Mountain Life as it really was – through the eyes of one family

Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 10/1989

As discussed in my last blog, the Mountain’s dairyers distinguished themselves as settlers with big families. The Van Winkle family best exemplifies these traits, both by being involved with Kings Mountain for so long, and by size. Only the Hatch and Harkins families (to be covered’ in future blogs), could claim such continuous presence here. This is the Van Winkles’ story, beginning with Magadelena Moylan.

It started in Ireland. Her father’s Irish name was originally spelled Moyhan.

Back then, foreigners found their names misspelled so often by Americans that many eventually found it easier to switch to American versions. So it was in California for the Moyhans. But first, before that, back in Ireland, her father, Thomas Moyhan had romanced Lady Jane Burke. Jane’s folks were low level nobility and objected to her marrying a tradesman and Catholic. But love won. Tom and Jane fled to America. They had three daughters – two lived – only one to adulthood –  Magadelena.

Thomas Moyhan
Magadelena Van Winkle
Peter van Winkle

In 1851 Thomas Moyhan/Moylan took what at that time was his family of four to the promised land, San Francisco, via the pre-canal Isthmus of Panama (marching overland). Here, he tried his hand at both butchering and selling coal, which was ironic because in that era coal furnaces gave most cities a nasty soot-based air pollution. He quickly developed lung disease. Strangely, he thought Kings Mountain would be healthier. Our moist fog-belt probably speeded his death which came six years later from black lung hemorrhaging – at age 43. Imagine the pain! Anyway, in the mid-1850s he bought 285 acres on the west side of Skyline. As you come up from Hwy 92 it was in the middle of the first long-straight stretch, after the curves. No surprise – he dairyed.

Earlier, in 1849, the gold bug bit 22 year-old Peter Van Winkle, a 5’ 3 1/2” tall, stocky, brown haired, gray eyed New Jersey lad whose folks were straight from their ancestral home in Winckle, Holland. Peter became an original 49er, also arriving via Panama. By 1853 the gold was failing and few folks had actually found much. Most 49ers gave up – including Peter. So…  he tried local dairyinq – fresh milk – in San Francisco. Eventually he decided it was better to own your own land further out, where land was cheap, selling older “cheese” milk in town. In 1859 he bought 203 acres next door to the Moylan ranch – just south of it. This property included the knoll top, and centered around what is now the Alvin Bell residence at 12130 Skyline Blvd. It wasn’t sagebrush as it is now. When Van Winkle saw it, it was clear rolling qrassland, perfect for dairying, having been mowed down, as discussed last month, by the Mission’s huge hide-herds from earlier decades.

In 1859 Van Winkle was 32 years old and earnest. Now, there were lots of single men on the mountain then, but few were earnest. Most sought their morals from the bottom of a bottle and their female companionship in Redwood City’s brothels. So Thomas Moylan smiled on the attention the earnest young Peter Van Winkle paid to his daughter, Magadelena. On Auqust 7, 1860, one day before her 16th birthday, they were married in San Francisco. The fact that the marriage was held in church in San Francisco was perhaps symbolic. It presaged how San Francisco’s emerging infrastructure including churches, hospitals, telegraph, electricity and telephones would undermine the will of the early Kings Mountain pioneers, causing most of our 19th century pioneer families to eventually seek a softer life in town, and making Kings Mountain a ghost town and summer cabin haven by the mid 1920s. But anyway, back to our story! In 1861, within a year of Peter and Magadelena Van Winkle’s wedding, both Magadelena’s younger sister and father died. Her mother promptly sold her farm and moved back to San Francisco, where life was civilized. It sure wasn’t here.

But Magadelena was amazing. A pug-faced girl who life gave few kindnesses, her first 16 years saw her uprooted and transplanted to a heathen world. She had witnessed three of her four immediate relatives die. And here she was, stuck on a mountain, with grizzly bears still roaming about, no plumbing, married to a man twice her age, who she barely knew, and connected to civilization only by a rutted, muddy wagon road. So, like a real Mountain girl, she grabbed life by the throat and shook it – hard. In the next 21 years she bore 11 children – only one died – three strong sons and seven beautiful daughters, ones the mill men would have loved to have gotten hold of. Not with Magadelena around! For while she could create life under difficult terms, she would also sternly raise her children to escape to a more civilized world.

They built the plushest home then on the Mountain – a large two-story farm house, with a veranda across the front – capable of housing 15 people, a screened “milk house” to keep flies from the fresh milk (shown to the home’s left), a large barn and hay loft, and numerous outbuildings, sheds, and fencing. Some of the house’s fixtures were purportedly brought here “around the horn” by boat, as there was little available then on that scale in San Francisco. They surrounded the house with Cypress trees, as was the fad among our earliest settlers (none of the cypress you see on the Mountain’s north end are native). Their kids attended Laguna School, just south of our current Hwy 92, and just above what would become our lakes (dammed more recently) – across the road and just downhill from Byrnes Store (See my earlier blog – as you go west up 92, in midst the only straight stretch between the lakes and the pass, look to the right, under the trees, just above the quarry’s driveway – you can still see the concrete foundation from Byrnes Store). Peter Van Winkle served as a school district trustee. During the school year the Van Winkles provided housing for the teacher. A large scale family was a lot of commitment for such a rugged environment. But Magadelena was up to it. She created it. It was that or die. In my next blog I’ll cover the Van Winkles’ evolution from their happy home through the next generation and, finally, up until they lost the ranch in the 1930s.