As Thurston County continues to grow in population, wide open places like the Nelson Ranch in South Thurston County are increasingly becoming a rarity. It is not easy keeping a 500-acre working ranch intact and adapted to the times for 155 years, yet the Nelsons have managed to do it for five generations, since the arrival of their forefather, James D. Spirlock.
The adventurous Spirlock, who was of French descent, was born in the Carolinas, made his way to Texas and then came to Thurston County by way of the California gold fields. It is unclear how old Spirlock was at the time of his arrival since somewhere along his journey, for reasons unknown, both the spelling of his name and his birth date were changed. In 1861 Spirlock paid $211.47 for his first 40 acres of land, which he cleared and farmed.
Spirlock was not just a farmer but also a livestock trader. His business model involved travel to Oregon with his horse and dogs to purchase a herd of livestock, most often sheep. He then hired men to help him herd his sheep north for a short distance. Once the sheep were accustomed to Spirlock and his dogs, he let the hired men go, driving the sheep by himself the rest of the way to Olympia where he sold them for a profit. The livestock was then loaded on barges bound for Canada.
In 1867, Spirlock married Cordelia Ricker Plumb who was many years his junior. The Plumbs were another homesteading family in the area for whom a train station was named. There was also a Plumb Station schoolhouse in the neighborhood. It was likely through this marriage and other purchases that Spirlock expanded his land holdings into the ranch still run by the family today.
Spirlock was most certainly a self-sufficient man and not one to be messed with. One family story details a time when some young men from Olympia came down to Offut Lake for a swim. On their way home, they stopped to rest on Spirlock’s rail fence. Spirlock spotted them there and shot the fence right out from under them.
Two of Spirlock’s daughters married neighboring Swedish brothers, Andrew and Gust Nelson, who worked on Spirlock’s farm. The family line of today descends from the marriage of Pearl and Gust Nelson, who were married in 1909 and had two children, Jim and Bob. At that time, the main function of the ranch was as a dairy. By 1940 it was a beef ranch with a small flock of sheep. They added a mill to the ranch and milled lumber from around the farm which was sold to Olympia Harbor Lumber. By the 1950s the farm had its first tractor, but the use of draft horses for haying and harvesting oats went on into the 1970s.
According to the Nelson Ranch brochure, “Jim and his wife Elna ran the farm with his brother Bob and wife Katherine. Jim and Elna had four children – Maria, Ginny, Ron and Rick. Today the farm is run by Rick, Ron and his wife Kay, joined by their children, Scott and Jill.”
Jill says that the house she lives in now used to be Bob and Katherine’s and that folks could drive right up to their front porch and purchase milk from her great aunt Katherine.
Today, the farm offers natural, grass-fed beef. The Nelsons believe in humane and sustainable farming practices. They have worked in recent years with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to limit their environmental impact as well. The cattle are rotated onto different pastures to prevent overgrazing and allow the cows to have free-range, fresh, nutrient-rich grass while it is in season. The hay fields still supply food for the winter months. The Nelsons have invested in barrier fences along the Deschutes River and solar powered troughs to water the cows. They also now have a manure barn which is a holding and composting facility.
But, the Nelsons are also interested in preserving the past. They recently restored the granary which is now a museum of sorts, housing many tools of yesteryear. And their farm is listed as a Centennial Farm by the Washington State Department of Agriculture alongside Thurston County’s Colvin Farm, established in 1854; Rutledge Farm, established in 1856 and Hilpert Farm, established in 1858.
Twice a year there is a free event on the farm. In the spring, the Baby Calf Tour includes a hay ride out to see the calves. At the end of August each year is the Farm Event where visitors learn about life on the farm and experience a hay ride with the farm’s horse team. You can tour the farm, check out the vineyard, view the Deschutes River and visit the granary with its heritage displays. There are animals and fun activities for the kids.
Later in the evening is the Annual Farm Dinner, which does require tickets. The al fresco garden dinner opens with wine tasting and appetizers. This year’s dinner was a three-course meal catered by 1861: Community Through Food. Each course was explained by the chef and the wine pairing was introduced by the vintner. The meal included Nelson Ranch beef and the fresh ingredients, wine and flowers were all locally sourced.
To purchase local, natural, grass-fed beef from Nelson Ranch, visit their webpage. Beef is available by the whole, half or quarter cow. Ground beef is also available.
Looking to the future, the Nelsons welcome more hosting opportunities and are exploring the idea of becoming a wedding venue and opening a small farm store. Considering the long-range vision of this family, they will no doubt be around for another 150 years, seeing their vision for the next generation of Nelson Ranch come to fruition.