Located just a little more than a mile south off Highway 120/108 near Knights Ferry sits California Historical Landmark 415.
Built in 1892, the Willms Ranch House is undergoing a major restoration by its owner Shirley (Willms) McPhee, the great-granddaughter of the original owner, John R Willms.
“We had to do something because of the condition of the house,” said McPhee. “There was no way I was going to have it torn down.”
The house comes with some history. In 1852, partners John R. Willms and John H. Kappelman built the Table Mountain Water Company ditch, an eight-mile feed for the Buena Vista gravel mines. They established a 3600-acre homestead by taking up claims on the land and buying out surrounding settler’s claims. The pair established a ranch raising horses and used the first “KW” brand that is still in existence today.
Willms married Kappelman’s sister, Elizabeth Kappelman, who became the mother to his seven children. After the death of John Kappelman in 1881, Willms carried on the business himself that eventually turned into the Willms Land Cattle Company. The business and property has been owned by the Willms family ever since.
According to McPhee, because of the lack of people to work on the ranch, the property was divided to where now four different descending families own parcels of the original homestead. McPhee’s grandfather Arthur received the ranch house but with a smaller acreage of land.
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.
McPhee, 67, recalls living in the house when growing up.
“Mom and dad raised all five of us children in the ranch house and I lived there until I graduated and went to business college,” said McPhee. “It was not easy living there as a child. Winters were cold, summers were hot and we were reminded of how tough it probably was for our ancestors and how much better we had it.”
The downstairs has a parlor seating area with a large fireplace and ornate wood mantle. The same elaborate design accompanies the staircase banister.
“Our greatest thrill was running up the stairs which we did three at a time and then riding the banister down,” recalled McPhee. “We did this until we were caught. The banister is still standing but it’s a little wobbly.”
In 2008, McPhee hired Dave Johnson of New Interiors Construction of Manteca to restore the 116-year-old home.
It was the desire of the Willms family to keep the look of the outside of the structure as close as possible to the original appearance of the home.
The original brick foundation was replaced with concrete. The removed bricks are going to be used for a walkway on the property when the house restoration is completed.
Once the wraparound porch was totally replaced, Johnson’s crew used the original “gingerbread” slats to duplicate replacements so that the finished product is now a combination of old and new.
McPhee is especially proud of the return of the three gables on the roofline that had been removed in the 1930s due to leakage.
“The original framing was still there and was intact,” said McPhee. “It was my mother’s desire to have the gables back the years she lived here.”
John Barbagelata, McPhee’s brother-in-law, restored and powder coated the wrought iron “widows walk” atop the roof of the house.
While the exterior of the house is mostly complete, the inside still has a long way to go.
All the interior molding has been removed and marked for easy re-installation after it is refurbished. The six bedrooms, double parlor area, bathrooms, and dining area have all been stripped and are in the process of being restored.
One special project is to have the previously lowered ceilings raised back to their original 12-foot height.
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.
In June of this year the McHenry Museum awarded the Willms Ranch House the Residential Preservation Award.
“In 2008 it was sitting in such a somewhat dilapidated condition, now look at it,” McPhee noted with pride of what has been accomplished so far. “But we still have a lot of work to be done.”
Once complete, McPhee’s sights are set on National Landmark status for