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The Tale of Lewis Fenno Moulton

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This article was originally published in the OC Register on April 15, 2013 by Janet Whitcomb

If you’re seeking an epic tale, look no further than that of legendary Orange County cattle baron Lewis Fenno Moulton.

Owner of the massive 22,000 acre Niguel Ranch, Moulton was born in Chicago on January 17, 1854, to lawyer J. Tilden Moulton and his Massachusetts-born wife, the former Charlotte Fenno. By the time Lewis was 10, however, his parents came to “a parting of the ways,” and Charlotte took Lewis and younger brother Irving, 7, back to Boston.

In his biography appearing in Samuel Armour’s 1921 “History of Orange County,” Lewis Moulton states that after graduating from grammar school he ran errands for a shopkeeper and later worked on a farm.

But by 1874—and with the backing of a wealthy uncle—20-year-old Moulton boarded a steamship to Panama, traveled by train across the land bridge, then boarded another steamship to San Francisco. Restless in the city, he caught a ride on a boat bound for San Diego but disembarked at Wilmington. From there he took a stagecoach to Santa Ana, soon finding work on the Irvine family’s San Joaquin ranch.

It didn’t take long before the born entrepreneur formed a sheep herding partnership with his supervisor. A few years later Moulton bought out his partner and began renting land from Oceanside to Wilmington for his sheep enterprise. Soon he had struck a deal to rent a portion of the then-17,000 acre Rancho Niguel.

During this time he met a Basque immigrant, Jean Pierre Daguerre, also in the sheep business, and they struck up a friendship. By October 1908 the two decided to form a partnership. Moulton made the initial purchase of Rancho Niguel, Daguerre soon after purchasing a one-third interest.

A few years after courting Nellie Gail, Moulton wed the Washington state schoolteacher 25 years his junior. Their daughter Charlotte was born in 1910, followed by Louise in 1914.

As a late-in-life father, Moulton adored his daughters. The feeling was mutual.

“Nearly all of his employees were of Latin background, Basque or Mexican,” Charlotte recalled in 1991. “So Daddy made it his project to learn Spanish . . . He said to me one day, ‘Charlotte, if you wish to be close to the hearts of the men, speak to them in the tongue of their mothers.’ “

Louise, interviewed in 1994, remembered that “[Father] always had breakfast about 6:30 a.m. with the boys at the cookhouse, then most always luncheon out there also.”

Doing so not only encouraged camaraderie, Charlotte added, but also quality control. “I remember him saying, ‘My men do my work, and they shall eat as well as I eat.’ It was always a treat for me when Daddy would take me to the cookhouse with him for lunch, because the food was fabulous!”

The much beloved rancher, husband, and father was one month shy of his 85th birthday when he died in December 1938.