Sunday, May 1, 2016

Yerington Monday: Hap Mcgee & The Longhorns

Hap Mcgee & The Longhorns

The Longhorn were a  legendary breed of cattle, massive horn spreads and suspicious glares. They was a prominent thread in in the old American West tapestry.  Hap Magee said, “If it weren’t for longhorns the cowboy might never have been.  Nor those epic trail drives and soulful ballads cowboys san to soothe those weary longhorns.  Without the longhorn the West just wouldn’t have had its most romantic episode.”

Hap Mcgee had one of the largest herds of longhorn herds -- 2,000 head-- in the U.S.  Magee explained that his herd was about the largest since John Chisum drove his herd up the trail from Texas and started the tide of longhorns north.

Born in 1922, Hap grew up in Piedmont, graduating from Piedmont High School in 1941. Legend has it that at the age of 10, Magee met silent film cowboy Tom Mix, who gave him a pair of gloves made by Native Americans. That gift inspired a lifetime dedicated to collecting and preserving the Old West.


Three times Hap Magee tried to settle in Wabuska, Nevada, and three times he went broke.  On his fourth try he placed a 2,000 head of longhorn on his ranch in Wabuska.  “I’m no longer just a hobby breeder of longhorns,” Magree bragged. “Fact is like a lot of other cowmen we’re rediscovering  what the old time cowmen knew:  that the longhorn is not just a lot of legs and horns.  His blood is something special and commercially a good investment.”

Hap Magee’s cattle marching down Main Street at a Fourth of July Parade in Yerington.

According to multiple news reports of the 1960's and 1970s, Magee's herd of longhorns, split between his Alamo ranch and his property in Nevada, was one of the largest herds in the country. At one point, the herd's fame transcended its status as a local novelty: The Hayward Daily Review in May 1976 quoted Magee as saying that his herd had a theatrical agent to handle its numerous commercial and public appearances.

Danville and Alamo Ranches

By the time Magee and his wife, Ruth, relocated to the Alamo property he was not only an experienced rancher but also an avid collector of Old West memorabilia and a dedicated fan of Texas longhorn cattle.

In fact, it was not uncommon for Magee to herd a few of his cattle through Danville to the Silver Dollar Banquet Room (now Celia's in the complex behind the Danville Hotel), so the community could see the cattle up close. One story in the local papers said that Magee once rode in a Danville parade with one of his bulls in the back of a black limousine, but photographs of that spectacle are sadly lacking.

Despite the attention his cattle garnered, Jones' book and many other sources assert that it was Magee's collection of Western memorabilia and branding irons that made him a local legend. Sources place the size of his brand collection anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500 strong. At one point, the collection included brands from Daniel Inman, Bing Crosby, Beatrice Kay, Safeway Stores and the King Ranch.


This and the following lots contain 300 irons that once belonged to Nevada resident Hap Magee who began acquiring them in 1935. the collection consists of irons rom Nevada, California, Texas and as far away as Australia and Mexico.

So famous was his collection of brands and Old West memorabilia, that in 1977, Magee became a trustee for the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City.

In his later years, Magee shared his collection of memorabilia with the community by setting up displays to help educate folks on the ways of the West. He would load up trailers and bring the West to the Diablo Bank parking lot for residents to enjoy.

Those who knew Magee remember him as an affable guy. Mike Doyle, a former mayor of Danville and a resident since the early 1950s, recalled Magee as "a nice fellow who loved this city and community."

"He was a real nice guy," remembered author and historian Virgie Jones, who has lived in the area since the '40s and knew the Magee family.

Magee, his wife Ruth and their daughter Julie lived on the land until the late 1980s.

The Magee chapter of the story ends after his 1985 death in Napa when his wife sold the land to a nonprofit land agency for about $940,000. The agency then sold the land to Danville and Contra Costa County for about $1 million, and a commission was formed to plan and operate the park, beginning the current chapter of the story.

The first public meetings on the park began in 1988. For a long time it was an open grassy area and a few buildings, but slowly it has evolved into the popular place it is now. Today, Hap Magee Ranch Park is a wonderful asset to the community. Its children's play area is crowded, the dog park is a popular spot, and the buildings are used to host a number of special events.

The current chapter is punctuated by the laughter of children and underscored by the importance of preserving history. If the question ever arises about the identity of Hap Magee, answer confidently that he was a colorful character who played an important role in the community. Given the property's history, it seems fitting that the land is making kids smile once again.
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