Quest for better wool lead Whitneys to Rocklin

Rocks, Rails and Ranches
By: Gary Day, Special to the Placer Herald
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Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series on Whitney Ranch. In 1856 George Whitney Sr. and four of his six sons, all successful San Francisco merchants, started a sheep crossbreeding experiment in an effort to improve the quality of California wool. George Whitney Jr., the eldest son, purchased 400 Merino ewes in Australia to breed with a few California Saxonies in hopes of developing a finer and heavier fleece. While only 120 of the Merinos survived the voyage, the mixed flock thrived on open Placer County rangeland west of today’s downtown Rocklin. The new wool developed as expected and was in high demand. In 1857 George Sr. made the enterprise permanent when he purchased 320 acres of the west Rocklin rangeland, thus establishing the Whitney Ranch. He and his sons added to the ranch with purchases of several thousand surrounding acres during the late 1850s and throughout the 1860s. George Sr.’s young son, Joel Parker Whitney (then called Parker), entered business later than his brothers, but had the best financial success. He started by hunting game, mainly in the delta, to sell to San Francisco restaurants. Later he made frequent trips to the East Coast to ship hard goods to San Francisco around Cape Horn or via the Isthmus. He then hurried overland to meet the shipments and make quick sales. He sold some items before they arrived. After a short time as a Union officer during the Civil War, Parker promoted Colorado minerals in Europe and invested in Colorado gold and silver mines. By 1870 he had become wealthy from these and other smart investments. From that time on, it was primarily Parker’s money that was used to expand the ranch. For land purchased from private individuals, the federal government and the railroad, the Whitneys paid between 90 cents and $2 per acre. As they continued to expand their operation, the family recruited outsiders as homesteaders and after a few years bought out the homesteads for up to $5 per acre. The story of the homesteader who refused to sell will be the focus of next week’s column. Gary Day is a member of the Rocklin Area Historical Society.