VERNALIS — In 1918, Roy Pike saw gold in a plot of land along the west bank of the San Joaquin River.
Pike, a San Francisco entrepreneur, bought five grain ranches, combined them and turned them into the 4,500-acre El Solyo Ranch, a thriving operation that at one time had its own grocery store, blacksmith and fire department.
He set up an irrigation system from the river, which allowed planting of peaches, grapes, beans and potatoes. The ranch also raised turkeys and livestock, and at its height employed 750 people.
But Pike's dreams were bigger than his wallet, and risky financial decisions led him to sell much of the enterprise to a wealthy friend from Southern California. Pike stayed on to manage the ranch for the next several years, and fought efforts by Bay Area utilities to take the water that made his land so appealing.
Eventually, the ranch sold to new owners and in 1947 was subdivided into 12 parcels.
Landowners formed a water district, recorded on Aug. 17, 1959. The current customers of the water district got together Wednesday to celebrate its 50th birthday and to talk about the ranch that started it all.
District office manager Jan Trinkle said Pike originally bought a nearby piece of property, but then saw the potential in El Solyo — whose name he came up with on his own, starting with the Spanish word "sollo" which means "pike."
"It had access to the railroad, the river to pump water, great soil and weather," she said. "It rained less here, which made it perfect for irrigating."
In an undated deposition from the district's files, Pike said he wanted to establish a ranch of 4,000 to 5,000 acres.
"I had found through the years ... that if you were running an agricultural property, you must live on it, you should be able to see the work that was going on every day, and I found by experience that I could horseback over all the work of that size property."
Pike said he wanted land in a "semi-arid state" but with a steady source of water. He had successfully irrigated other property and wanted to try his system on a larger scale.
"We still use the original pumps, which date back to 1920," said district board member Henry Bettencourt, who owns one of the 12 parcels. He pointed out on a map how Pike built a pattern of canals to get the water from the river to various orchards on the property. "The system was so modern for its time."
A flowchart dating back to 1935 shows the operations housed at the ranch: tractor department, blacksmith, farm, dairy, vineyard, orchard, store, purchasing, dried fruit.
"The project has not only distributed a great deal of wealth and payroll throughout the county, but has been the spearhead of considerable intensive development adjacent to it," Pike said.
He kept his farm in operation year-round, harvesting onions in the spring, apricots, plums and peaches in the summer, grapes in the fall, and celery and lettuce in the winter, and raising turkeys and dairy cows.
"The diversification of crops and the various packing houses have been mapped so that we could have the least number of ups and downs of labor demand which is one of the worst problems in ordinary agriculture," he said.
Pike's early action and aggressive nature worked in his favor when his little ranch took on the San Francisco Public Utilities District over its expansion of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
In 1933, the ranch got the water rights to its part of the San Joaquin River. Several lawsuits followed when San Francisco water officials wanted to expand the reservoir and take more water.
Newspaper articles decried the "waste" of millions of gallons of water that spilled into the Pacific Ocean because nobody was using it. Pike fought that notion, saying in 1939 that taking more water wouldn't leave enough for the ranch, the 40 families who lived on it and the 700 employees it supported.
In the end, the state allowed the utility to expand Hetch Hetchy, but only on the condition it make sufficient water available to the ranch. The water district holds those rights now.
It isn't clear what happened to Pike; records of his life after 1939 could not be found. But his grandson Peter Pike Jr. of Green Brae said he died in 1948.
Though El Solyo isn't well-known outside its immediate area, the people who live on the ranch property celebrate its heritage.
"Can you imagine living on this ranch in the 1920s?" Bettencourt said, looking over photos of the camps and bunkhouses.
"We don't know if we should be celebrating 50 years or 90," Trinkle said. "But it seemed like a good occasion to get everybody together."
Bee librarian Karen Aiello contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2343.