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August 10, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The last cattle rancher The last cattle rancher (August 10, 2005)

Roger Piers' retirement at 81 ends Stanford's longest lease

by Jay Thorwaldson

o one is quite sure when "Piers cows" began grazing Stanford University's foothills.

But the last Piers bovine -- a 2,000-pound Texas longhorn that likes its neck scratched -- will leave the Piers Ranch property leasehold by the end of August.

Fittingly, the steer is named after the man who made it all possible -- "M.I."

"He's the boss," Roger Piers said of his near-legendary father, Manuel Ignatius "M.I." Piers, who began selling milk in the Palo Alto area in 1914 and founded the Piers Dairy in 1937.

That legacy will end soon, when Piers, a handful of horses and the final steer move to a smaller spread in the rural town of Cool, California, six miles south of Auburn on Highway 49.

All other cattle pastured on the land were removed more than a month ago.

The new spread is significantly smaller -- 12 acres instead of the 1,200 Piers leased from Stanford since Manuel's death in 1981. The elder Piers initially leased a reported 1,750 acres, peaking at 2,500 acres in the days before Interstate 280 snaked through the hills.

M.I. Piers founded the dairy in the late 1930s after resigning as district manager for the Golden State dairy (later Foremost) along Willow Road in Menlo Park (across from the V.A. Hospital). The new dairy's milking barn was along Louis Road in South Palo Alto, and he opened a processing plant and fountain in downtown Palo Alto. He had earlier purchased the tiny Home Dairy in 1914 and built it into a prizewinning operation in the 1920s -- when it was purchased by Golden State.

A native of the Portugese Azores islands in the Atlantic, Piers came to the United States in 1912. Years later, he became a founding member of the Woodside Mounted Patrol. He was a member of the Palo Alto Rotary Club for 52 years and the Palo Alto Elks Lodge for 63.

Roger Piers and his younger brother, Edson -- who operated the dairy delivery operation until he died in 1988 at 63 -- separately inherited the ranch and dairy operations. An older brother, Byron, disliked dairying and joined the Navy in World War II to M.I.'s annoyance, according to Roger.

Byron later returned to the dairy, was plant manager in the late 1980s and now resides in the East Bay. A younger sister, Elinor Marie Piers, died in 1976 -- she had been office manager for the dairy for more than 20 years.

Roger shares a small, barn-red ranch house at the end of Piers Lane off Alpine Road with his wife, Kathleen Martin Piers, and three dogs. It is filled with trophies and photos from a lifetime of ranching, endurance horse racing, rodeoing and hunting. A number of trophies and photos belong to Kathleen, a legal secretary and recognized athlete who started as an endurance runner but moved to endurance horse racing -- through which she and Roger met 15 years ago. It is his third marriage -- the first producing two children.

Among Roger's prized trophies are heads of animals he has hunted, from deer and elk to exotic game he bagged on a mid-1980s trip to Africa -- including elephant tusks. He wears a prized belt-buckle award for a "Grand Slam" of bagging rams from all four varieties of mountain sheep in North America.

But his cowboy-lean frame is moving slower these days, slightly bent from years or wrangling animals and a near-fatal fall from a horse a decade ago.

"I was fox hunting, running down a steep hill toward a cliff and I tried to turn but she started to fall, so I jumped. I broke a shoulder, cracked my skull, lost a kidney and spleen and was in the hospital about four months," he said.

But even before that, he recalls, "I've been smashed up enough."

A half century ago, Piers ranked first as all-around cowboy for two years straight in the Sonoma Trailblazers rodeo, riding, roping and other events. He also participated in the highly competitive rodeos put on by the Rancheros, described as a horseback equivalent of the Bohemian Club of the well-to-do.

"I've done everything on horses," he recalled as he checked outside the door to see if his half-dozen remaining horses were coming in for their late-afternoon allotment of alfalfa hay. One of the horses, a mare that is now a bit thin and bony, was an endurance runner some years back in five 100-mile races over the Sierra Nevada, from Tahoe City to Auburn.

They will also go to Cool with him, an area laced with horse trails, trail-riding associations and even a grange hall, a rural association mainly of farmers and ranchers that is part of the nation's past and -- in some areas -- its present.

Kathleen said her awareness of her own body and pacing needs helped her develop a sense for her horse's needs on the long hauls.

Piers said moving off Stanford land is a bit of long haul, also -- the lease calls for removal of any improvements and buildings. Several rental tenants also have been less than cooperative even though they had nine months notice, he said -- he's suing one who just up and left, and a couple of others have said they won't leave.

During a tour of the old buildings, loading pens and horse corrals of his tenants, Piers asks to take a detour up a side road to Felt Lake a few hundred years past the corrals.

"We'll see if we can get some trespassers swimming in Felt Lake," he said.

Four teenage boys were climbing on a concrete pillar rising out of the lake. "There are the trespassers. I have to yell at them and tell them. ..." He gets out of the car, shouting angrily: "Hey! You wanna get arrested? Get out or I'll call the cops and have you arrested."

Back in the car: "Actually, I think I ran 'em out a couple of days ago. I'm supposed to run people out of here. It's part of the lease."

It was something M.I. Piers also took seriously. One story is that one day he donned a uniform of the Woodside Mounted Patrol, of which he was a founding member, and approached a family sporting a visible badge and a holstered six-gun at his side.

"Everybody was afraid to go to Felt Lake," longtime Palo Altan Leo Zacante recalled from his younger days -- unless they'd heard that M.I. had gone back to the Azores for an extended visit. Then he'd sneak in and fish.

"But I never caught a fish out of there," he said. "I don't think there are any."

But Roger Piers himself acknowledges that he may not have always followed the rules on the Stanford lands.

Will that surprise university officials?

"I'm not going to say I did then," he rejoins with a flash of smile. "I'm not mentioning names, but I hunted with several Stanford officials, back in the 1940s and 1950s. A game preserve? Well, I'll tell you, 40 years ago it wasn't around here."

One sad duty M.I. Piers had was dog patrol. As Los Altos Hills developed, people would let their family pets out to run in the rural environment. But the dogs had begun to form packs and chase the cattle. In the 1970s, Manuel Piers would periodically call local reporters and ask them to write a story warning people to keep their dogs home or the dogs would get shot.

Did Manuel actually shoot any?

"No, my dad never shot any dogs" -- a pause and amused sideways glance.

How many did Roger shoot?

"We lost about a dozen cows and we had 10 calves without ears. It was my job. I shot about 25 -- and you see I like dogs. It was put in the Stanford paper, it was put in everyplace."

There was another showdown of sorts about 1970, when the lake became a destination for counterculture persons - "hippies" to Piers -- who favored nude swims. At one point, the lake became the announced target for a liberate-the-lake demonstration.

"They said they would take over Felt Lake," Piers recalls. "If I remember right, there were about 30 officers. There were Highway Patrol. There was the (San Mateo County) sheriff's office, and San Jose cops on horseback, and Palo Alto and Stanford police." The takeover failed.

"It is a beautiful spot," Piers said, glancing back.

But it's time to move on.

"I'm not going to miss this. There's too much going on here, especially getting out of here," he said. And he said he has great views from his small spread in Cool, with a wooded area on one side and rolling hills stretching off. And no tenants, no trespassers, no cattle, no Stanford officials.

"Stanford as a whole has been good to deal with," he said.

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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