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When everybody was a cowboy

Rudolph Cordova was born and died within 10 miles of the family's longtime Castaic cattle ranch

Posted: April 2, 2013 10:00 a.m.
Updated: April 2, 2013 10:00 a.m.
Rudolph Cordova at work at the family ranch in Castaic, where the June cattle roundup highlights each year. Photo courtesy of Cordova family Rudolph Cordova at work at the family ranch in Castaic, where the June cattle roundup highlights each year. Photo courtesy of Cordova family
Rudolph Cordova at work at the family ranch in Castaic, where the June cattle roundup highlights each year. Photo courtesy of Cordova family

When Rudolph Cordova — affectionately known as “Uncle Rudy” to many — died late last year, a generation of Santa Clarita Valley historic memories went with him.

It was a generation that saw horse-drawn wagons as a routine mode of transportation; one to whom the word “neighbor” meant a family commitment, not an accident of geography; a generation dedicated to the family livelihood — in the Cordova case, cattle ranching — as were family members who came before and those who would come after.

The Cordova family of Castaic may well be the longest-lived family in the Santa Clarita Valley, said Fred Trueblood, whose own family arrived in the valley in 1938 and long owned The Newhall Signal.

Jesus Cordova served as a scout for John C. Fremont, guiding the explorer through the Santa Clarita Valley on one or more of Fremont’s western expeditions of the 1840s, said Bettyrose Cordova, widow of Rudolph’s brother Lawrence.

The family homesteaded in Castaic in 1834.

The youngest in a generation of 18 Cordovas — 13 of whom survived to adulthood — Rudolph Cordova was born May 12, 1928, in the family’s Castaic Canyon ranch house.

“He was born and died within 10 miles of the ranch house,” Bettyrose Cordova said of her brother-in-law. “This branch of the Cordova family has never moved away.”

His father, Marcus Cordova, was a cowboy like his brothers and his sons after him. His mother, Rosa Cordova, ran a household of 13 children and helped work the ranch. When she needed supplies from Los Angeles, Rosa Cordova had two choices, Bettyrose Cordova said: Take a wagon to Castaic Junction and a train into the city, or drive the wagon to Beale’s Cut in the Newhall Pass, where she paid a toll to traverse the mountains that motorists now speed past on Highway 14 or Sierra Highway.

Cattle ranching has been as constant as the Cordovas’ residence in the Santa Clarita Valley. The highlight is the annual roundup in June, a tradition still carried on by family members and friends.

“I believe that it’s the last regular roundup in Los Angeles County,” Trueblood said. From the ranch’s headquarters now located above Castaic Lake, “every June guys go down on horses and bring the cows up to the ranch headquarters ... and then they put them in a pen,” said Trueblood, who joined in many a Cordova roundup. “They run them through a squeeze chute and spray ‘em and tag ‘em. They brand them in the old-fashioned way.”

Nancy Cordova, daughter of Lawrence and Bettyrose Cordova, now runs the family ranch.

Rosa Cordova was pregnant with her youngest son when the St. Francis Dam failed on March 12, 1928, sending more than 12 billion gallons of water crashing down San Francisquito Canyon and the Santa Clara River Valley to the Pacific Ocean, killing at least 600 people.

She was among those who helped identify the bodies of victims recovered in the wake of the disaster, Bettyrose Cordova said.

Ignacio Cordova joined a search party for victims, finding the body of a school friend lodged in a treetop among the wreckage left in the Santa Clara River bed. The victim’s apparent death rattle — what Ignacio described as a hiccup sound — drew searchers’ attention to the body, according to family lore.

The Cordova ranch in Castaic Canyon was well above the area devastated by the dam’s collapse. But with the failure of the St. Francis Dam, a new water-storage reservoir was needed for thirsty Southern California. The immediate answer was Bouquet Canyon Dam, completed in 1934.

Eventually, the solution would include Castaic Lake, which in the 1960s would take the Cordova ranch house, most of the ranchland long held by the family, and other ranches of longtime canyon residents.

Rudolph Cordova was 13 in 1941 when the United States declared war on Japan He would become the fifth of seven Cordova brothers who would serve their country during or after World War II.

John Cordova was killed during the battle of Okinawa in 1945, and William Cordova was wounded during the first day of the Omaha Beach invasion in 1944. Eventually, younger brother Rudolph would serve in the Army but never be posted overseas. Bettyrose Cordova is convinced the sacrifice of his brother John spared him hazardous duty.

After serving his country, Rudolph Cordova went to work as a derrick man. From the top of an oil-drilling derrick, he would guide 90-foot-long stands of drill pipe in the drilling process.

Although he never married or had children, the youngest of the Cordova men joined his family in strongly supporting Castaic Elementary School, recalled Gloria Mercado-Fortine, who grew up in Castaic with Rudolph Cordova’s nieces Nancy and Donna, daughters of Lawrence and Bettyrose Cordova.

“Everybody was a cowboy around there — especially Rudy,” Mercado-Fortine said. “He was always called Uncle Rudy — all us kids called him Uncle Rudy.”

Lawrence and Rudolph Cordova provided steadfast behind-the-scenes support for the school while Bettyrose Cordova was PTA president, she recalled.

“It was like living something out of the past,” Mercado-Fortine said. “(Rodeo performer and actor) Montie Montana would come to the school for assembly.”

Located on Ridge Route Road, Castaic Elementary had its own park and swimming pool, as well as stables and a herd of cattle. The principal and teachers lived on campus, Mercado-Fortine said.

“Sometimes I think back and I think, wow, what a unique experience, what a unique childhood we had,” she said. “It’s so sad to lose someone who’s such a big part of our history behind Castaic and the whole Santa Clarita Valley.”

Coming from a family that hunted to put food on the table, Rudolph loved hunting and shooting.

“Trap shooting — that’s how we first became friends,” Trueblood said. “Those guys were accomplished hunters,” he said of the Cordova men, but with Rudy it was a particular passion.

One year in a trap shooting competition in Bakersfield, her brother-in-law scored 498 out of 500 and won a “beautiful belt buckle” of which he was very proud, Bettyrose Cordova said.

He also loved a good laugh — even at his own expense.

One night he needed to haul oil-drilling gear over the Grapevine but was concerned the truck didn’t have the horse power for the job, Bettyrose Cordova recalled. He decided to get a running start on the grade and floored it before the hill.

He passed a California Highway Patrol car and kept on going, the CHP car left in his wake, she recounted. But as the truck slowed on the grade, Cordova’s plan was foiled. The CHP caught up with him.

Another time, Trueblood recalled, Cordova got wind of a truck hauling Ore-Ida French fries that overturned on the Grapevine, spilling its load down a canyon.

“Get your truck and let’s go get ‘em,” Trueblood recalls Cordova saying. “We loaded all those French fries up and we took ‘em back to the ranch. Rudy fed the pigs those Ore-Ida French fries for I don’t know how long.”

Though he loved hunting with the Cordova men, Trueblood said his favorite memory was joining the family for the yearly ritual of making Christmas tamales.

“We’d make Christmas tamales in the old fashioned way, with real (corn) husks. My job was to tie the ends of them,” he said. “The Cordovas were always warm people.”

With Rudy Cordova, a neighbor in need was a chance to help, Trueblood said.

He recalled laboring under a hot summer sun to put up fence posts on his Castaic property with only a post hole digger. Rudy stopped by and saw “I wasn’t making much progress,” Trueblood said. “He says, ‘Wait a minute. I’ll be right back,’” and returned with a Ford truck and auger to complete the job.

“People helped each other a lot back then,” Trueblood said. “It’s the way things were.”

In 1962, events were set in motion that would forever change life at the Cordova ranch, where three generations of Cordovas were born and lived, loved and toiled.

In April 1962, as suburbanization rose like an unstoppable wave in the Santa Clarita Valley, residents voted to connect to the State Water Project, creating the need for a dam that would provide water to the valley — and the opportunity for a dam that would serve other areas of Southern California.

The dam, state officials decided, would be located at the mouth of Castaic Canyon, claiming all but 100 acres of the Cordovas’ original Castaic ranch land grant. Construction started in 1967.

Bitterness over the land seizure lingers.

“Back then, they just came and took,” said Bettyrose Cordova, who was born in Long Beach but raised in Castaic. She and Lawrence Cordova made their first home together in a trailer at the mouth of Castaic Canyon.

“We were forced out,” she said.

The five ranchers in the canyon were given 90 days to clear out, Bettyrose Cordova said. But after seven days, she said, government workers came in and burned their houses down.

Despite lingering resentment, she acknowledges the necessity of the lake. “It’s better for the state of California to have that dam than to have those five ranches,” she said.

With just 100 acres to ranch on, the family had to sell most of its cattle, said Nancy Cordova. But grazing contracts for adjoining land, including U.S. Forest Service property, have allowed the family to maintain a working cattle ranch.

Many Cordova family members still have homes in Castaic. The dining room window of Bettyrose Cordova’s home frames a view of Castaic Lake dam’s stark gray face.

Although times have changed, Nancy Cordova doesn’t expect the Cordova ranching tradition to end anytime soon. She has three nephews, she said. “We’re hopeful all three would go into ranching.”

Services were held for Rudolph Cordova on a rainy afternoon in December at Eternal Valley Memorial Park. Trueblood, who attended the graveside ceremony, recalled with a chuckle that nearly everybody wore a cowboy hat.
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