Rancho San Antonio—Today's City Stables
By Amelia Sue Marshall, MHA Historian
The hilltop that enshrines Oakland's City Stables has a glorious history. In 1820, Spanish land-grant heir Don Luis Maria Peralta established the original Rancho San Antonio there. In 1939, Kenneth E. Bemis of the Aahmes Shrine Lodge of Oakland constructed the existing Spanish-style ranch house as a club headquarters and stables for the Aahmes Shrine Rangers Mounted Patrol.
During World War II, the Shriners patrolled the unpaved roads of the Oakland hills, along with advanced riders from the Mills College Shongehon Drill Team, alert for invading paratroopers coming over the Golden Gate. In those days before GPS and electronic navigation, a beacon on the hilltop provided a visual marker for pilots transporting the U.S. mail between Los Angeles and Seattle.
During the heyday of the Aahmes Shrine Rangers, the 1940s and '50s, the mounted unit paraded in events nationwide. Old-timers believe that the high water mark saw 29 of the distinctive black-and-white mounts doing synchronous routines. Oakland ice-cream lovers will recognize the names of Ted Dreyer, Jay Fenton, and Shorne Fenton from the Aahmes Shrine Rangers roster. Governor (later Chief Justice) Earl Warren, an avid horseman, was an honorary member.
After the Aahmes Shrine Lodge moved to their current headquarters in Livermore in the 1970s, the hilltop site was sold to the Dunn family, who operated Vista Madera Stables, a boarding barn, there until the mid-1990s. The voters had passed a bond measure in 1991 that included a budget item for the site. The city of Oakland purchased it to provide equestrian programs for at-risk youth. Ten years later, in an atmosphere of scarce resources, the city closed first the youth program, and later the boarding stables, in 2003. The ranch stood vacant until 2011.
When vigilant observers of city politics learned of a scheme to develop the site for non-equestrian purposes, the community united to fight to preserve it. Horse people and parents from MHA, the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, and other interested groups succeeded in persuading the city council to preserve this historic site for children to experience horses. Councilmember Pat Kernighan authored a motion that the site be considered a citywide resource, like the Morcom Rose Garden, in order to protect it from seizure by special interests.
After the city of Oakland invested in some necessary maintenance, City Stables has been once again opened to the community. Horse-oriented day camps for children were provided during the summers of 2011 and 2012.
There is still much work needing to be done. The charming architectural facade of the rancho belies significant structural damage from water intrusion and pests. With an official landmark status, fundraising efforts could be mounted to restore this jewel to habitability. With its two excellent riding arenas, the site could again host commercial boarding and training that could provide a revenue stream. The city can regain this important piece of its architectural and historic heritage.