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Historic Ranch Feted With Anniversary Celebration
Willms 1
Over 175 relatives, descendants and guests attended the celebration marking the 160 years of the historic Willms Ranch. - photo by Photo Contributed

Several generations from the Willms family along with invited guests gathered at the historic Willms house and ranch on Saturday, June 9 to mark the 160th anniversary of the legendary estate.

“We had family representatives from all of the four Willms children that were part of the original homestead,” said Shirley McPhee, granddaughter of Arthur Willms who received the house, but a smaller portion of the divided land after the 1940s.

McPhee grew up on the ranch along with her four other siblings.

The day-long celebration included a tri-tip and chicken barbeque lunch, a live band, along with wagon rides drawn by Percheron horses by Lloyd Stueve and hay rides by Jerry Hamby with his restored John Deere tractor.

McPhee’s greeting to the invitees included a brief history lesson about the ranch.

In 1852, John R. Willms partnered with John H. Kappelman to establish a 3600-acre homestead by taking up claims and forming the Table Mountain Water Company, an eight-mile feed for the Buena Vista gravel mines. The pair also began a ranch raising horses and used the first “KW” brand that is still in existence today.

After Kappelman’s death in 1881, Willms, who had married Kappelman’s sister Elizabeth, carried on the ranch operations himself and the business and property has been owned by the Willms family ever since.

McPhee introduced the Willms family representatives and family from one of Willms’ original workers, Buster Costner.

Sue Gallo-Coleman and her grandson Geoffrey, descendants of John Kappelman, represented the Kappelman family.

The current ranch house is not the first on the site, as one other had been destroyed by fire.

Built at a cost of approximately $3,500 in 1892, the current six-bedroom ranch house has 3,200 square feet of living space with a wraparound porch.

The exterior of the ranch house has been restored by Dave Johnson of New Interiors of Manteca who was able to reconstruct the outside to the original condition, bringing back its gables and signature porch.

“The ranch has become alive,” said Oakdale Cowboy Museum Director Christie Camarillo. “I came out here when I was 18-years-old when the family was still living here. The whole ranch has really been brought back up to a good condition.”

One of the highlights of the gathering included trips via wagon ride to the Hetch-Hetchy reservoir project near the property where a fourth tunnel construction is occurring.

The tunnel will be bringing additional water to San Francisco all with gravity from Cherry Hill. Joe Pescio from the project was on hand to provide information.

At the event, Oakdale Mayor Pat Paul presented McPhee with a certificate from the city honoring the ranch and its 160 years.

In 1970 the Willms Ranch was honored by the State of California in the “100 Year Club,” a mark of distinction for businesses and ranches that have been in continuous operation for over 100 years. Because of its rich history, the California Chamber of Commerce proclaimed the ranch house a state landmark under the California Office of Historic Preservation.