Sarah Randall: Persevering Through Adversity
By Dewey Livingston
In early 1857 the few newly settled pioneer residents of the Olema area witnessed the spectacle of a long distance cattle drive pouring into their quiet and picturesque valley. William Edgar Randall, a 33-year-old from Greensboro, Vermont, accompanied by his wife Sarah, their four children, and business partner John Nelson, drove these dairy cows all the way from the Willamette Valley in Oregon to settle on a piece of premium ranch land.
A few months after arriving the partners bought 1,400 acres from Mexican rancho grantee Rafael Garcia for $2,000. Nelson and Randall developed dual dairy ranch complexes about a mile apart, each building houses, barns and sheds on the banks of Olema Creek. Their joint grazing land occupied about three miles of grassy ridge north of today’s Thirteen Curves and south of the lime kilns in the valley, halfway between Olema and Bolinas. Randall constructed a “huge barn…without the use of a nail,” recalled his granddaughter many years later. The Randalls had a large family: Elizabeth had been born shortly after her parents arrived in San Francisco aboard the Gold Rush ship Hannibal. Willie was born at Murphy’s Camp in the Gold Country in 1852 (as an adult he ran the famed Pierce dairy ranch on Tomales Point). Fannie Jane was probably born in San Jose, where the family had settled temporarily. Raymond came next, born in the Oregon mining country (he eventually took over the Randall dairy here). The last, Mary Lorraine, was born on the ranch in 1859; she became a local teacher.
John Nelson sold out his share in January of 1860 and moved to Olema, where he worked as a stage driver and founded the long-lived Olema Hotel. Randall oversaw the north ranch while Sarah’s brother, Daniel Seaver, ran the southern dairy. The arrangement was soon changed by a tragedy. The Randalls had long been at odds with their neighbor to the west, Benjamin Miller, who reportedly coveted the ranch that Randall and Nelson had bought. Once they appeared he “commenced a fierce war against them,” according to the 1880 History of Marin County, and “on two occasions shot at [Nelson] and missed.” In June of 1860 Miller allegedly shot at Randall seven times. The account continued:
It would seem that Miller was in the habit of tearing down Randall’s fence, and permitting his stock to run at large upon the ranch. On the morning of the shooting, Randall and his brother-in-law were driving out the stock when they came to a gate where they found Miller and his son, each armed, Miller with a rifle and the latter with a double-barreled shotgun. Some words passed between them.
A Randall relative disarmed Miller’s son, but the elder Miller “presented the rifle which he carried…. When Randall rode up towards Miller with a small pistol in his hand, Miller whirled around and fired at Randall, striking him in the abdomen.” Someone rode 30 miles for a doctor in San Rafael, but Edgar Randall died nine hours later, with his wife and five young children — aged nine to fourteen months — by his side.
The widow Sarah buried her husband on a knoll north of the ranch house. Miller was convicted and sentenced to eleven years in prison, but soon was freed and defended himself up to the California Supreme Court; he never saw serious jail time and returned to his ranch. How he got along with his neighbors after such events is a curious question perhaps never answered.
Despite her deep loss, Sarah Randall held on at the ranch. With the help of her brother Daniel, the family built the ranch into a successful dairy. In 1864, Sarah wrote, “Times are very good here and money is plenty.… Willie is old enough to do considerably; he brings in the cows night and morning besides looking after my cattle which takes considerable riding.” By 1870 the two Randall ranches were thriving businesses, producing butter and grain crops and supporting at least two families and a host of laborers.
Sarah raised her children and supervised the overall ranch, which eventually her son Raymond and brother Daniel operated. The family’s butter went out on small schooners from Bolinas; by 1880 they produced fresh milk for a local creamery. The five children rode their horses to and from Olema School at Five Brooks. They harvested huckleberries by the bushel in the surrounding hills and dried them for later use. Son Raymond married Hattie Weeks, who had grown up on Bolinas Lagoon, and they raised their six daughters on the ranch: Lottie, Myra, Elizabeth, Helen, Sadie, Fanny and Aileen. Sarah’s daughter Mary taught in local schools.
A deeply religious person, Sarah Randall hosted Methodist seminary students on weekends, having them preach locally for practice. She and her neighbors Nelson Olds and Levi Baldwin founded a “Tent of the Order of the Rechabites” in Olema. Most of their immigrant neighbors, however, were Catholics.
By 1880 Raymond lived and worked at the home ranch and Willie at the Seaver place. In 1882 Sarah had a spacious Victorian house constructed across the county road from the original residence. This home became one of the showplaces of the Olema Valley. Sarah Randall reportedly lived there alone in her later years, until persuaded by her grown children to move to town with them. She died in 1907.
The Randall family sold the ranch but the name stuck on the stately home: the Randall House. When it was included in Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972, initial plans were to evict the former ranch owners and tear it down. The empty house was found eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, as the Sarah Seaver Randall House, and more recently entered on the register as a component of the Olema Valley Ranches Historic District. The nominations noted Sarah’s role in Marin County history, as a woman who, rather than giving up in the face of adversity, continued on and found success both in business and family.
Today, Sarah Randall’s once-grand two-story house sits alone next to Highway 1, abandoned to the rare bats that inhabit it. The people, horses, barns, and farm activity are gone but cows still graze around the yard and the surrounding hills. Sarah’s legacy is firmly planted in the Olema Valley, as a reminder of this remarkable woman’s strength and perseverance, as well as all the other pioneer ranch women of the area.