Subscribe

Sonoma Stories: For 70 years, it’s been quite a ride at Cloverleaf Ranch

Cloverleaf Ranch owner Shawna DeGrange, right, and her mother Ginger DeGrange pose for a portrait in the saloon and event space at Cloverleaf Ranch in Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, September 14, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

CHRIS SMITH,

Before Cloverleaf Ranch became a saddleback wonderland and wellspring of lifetime memories for kids from both down the road and across the seas, it was a large — 180 acres — but otherwise fairly typical post-World War II rural Santa Rosa homestead.

There were eight or so dairy cows. Ginger DeGrange, who has lived since 1947 on the Old Redwood Highway property barely north of the city limits recalls, “We would put milk on the side of the road and they (the dairy drivers) would come pick it up.”

Ginger’s late parents, Larry and Grace Armstrong, also kept several horses, beef cattle, hogs and lambs. Their daughter says, “My mother thought it would be fun to raise turkeys,” but the poultry experiment was short-lived and about as much fun as a peck on the ear.

The horses were a whole different story. Larry Armstrong had loved the animals since he won a pony, when he was about 8, in a drawing in his hometown of Calistoga.

At the time he was recovering from a near-fatal illness. DeGrange said “The pony was the one thing that kept him going.”

Larry Armstrong believed everyone should experience riding and getting to know a horse. His daughter rode solo for the first time well before kindergarten and, clickety-click, became the 1963 Sonoma County Horseshow Queen, the 1964 Sonoma County Rodeo Queen, the 1966 California State Rodeo Princess and the 1972 State Horsemens’ Association Reserve Champion, worked for a time as a French teacher and for decades taught all things equine at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Now 71, Ginger was still a toddler when something sparked her folks’ interest in inviting children to Cloverleaf Ranch for riding lessons and summer camps. Larry and Grace Armstrong arranged for the three sons of friends in Walnut Creek to come up on their break from school to work on the ranch and ride.

It was a happy experience for all involved and started Larry Armstrong thinking about making the ranch an equestrian center — and creating near the ranch’s two 1860s redwood barns a camp in the likeness of an Old West town.

A true craftsman, he built the Buzzard Gulch Hotel, rustic cabins, the Old Feedbag dining hall, a chapel, the Red Dog Saloon and other structures that would be right at home on the set of a TV western.

And the kids came. Before long, the Armstrongs’ summer day and overnight camps were drawing dozens of youngsters per summer session, and in time well over 100.

The amenities multiplied; in addition to horseback riding, campers engaged in archery, swimming, football, softball, volleyball, tennis, Ping-Pong, hiking, arts and crafts, campfire songs, skits, talent shows and on and on.

The summer of 1963, DeGrange, then 17, had just graduated from Santa Rosa High School and was helping run the camps. A mutual attraction to an 18-year-old riding instructor from Amador County, Ron DeGrange, led to a first kiss alongside the former swimming hole.

They married a decade later and in the late 1970s succeeded Larry and Grace Armstrong as owner-operators of Cloverleaf Ranch. They gave birth to a son, Ty, and daughter, Shawna.

Just as her mother had, Shawna grew up on the ranch and on horseback, favoring the competitive event of reining.

She graduated from nearby Ursuline High School in 2000, went to college in Southern California and then returned to help manage the countless facets of running the family ranch that since 1947 had evolved from a summer camp into a riding school, boarding stable and events venue.

Now 35, Shawna was just 28 when she became the third-generation owner and operator of the ranch in 2010.

“It’s crazy to think I’ve already been doing this as long as I have,” she said.

Assisted by her parents, who still live on property, Shawna has refined the camp programs and made them accessible to more kids by creating a nonprofit that, with the support of local Rotary Clubs, provides scholarships to campers from low-income families.

Piggybacking on the success of the late actor and philanthropist Paul Newman’s “Newman’s Own” foods where sales benefited charitable causes, Shawna generates income for camp scholarships by selling bottles of her Cloverleaf Ranch barbecue sauce.

Also on her highly piled plate is the need to deal with the implications and perceptions of plans for development of about 21 acres of land that were an important element of the ranch until 2002. That part of the 180 acres are owned by her uncle, also named Larry Armstrong.

He is pursuing a deal to sell his 20-plus acres to a developer who envisions a retreat, events venue and vineyard to be called Solstice Sonoma. His niece Shawna tried to find a way to bring his parcel back into Cloverleaf Ranch but has accepted that it will become something else.

She focuses on her 160 acres and on the equestrian haven that’s marking its 70th anniversary. Shawna has a whole stable of goals, with the key one being: “I want to be here for another 70 years.”

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.