kappelmann did not strike it rich in the Gold Rush.
Good thing. They instead turned their attention in 1852 to raising horses on a spread near Knights Ferry. The business later shifted to cattle and today, 160 years after the founding, is still in the Willms family.
The family celebrated the anniversary earlier this month with a party at the ranch that drew about 175 relatives and other well-wishers, said Shirley Willms McPhee, a great-granddaughter of the co-founder.
The ranch is one of the oldest businesses in Stanislaus County, which had not yet been carved out of Tuolumne County when it was founded.
A 1921 book compiled by George Tinkham, "History of Stanislaus County, California," has an entry on the then-69-year-old ranch.
It tells how Willms and Kappelmann "took up what claims they could and bought out claims from other settlers until they had a tract of 3,600 acres where they engaged in the raising of horses for the market, each year driving them across the mountains to Virginia City and Bodie to market."
Willms married his partner's sister, Elizabeth Kappelmann. They had seven children, some of whom carried on the cattle ranching.
Ray Willms, a grandson of the co-founder, recalled this period in a 1980 story in California Grower & Rancher magazine.
"They ran a limited cow-and-calf operation and fed out steers they bought in Arizona or Nevada at $1 a head," he said. "I can remember the excitement of driving down to Riverbank and watching the train pull in with my father, coming home from a cattle-buying trip."
Lovers Leap part of ranch
The ranch reached about 10,000 acres at its peak but now is down to about 2,300. It takes in Lovers Leap, a promontory between Highway 108-120 and the Stanislaus River.
Another grandson, Clayton Willms, talked of his love for the land and his desire never to sell in a 1998 profile in The Modesto Bee. His obituary in 2008 expanded on it:
"He was always checking fences, windmills, watering holes and the river
The ranch was always his refuge where the winds blew warm on the hills and the valleys glow golden in the sun."
The 1980 story quoted Gary Willms, a great-grandson:
"We have a heritage to look out for, and we're lucky to have had ancestors who hung on, just like we are, to pass it along to us."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.