Old Redwood Highway: Cloverleaf Ranch
By ASA HESS-MATSUMOTO / Towns Correspondent
For more than 60 years, one spot on the Old Redwood Highway has drawn children from around the world who want to have fun. Whether it be atop a horse or around a camp fire, Cloverleaf Ranch brings smiles to generations of children.
The ranch provides the excitement of the frontier west to campers 5-15, with activities such as horseback riding, camp-outs, hiking, swimming, and arts and crafts at a cost of about $1000 per week. The ranch also provides horse boarding at $405 per month.
Raised on the ranch just as her mother Ginger was, Shawna DeGrange is as capable of treading on the uneven horse paths in stilettos as anything else. As the head director of the summer camp and third generation business owner, she is committed to the children.
“We are advocates for the kids,” DeGrange said. “A lot of institutions lose track of that. We walk the walk. You go to other places and the mission gets lost – it becomes about finances or politics. But here, what you see is what you get, and what you get is remarkable.”
As one of the oldest family-owned summer camps in the county, Cloverleaf Ranch has seen its share of passersby and changes. Bought and built from the ground up by Larry and Grace Armstrong in 1947, the ranch originally served the city of Santa Rosa as a dairy farm. Milkmen passing along the Old Redwood Highway stopped by before the sun had yet risen to pick up their deliveries.
But Larry Armstrong, a strong and robust man coming out of Calistoga, dreamed of the ranch life. After acquiring the land, he took a liking to horses and cattle in particular, oftentimes making overnight rides across the property’s hills.
The Armstrongs had a way with horses – how they carried themselves, the body language, the behavior – a skill that did not go unnoticed by the county at large. Since before Highway 101 was built, horse owners have boarded their horses at Cloverleaf, entrusting the family and staff with breaking them in and training them for shows and rides.
“Dad had horses here all the time,” said Larry Armstrong’s daughter Ginger DeGrange. “I went to high school once riding on one. I lived on the back of a horse.”
It wasn’t until some family friends requested that their children lend a hand at the ranch that the first batch of city-slicker kids arrived. Three boys – young, hardworking and headstrong – soon became 10, 10 became hundreds, and before long word of the county’s only western-themed summer camp had reached children from as far as Mexico and Japan.
By the time the ranch’s second generation owners, Ron and Ginger DeGrange, turned over the business to their daughter, Shawna, the ranch had served as a “home away from home” to more than 35,000 children.
“We still have people coming back that came here 50 years ago, holding up these old tattered ribbons they won so long ago from horse shows,” Ginger DeGrange said. “That’s what you get. You have good memories. It’s part of the soil. Part of the code. It just gets in your blood.”
For many who have spent a night under Cloverleaf stars, the ranch’s camp links entire families together. The fires from campers present rest atop over half a century’s worth of ashes from bonfires past.
Leaning back in her chair within the family’s home at the ranch, Ginger said she wistfully awaited the day the third generation of campers – grandchildren of the earliest bunch – would come bounding down the Old Redwood Highway again.
“They’re already here,” Shawna said. “They’ve already come.”
“Well, I guess I’ll wait for the fourth generation then,” Ginger said with a wry smile. “I’m not quite ready to be done here.”
Read about key stops along those early day Sonoma County roads in the special May 12 issue of Towns: