March 10, 2013

Past never far away in bucolic Zamora

Despite the freeway, brush fires, droughts and the inevitable exodus of young people to urban pastures, Zamora's way of life continues.

Before the sun breaks the horizon, Bill Slaven slides out of bed and into his jeans, wool sweater and work boots.

The 84-year-old rancher and farmer wolfs down bacon, eggs and coffee, then then joins his son Mike, their Peruvian ranch hand and several border collies in the rolling hills of Zamora. "The first thing I do is check the sheep for coyotes," said Slaven, whose blue eyes are still sharp enough to spot lost sheep 500 yards away.

His 2,000 sprawling acres are home to 1,500 rambling Rambouillet sheep, known for their fine wool and occasionally stubborn temperaments.

Slaven hops astride his red Honda four-wheeler to ride herd, one of his few concessions to modern times, along with a satellite TV he uses to watch the San Francisco Giants.

Slaven has been here all his life, and remembers when Zamora was a thriving railroad stop filled with schools, saloons, churches, dances, a Masonic lodge and a hotel.

But in 1968 Interstate 5 sliced through Zamora, gutting its downtown. Now there's a minimarket on the east side of the freeway. On the west side, a few remnants survive, including two churches, the town hall, post office, firehouse, eight homes and a planing mill run by descendants of a French German cabinet maker.

"But the pulse of the community didn't stop with the removal of its heart," said local historian Elaine Hermle, whose late husband's great-grandfather, a German Catholic named John Evangelist Hermle, fled poverty in Gosheim, Germany, to try his luck here.

Despite the freeway, brush fires, droughts and the inevitable exodus of young people to urban pastures, Zamora's way of life continues. "It's a nice time machine," Slaven said.

Now an unincorporated swath of rural Yolo County straddling Country Road 13, Zamora is home to about 240 people, a third of them Hispanic, and 30 farms, according to U.S. census data. The community's made up of farmers, ranchers and beekeepers spread through the hills.

The Zamora Volunteer Fire Department has held the town together – last weekend, 280 people paid $50 a head at the department's fundraiser for a barbecue dinner cooked by Mike Slaven, the fourth generation to work the Slaven ranch.

"We've always had sheep in the family," Mike Slaven said, "And my great-grandfather brought in border collies."

This weekend, Zamora has become the capital of the sheepdog world, attracting 200 handlers and their savvy border collies to the 31st annual Slaven's Zamora Hills sheepdog trials.

"One dog can do the work of three men," Bill Slaven said proudly.

Shepherds with crooks – still used to hook the hind legs of wayward sheep – have flocked from across the globe to these undulating, moss green hills.

Bill Slaven was wary of the north wind caressing his pastures Friday. "It's a dry wind – the south wind brings moisture," he said. "In August, 2006 a big north wind came up, started a big fire way out in the field, burned about 10,000 acres, and all the sheep suffocated and burned."

Contestants at this weekend's trials include veterinarians and ex-surfers, along with Coal, Dash, Paddy, Brisco, Soot, Tag, Rio, Axel, Trig, Scoop, Wizard, Yoko, Sweet and dozens of other border collies. Each gets 10 minutes to hit the hills, scamper up to a cluster of four sheep and herd them around cones, through fences and across a now-dry creek – if the sheep cooperate.

At 11 a.m. Friday – the first day of the four-day event – two sheep vaulted the barbed wire fence and skipped down the road to join the rest of the sunbathing flock.

"Those are renegade sheep," Laura Vishoot, an ex-Sacramentan from Oregon, said with a mixture of delight and anxiety, since her dogs Tucker and Brynn had yet to go. "There was drama before – another sheep got lost over the hill," she said. "We think this is exciting! We're like Deadheads who roam the West from trial to trial."

The queen of the show is Amanda Milliken, a sheeprancher from Kingston, Ontario, Canada, who won the Zamora trials last year with Dorey and was featured in the documentary, "Away to Me."

"Beautiful Zamora, California's one of the most spectacular courses in North America, and the sheep are marvelously difficult," declared Milliken, clad in a gray Irish hat.

Bill Slaven, whose dog Chance will compete Monday, said the key to directing the dogs is a series of whistles: one long blast means lie down; two short whistles, walk up; and many more.

There are still about a dozen sheep ranches left in Zamora, "but now it's more cattle country," Slaven said. "Cattle people come down from Oregon in winter."

Slaven rotates his pastures and crops every year or so, like his grandfather Michael and father, John, did before him. "This could be a wheat field in a year or so," he said. "Now we have a self-leveling harvester that cuts the wheat and won't tip over."

Daughter Peggy Wines fondly recalls the days before technology, "when instead of watching TV in the evening you'd make homemade cranked ice cream and visit folks."

She grinned at her dad and said, "Now he's seen every Western that was ever made."

The Slaven property was homesteaded by Michael Slaven of County Tyrone, Ireland, who fled the potato famine as a teen, worked his way across America and settled in the hills west of Zamora in 1871. He was joined by three brothers, a sister and other Irish and German immigrants.

Zamora began in the 1850s as Prairie Station. Stagecoaches rolled through, and in 1876, Irish pioneer James Black renamed it Black's Station. It became a bustling railroad town, and was rechristened Zamora in 1906 after Black's death.

"My dad used to have lambs come into Zamora in stock cars from Nevada in the 1940s," Bill Slaven said.

In 1909 his grandfather helped dedicate St. Agnes Church on Main Street, where he and other descendants of Irish and German pioneers still attend Mass on Saturday afternoons and Christmas.

Whenever Zamora looks like it's going to fade away, somebody comes to the rescue, Hermle said.

The church was falling apart when the Rev. Joseph Huong, a former South Vietnamese Air Force officer who fled the communists, was driving north on I-5 and noticed it in 1986. "He said, 'Someday I'm going to make it a Catholic church and be the priest,' " Hermle said.

Huong got himself assigned here in 2000, "and when he opened a drawer in the back, a mouse jumped out," Hermle said. But Huong threw himself into a restoration, raising thousands of dollars on a walkathon he led from Knights Landing to Zamora. He had the statues of Mary and Joseph restored by Vietnamese craftsmen, installed new stained glass windows and had the church rebuilt inside and out.

Huong was replaced in 2003 by another Vietnamese refugee, the Rev. Joseph Nguyen, who fled religious persecution to follow his dreams in America.

"We're like a fig tree," Nguyen told his congregation two Saturdays ago. "Sometimes we fail, but we keep growing and sometimes after 30 years there is new fruit."

"We are what we are here," said Lois Henderson, 71, as she came out of Saturday Mass. "I've been coming to this church since I was born – the church is home."

Henderson, who still tends her nine walnut trees, hasn't succumbed to satellite TV, computers or cell phones. "We love the smallness and we hope it stays that way."

Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini. Bee staff writer Phillip Reese and researcher Pete Basofin contributed to this story.

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