Rough and Ready history runs deep
January 17, 2007
When Duane Niesen talks about his childhood, it has the makings of a Norman Rockwell scene.
Niesen, 66, grew up on his great-grandfather’s 560-acre ranch in Rough and Ready. He spent his days roaming the property, fishing in the creek, looking for rattlers – the stuff of dreams for a young boy.
The family raised cattle, hunted, fished and were about 75 percent self-sufficient.
“We would go into town to the Red & White store for staples and Dave Richard’s butcher shop, where Cooper’s is now,” Niesen said.
Beginnings in Cornwall
His great-grandfather, James Ennor, emigrated from Cornwall, England, to the United States in 1847. He met his future bride, Ellen Foulkes, then 14, on the ship from England to America. Ellen and her mother settled in Wisconsin, as did Ennor.
Then Gold Rush fever hit California, and Ennor came west to claim his part of the golden dream. He became a miner on Nelson Creek, which later became part of Plumas County.
After some success in mining, Ennor sent back to Wisconsin for Ellen, asking her to marry him. In 1852 he bought the ranch in Rough and Ready.
The annual cattle drive
The highlight of every year was the cattle drive in the spring. When Ennor’s cattle operation expanded in the late 1800s, it became necessary to drive the cattle to Jackson Meadows in the summer, preserving the grass on the ranch for the winter months.
In the early days, the 60-mile cattle drive was followed by a covered wagon; in later years, that became a motorized truck.
The drive took five days with overnight stops in French Corral, Cherokee, North Columbia and Graniteville. The terrain was so rough that it sometimes took more than 12 hours to navigate certain sections of the route. The drivers didn’t stop for heat, rain or snow.
“I remember once in the ’50s, we took them across the Bridgeport Bridge; there were 200-300 cattle running across the bridge,” Niesen said. “We watched it wobble.”
The cattle drives ended in 1963 with the construction of the Jackson Meadows Dam, which flooded the pasture lands.
When asked about the current cattle operation, Niesen laughed out loud.
“My cattle were my dependents, not my supporters,” he says.
About 30 cattle are now pastured on the ranch, which is down to about 240 acres. None are owned by Niesen.
Niesen still has his great-grandfather’s branding iron, with its JE insignia standing for James Ennor. He also has a pair of his grandfather’s leather chaps, covered in long, silky goat hair.
“I’ve worn them and they keep you warm,” Niesen said.
His boyhood memories include tramping down the hay with salt in the barn, a job often relegated to the children.
Rough and Ready was pretty sleepy in those days, when seeing four cars in a day was a big deal.
Everything was utilitarian on the ranch. “Pleasure riding on horses and indoor dogs were foreign concepts to me,” Niesen said.
Hunting was a favorite pastime. “You ate what you killed,” Niesen said.
“My dad was a great fisherman. During one 90-day period he caught 900 trout,” Niesen said.
Niesen went to Indian Springs School until eighth grade. It was a one-room schoolhouse. He attended Empire High, which later became Grass Valley High, and was in the first four-year class to attend Nevada Union. He attended Sierra College and got a degree from the University of San Francisco when he was 46 years old.
“I was the first person in my family to have a four-year degree,” Niesen said.
Niesen ended up working for the state of California, prompting his father to proclaim that he never held an honest job because he worked for the government.
To contact Readership Editor Dixie Redfearn, e-mail dixier @theunion.com or call 477-4237.
See photos of the Ennor Ranch and artifacts from several generations of the family at the Draft Horse Classic, Sept. 20-23, at the Nevada County Fairgrounds.