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Ranch History

It all started in 1851

Dawson Nichols left Terre Haute, Indiana, in a covered wagon in 1851 and arrived in California in 1852.  He found property he wanted near what would become the town of Spenceville on Dry Creek.  He purchased cattle, a 1,000-acre ranch and farm that contained two creeks, and a three-acre access road.  The original house on the property was watered by a spring.

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Elizabeth Chandler married Dawson Nichols in 1850 in Hancock County, Illinois.  Elizabeth and Dawson had 11 children: Nevada Adeline, Simon Peter, Lona Minah, Peter, Alice, Franck, Jessie, Elizabeth, Margaret, Belle, Ella May, and Imogene. In 1870, they moved to an area on the Ranch that had plentiful water supply, and Dawson built his wife a long-promised Victorian style house.

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Orange County Supervisor James A. Baker with "California's Own" 13th Armored Division, Camp Beale, Marysville, July 4, 1943. The Tank behind him was named for Orange County.  Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.

The 13th Armored Division training at Camp Beale, Calif.

Courtesy photo from

Land Acquisition by the United States Army

In 1940, the "Camp Beale" area consisted of grassland and rolling hills and the 19th century mining town of Spenceville.  The U.S. government purchased, mostly through emanant domain, 87,000 acres in 1942 for a training post for the 13th Armored Division and training facilities for the 81st and 96th Infantry Division.  This land included the original 1000 acre area of our Ranch.

As a complete training environment, Camp Beale had tank maneuvers, mortar and rifle ranges, a bombardier-navigator training, and chemical warfare classes. At its peak during World War II, Camp Beale had 60,000 personnel.  Camp Beale also housed a German POW camp, and served as the main camp for a series of satellite POW camps around northern California.

Transition to Air Training Command and our opportunity to buy back our family land.

In 1948, Camp Beale became Beale AFB, its mission being to train bombardier navigators in radar techniques. Beale AFB established six bombing ranges of 1,200 acres each and the U.S. Navy also used Beale for training. From 1951 on, Beale trained Aviation Engineers and ran an Air Base Defense School. These additional activities led to rehabilitation of existing base facilities and construction of rifle, mortar, demolition, and machine gun ranges.

In 1952 Beale AFB was placed in inactive status for conversion to an operational airbase. Also in 1952, Beale stopped being used as a bombing range, including the area of our Ranch, and the U.S. Government declared portions of Camp Beale/Beale AFB as excess, eventually transferring out 60,805 acres.

Eventually excess land from the former Army Camp was sold off to the public. On 21 December 1959, 40,592 acres on the eastern side of the Base were sold at auction. It's during this period that the current 500+ acres of the original 1000 acres was purchased back by Scott, Beverly, and Elizabeth Smith at public auction creating the current Smith & Smith Ranch. An additional 11,213 acres was transferred to the State of California between 1962 and 1964, and now comprise the Spenceville Wildlife Area.

Historic Working Lands Video

PBS did a video series on working lands.  Smith & Smith Ranch was featured in Season 22 Episode 9.  We are featured at the 4:30 minute mark.  Check it out here: 

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