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Sunday, January 07, 1979

Fabulous Frye Ranch

Ernest D. Wichels

One of the more interesting ranch histories in Napa Valley concerns what was known for years as the California State Farm to most readers and as the State Bird Farm (pheasants) to the past generation. Located on Silverado Trail, astraddle Rector Creek before it reaches Napa and Conn rivers, it has a story that cannot be told in one column.

In the 1970s, Col. Frye, a banker from San Francisco, purchased about 2,998 acres, which was part of the Caymus Rancho, an 11,814-acre Mexican land grant given George Yount in 1836, the first grant in Napa County.

Yount’s original adobe house was located about where Col. Frye later built his extraordinary mansion.

Frye purchased the “farm” and built the residence as a summer home. Later, he also owned and lived on an estate on Lake Thurston, about five or more miles northwest of Lower Lake in Lake County and as early as the 1890s was using natural gas from wells beneath the lake.

The Frye home had 32 rooms (counting closets), 12-foot ceilings, a fireplace in almost every room, stained glass in the doors, redwood- paneling on the ceiling and walls—and at least 16 people could be “put up” overnight.

For much of this story concerning the property, we are indebted to a very informative letter written by Phil Duffy, son of widely known. Owen Duffy, who managed the property from about 1928 to 1954, when he died. Formerly, he had been business manager of the state hospital in Napa.

Many readers will remember Owen Duffy Jr., who for several years lived in Vallejo and was manager of the Navy YMCA on Santa Clara Street.

For energy, Col. Frye had a flume built from Rector Creek to the house and had an immense water wheel adjacent to the house. There were two lakes stocked with trout, the largest bamboo grove in Northern California, and the nearby Azevedo Hill was completely fenced with a 12-foot wire fence and stocked with deer. I vividly remember this deer park and the early water wheel.

In 1911, when Hiram Johnson was governor, the state purchased this farm with the intent of turning it into a prison farm for San Quentin inmates. But local opposition prevented this operation.

In 1913 the governor appointed Duffy as business manager of - Napa State Hospital, and in 1928 he became resident manager of the farm.  It then became the State Bird Farm, and thousands of pheasants, quail and partridges were raised annually and “planted” throughout California. The early pheasants brought to Mare Island came from the Yountville Bird Farm, and Adm. Yancy Williams, then commandant, interrupted any business he might have to open his office window at 3 o’clock each afternoon to throw cracked corn to the birds which, likewise, never forgot the hour!

It was the Mecca for Napa and Solano motorists who drove to the farm on Sunday afternoons to see the thousands of birds in their pens.

From about 1917 to 1926, a.5-inch water line from Rector Creek supplied water to Napa State Hospital. Duffy, during several state administrations, pressed for a dam on Rector Creek to supply both the hospital and the Veterans Home. Not until 1946 was money made available for the construction of this dam, which is visible from Silverado Trail east of Yountville.

One of Manager Duffy’s unpleasant duties (remembered by so many of our readers) was the job of traveling throughout California and ordering the slaughtering of more than 100,000 cattle, plus other animals, to prevent the spread of the “hoof and mouth” disease. Most dairy cows in Solano, principally the Mini herds, were killed and buried. Motorists will recall that in 1924 in traveling to Napa on Route 29, there was a quarantine station atop Kelly Hill ( near the airport); motorists would have to leave their cars, walk through the carpet-soaked insecticide, and then drive the car tires over the carpets.

Later, the state farm became the “slaughter house” for the meat consumed by the patients and inmates at the Veterans Home, Napa State Hospital and San Quentin Prison. In the early 1920s this was a major operation in Napa Valley at the farm.

Later the state again pursued the study of having the farm used for a California facility. Again, strenuous local opposition arose, and Vacaville is now the site of the huge state medical facility.

As might be expected, the attraction of the commodious mansion, the gardens and the goodies that a large farm might provide brought many politicians — governors, state senators, assemblymen, etc. The list of people who at one time or another were entertained at this farm would read like a “Who’s Who” in California!

Rector Dam, now a vital link in the domestic water supply of state facilities in the valley, did remove one of the top trout streams and cover a very beautiful waterfall in its upper reaches.

As early as 75 years ago, Napa and other water interests cast covetous eyes on this “live’ stream and the natural spot for a dam. A dam was authorized with a tunnel through the mountains on the south side of the stream, which actually was dug for several hundred feet from either end. But the project never materialized.

But today there is a tunnel the one leading from the intake tower in the present Rector Reservoir and around the south abutment for a distance of 734 feet and 61/2 feet in diameter.

The capacity of Rector Reservoir is 4,810 acre feet more than a billion and a half gallons of water.

This is another of our stories on early pioneers; in a previous column we told of the Rector families, for whom the creek is named.

We will write more about Napa’s Hopper family, Vallejo’s Walsh family, the Dillons, the Pleasants, the Tubbs and the scores of other pioneers to whom we owe so much for our heritage.

We have covered about 30 of them so far, but the list is endless.