The Changing Landscape

Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 6/1990

It’s easy to envision the history of the changing landscape of Kings Mountain’s forested areas: In the 19th century the mill men chopped down almost all the trees and burned the slash and dragged logs across the forest floor, scraping off the loam, and by the 1880s the Mountain top looked like a nuclear bomb had been dropped here. Since then the forests have been growing back steadily. But it is really quite hard to envision the changing landscape of the Mountain’s north and southwestern faces over these last 200 years.

Originally, it was all sagebrush, as it mostly is now. Then between fires set to clear the land (part of the agricultural tradition of the 19th century western movement) and the vast Spanish and Mexican coastal cattle herds which tromped down sagebrush, the land was cleared and grass grew everywhere you now see sage. Grassland was useful and sage wasn’t. It stayed that way as American dairy men took over the Mountain’s north and Southwestern faces in the 1850s. It remained that way until the dairyers were driven away in the 1920s by the economics of bigger, modern-technology dairies on the flatlands.

This 1948 picture looks down the first long, straight, open and downhill stretch on skyline as you head north. The cluster of trees in the center (still there today but bigger), planted in the 1850s was the center of the 19th century Paddy Ward home and ranch. The trees on the Knoll to the upper left marked the Van Winkle dairy ranch which operated the entirety of the 1850s to the 1920s and of which I’ve written a great deal (both here in the Echo, in my La Peninsula manuscript, and in a display at the country Store’s museum). Note in the picture that by 1948 sagebrush had started to reclaim the landscape and if you go to this spot now you see mostly sage. Note too that a lot more trees have been planted along Skyline since this 1948 picture was taken–tied to the handful of homes that are there now.

But then look at the 1921 uphill views from the Van Winkle ranch shown in backdrop of these next two pictures. There is no unevenness to the backdrop because it was still all grass. In the lower left of the first of these two pictures you can see the size of the barn they needed to keep all their cattle. And the cattle kept tromping the ground which kept the sage down. And in the picture on the next page you see that even little Mary Ednah Peddesaro, a 1920s sharecropper’s daughter on the Van Winkle ranch had a pet dog and calf. Cows were everywhere.

But don’t underestimate the degree to which the logged over top of the Mountain took a long time to fill in. From the 1890s through the 1930s it was common for flatlanders to come to the Mountain for berry picking parties. But as the forest grew back the ever bigger trees sun starved the berries and in my years on the Mountain I’ve watched the last of the berries all but disappear. The only material remaining patches up top are in the Old Ranch Road area.

This 1921 shot of the Old summit Road was taken just before they started building the modern Skyline on top of it. The setting was on hermit George Harkin’s land, what is now the area immediately south of the Kings Mountain Country store and the MROSD’s northern parking lot. Note the openness and the grass under the trees. Just north of there and in the flat forested area across from the store (east of Skyline) Sherri and I once found the metal and stone remnants of a cabin site, including a plow shear (it now is on display in the Museum’s display case–Iower shelf, center). with the trees all cut down someone had tried to farm the area. Little did they appreciate that you can cut down a redwood but you can’t kill it, and you can’t hold back a redwood forest with hand tools and horse drawn plows.

Finally, stitching through the sage and chaparral on the Mountain’s north face is a patchwork quilt of old 19th century fencing. Much of it I found a few years ago when the San Francisco Water Department allowed me to do historical explorations of their watershed lands. The monthly June Rotating Display at the Country store’s museum will be showing the originals of the four pictures in this article plus others depicting the Mountain’s changing landscape. Ranging from 1920s shots showing today’s redwoods when they were much smaller and only 30 years old–to current close-ups of 19th century dairy fencing overgrown by 20th century sage and poison oak–this month’s museum display offers visualizations of our changing landscape which are otherwise hard to envision.