Seated around the table in the home built in 1918 by his grandfather JJ Thornton, Larry Thornton reminisces about the founder of his family’s ranch.
“JJ Thornton came to the end of his rope in Ukiah, out of money and out of luck, in 1910. He’d left his parents’ farm in Idaho, preferring to be a cowboy, and made his way to Oregon on the rodeo circuit. It was a short-lived career.”
“His luck changed, however,” Larry continued. “In fact, he hit the jackpot when he went to work at a local hospital and fell in love and married a young nurse, Miss Bonnie Louise Crawford, in 1912. In 1913 her family bankrolled the young couple’s purchase of 40 Acres in Potter Valley, and the Thornton Ranch took root.”
JJ farmed the hops that were on the property, planted row crops, and bought a wagon and started a freight business. By 1915 he’d made enough money to plant 25 Acres of pears, and Larry’s father Cedric was born to Bonnie and JJ the same year.
Tragedy struck in 1934 when JJ was killed in a freak woodworking accident. It was in the middle of the Great Depression, and Cedric, at the age of 19, left college for good and came home to help his mother run the ranch.
Like his father before him, Cedric met his wife in a hospital. He’d suffered a ruptured appendix, was transferred to a San Francisco hospital for a long convalescence, and enjoyed frequent visits from a young woman from Willits who happened to be working in the city.
Romance blossomed, and Cedric and Joyce were married in 1940, and raised two sons, Larry and Steve, on the ranch. In the early 60’s, while both sons went off to college, Cedric expanded his pear orchards to 90 Acres, and with plenty of space and plenty of work, both sons were drawn back to the family farm that would be home to their families as well.
Larry and Steve farmed the land with their dad until his retirement in 1982. Those were years of innovation for the young Thorntons. Larry returned from college with his wife Judy (his high school sweetheart), three little sons, and a degree in business administration. In 1970 he became one of the first certified pest control advisors (PCA’s) in the state of California and started a production materials supply business.
During those years Larry also leased some orchards on his own, and his brother Steve branched out similarly into the cattle business. Larry also planted the first grapes in Potter Valley. At the same time Larry and Steve were tending to the ranch, Larry’s three sons and Steve’s two grew up to the rhythm of the seasons, working beside them.
When the time came, the younger generation went off to make their own way in the world. Larry’s son Dan recalls with pride his college graduation when his grandfather Cedric asked him to come back and join the family farming endeavor. He was delighted to have a life on the land he loved waiting for him, but first took a year to work on a big family ranch in Australia under an agricultural exchange program.
In Australia he lived and worked with a family that grew tree fruit, had packing sheds, and also a dairy. At the end of the year, at the age of 23, he brought home great memories, some new perspectives on farming and packing fruit, and the desire to bring it all home to his family.
In time Dan married Mary Guntly, who also grew up in Potter Valley on a cattle and sheep ranch. They would be the fourth generation to rear a family amidst the orchards that had been so carefully tended by their forbearers.
The Thornton family will be remembered in the pear industry for the development of the Hailey Red pear, a multi-generational effort. It started when Larry found an amazing lone shoot on a regular Bartlett tree that was bearing red pears. He isolated it, and his dad Cedric knew how to graft some buds from that tree onto another tree. The next year he took those cuttings and grafted them onto a tree next to Dan and Mary’s house, where they could keep an eye on them.
They continued the slow grafting process, and in 10 years they had about five trees producing red pears that were as beautiful as they were delicious. By that time friends and neighbors were eagerly awaiting gifts of the Thorntons’ red pears. Someone forgot a box in the fridge and found them on Thanksgiving, in perfect condition. Realizing that the market would welcome a red pear with exceptional shelf life, Larry contacted Sierra Gold Nursery, who came to the ranch with five propagation experts, and, as they say, the rest is history.
Standing outside the Thornton’s shop, the nurseryman asked Larry what name he would like to use for his new variety. Just then, Dan’s 3-year-old redheaded daughter Hailey bounded by, and he knew the name they would trademark: Hailey Red.
Dan Thornton speaks reverently about his family roots. “We’ve seen a lot of changes on the farm over the years, but the hardest one for me is going to the shop every morning, the very shop that my great-grandfather JJ built. Growing up, besides my brothers and cousins, there was always my grandpa, my dad, my uncle. My grandpa is gone, my uncle Steve died suddenly a few years ago, and my Cousin Keith sold his part of the ranch to my dad. I feel their presence every day; now there is just the two of us, Dad and me, and I miss the others.”
But Dan looks to the future, too. “We’re constantly adjusting to the demands of modern farming and marketing in ways my great-grandfather and grandpa could never have imagined. Besides hoping to bring in a good crop, we focus on food safety at the ranch level and our environmental impact. We devote a great deal of our time to complying with increasing regulations, be they on water, labor, employee welfare, sustainability, or just supporting efforts dedicated to informing consumers about the good work we are doing.”
A reflective smile warms his face. “Potter Valley has been good to us, and we’re committed to farming here. Those first 25 acres that JJ planted in 1915 are still flourishing, and so is our family.” His children are in college now. His son Justin, after working for CalFire, will attend Chico State this fall and study ag business. Daughter Hailey is taking a double major in business and accounting.
Will they answer the call of the land and bring it home to the farm? “I hope so,” he smiles. “Time will tell.”