The Valk family takes the term “legacy” to an entirely different level.
Harvey Valk came to California from Wisconsin in the late 1800s and bought the iconic Oakdale ranch to tend with fellow workers and his only child, Leonard Valk. From just a simple piece of property and new project for a man who already owned a business in Modesto, life has sprung.
Three of Leonard’s four children – Don Valk, Gayle Valk Riley, Judy Valk House – and some of Don’s family; his wife, Carla Valk, son, Ryan Valk, and daughter, Janessa Hansen; came together for an interview to share a bit about their family’s history in Oakdale. Their story closes out the brief summer history series.
The Valk legacy started where most Oakdale stories seem to begin: with the Rodden family.
“When my grandfather bought the ranch, he needed to borrow money to buy cattle, so he went to the First National Bank,” Don reported of his grandfather, Harvey. “It was the Rodden family who owned the bank ... well they knew of my grandfather so basically they gave him a blank check and a handshake, and Rodden said ‘whatever you need.’”
The ranch has seen a diversity of work through the years including beef cattle, grapes, corn, replacement heifers for dairies, a turkey ranch turned chicken ranch, and more recently, almond trees.
“Over the years, we’ve adapted,” Don continued. He explained that he managed the turkey ranch for 15 years and then switched over to chickens and has been tending them for another 15 years.
“It’s a big risk, a big leap of faith,” Carla confirmed.
However, the family doesn’t just adapt to what animals they keep or what food they grow, they have a knack for tinkering and innovating as well.
“We call it ‘Leonardizing’ things, or ‘Valkanizing,’” Carla joked.
The family reminisced on Leonard’s organizational skills and little gadgets and inventions that he implemented in his workshop and trailer. He also brought different, more efficient methods of working to the ranch.
“A big part of the legacy too is the motorcycles,” Ryan added. “Checking irrigation, checking cattle, things like that – it kind of got to the point where horseback was more hassle than efficiency so he bought a bunch of these Honda Trail 90s or 110s, these old bikes that he and my dad would ride around and irrigate.”
“He made these ... y’know cattle guards? He made what we call a scooter guard,” Don explained. “You could go anywhere in the field without having to stop.”
The family explained and showed pictures of these scooter guards running overtop of fences so animals couldn’t go through, but the motorcycles could make their way over.
As the ranch expanded with these innovations, and the family expanded with more kids, so more houses were built. Today, plenty of the family members still reside on the property. Before all of that came about, one of the first additions when Don and his sisters were young was the pool Leonard and his friends built. Coincidentally, in 1949, it happened to be one of the first pools built in Stanislaus County.
“They had many, many, many pool parties over the years with so many people from Oakdale,” Ryan elaborated.
“At my mom’s funeral, it was packed with people; someone asked the question ‘Who here swam in the Valk’s pool?’ and more than three quarters of the people stood up,” Judy laughed.
Leonard and Velma Valk definitely had a lot to offer from their ranch, but were also sure to contribute to their community as well. While their community presence didn’t entail being part of the Lions Club or Rotary, Don remembers his parents fondly as being people that were just always there if someone needed help.
“Leonard and Velma and the Langfords were the beginning of the Oakdale Sports Boosters,” Carla noted. “They attended every sport their kids did and their grandkids did. So many people know Don’s parents because they attend so many sporting events.”
All of their children, grandchildren, and most of the great-grandchildren have attended Oakdale schools and the pair was sure to attend every performance and game that they could from the early 1960s to 2010.
Overall, the Valk legacy seems to truly capture the spirit of Oakdale with their background in agriculture, their strong familial values, as well as their desire to help out and truly be part of the town’s culture and community.
Moreover, the legacy just keeps growing. Don may have taken over the family ranch business, but Judy and Leonard also have a love for photography in common. That tinkering mindset has been passed on throughout Leonard and Velma’s 16 grandchildren and 46 great-grandchildren (and counting). Though the bright turquoise sign on Albers Road, a familiar landmark for the Valk ranch, points to one aspect of the legacy, there is still much more that’s been passed on.
For now, Ryan Valk is adapting the family business in his own way. He’s hoping to educate others on California agriculture or, as he calls it, “agri-cation”, through social media. To keep up with Valk ranch, be sure to follow Ryan Valk on Instagram, YouTube, or Facebook under the username “California Farmer.”