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.