He was a big man with a large moustache and outsized energy.
Born in 1874 in Villa de Maya, Spain, Julian Maisterrena was a Spanish Basque who came to this country at the age of 19 with his pockets empty. Julian worked in sawmills and as a sheepherder, and tucked his meager salary away. Before long he was the proud owner of a band of sheep of his own. Then two bands. Then nine.
Markleeville isn’t usually thought of as “sheep country.” But it was to Julian. He bought the Mayo Ranch southeast of town, and also grazed flocks on the lush meadows of the old Monroe Ranch across the creek. In all, Julian owned over 1,000 acres in Alpine and held thousands more through grazing rights. And he brought a veritable circus to Markleeville every spring, courtesy of the V&T Railroad.
Julian’s home ranch east of Bellota stretched some 4,900 acres. Every year when it was time to move the sheep up to summer pastures in Alpine, the flocks would be driven on the long trip beginning at Clements, up Pipi Valley, over Echo Summit and then down through Hope Valley to their pasture at Markleeville. But Maisterrena wasn’t about to leave the rest of his ranch behind. Instead, he arranged for his entire stockyard to be shipped along each year as well: 100 head of cattle, an equal number of pigs, goats, and horses, and flocks and flocks of chickens and geese were all loaded on rail cars to make the journey.
Just think of the logistics: ranch hands had to travel with the animals aboard the train to feed the livestock and milk the cows. Sacks of feed and barrels of water were needed to sustain the animals for the trip. A summer “kitchen” and all its equipment and supplies had to be packed up and loaded aboard as well. And the journey wasn’t over once the V&T engine chugged into Minden; everything then had to be ferried another 25 miles to the summer camp at Markleeville. Once they arrived, there was all the work of tending so many animals: horses to be shod, harness to be mended, hay to be cut, and hungry help to be fed.
Camp fare for Maisterrena’s sheep hands included (of course) abundant ham, bacon, and sausage. There was homemade bread, baked at the camp in dutch ovens. And everything would be washed down with homemade wine. It was no easy task for the hard-working cook, who also was tasked with gathering and chopping all the firewood, hauling the water, and tending a camp garden.
Julian was a ranch man — he didn’t drive a car. Instead his transportation consisted of a pair of fine white horses hitched to a black buckboard wagon. He favored crisp new Levis and dapper Stetson hats, and puffed on Optimo cigars (which were “the best,” he said). He carried a black valise at all times for important paperwork, and carried his money in a drawstring leather bag. While in Markleeville, his “office” was the bar at the Alpine Hotel, and he could be found there most mornings, doing business and playing cards, with a glass at his elbow.
Julian suffered a stroke at his Markleeville camp during the summer of 1943, and by December, he was dead. His estate included over $200,000 in assets — the equivalent of millions today. It took several years, but the estate was finally probated. Julian had no children of his own, but with assistance from the Spanish embassy, his hard-earned fortune was distributed to his relatives in Spain.
Even today, people who grew up in Markleeville still remember those summers when Julian and his sheep came to town. “In the evenings, you could hear the Basques singing over across the river,” remembers one local lad. “Everybody in town could hear it. It was like drawing a moth to a flame, we kids just migrated up there. They’d hand you a big water glass, and pour it with wine.”