A large stock of rural ranching folks mingled with early California families before streaming into Mission Santa Inés in late February for the celebration of Los Alamos cattleman Bill King’s funeral mass. The priest met “Cowboy Bill’s” coffin in the vestibule. The pallbearers were Bill’s working cowboy crew — wearing blue jeans, boots, and the new black cowboy hats they’d each bought for the privilege of escorting Bill on his last trip up the aisle of the old mission. As they walked, Bill’s own robust baritone, recorded in slow triple meter, welcomed his family and friends “ … like a storybook ending … my heartbreaks and troubles are just up and gone … I could waltz across Texas with you” — Bill’s signature song.
Bill’s life was a storybook of the cowboy western genre. Its most far-reaching chapter occurred in 1962 in southeastern Monterey County. Bill had completed several months of law school at Santa Clara when he and his brother, Chuck, leased Myrtle Flentge’s rough, brushy 2,500-acre ranch near Parkfield. Bill always maintained that his life changed the day he watched cattle jostle down a loading chute there, bawling, tail-swatting flies, and smelling of manure, anxiously scanning their new pasture for the best forage among its poverty grass and chaparral. In that moment he knew he would always be a cattleman and never be a lawyer. King Bros. Cattle Company was born as the brothers learned the cattle business in Parkfield.
Bill’s storybook was already full of family adventures in farming and ranching. He was the namesake of his great-grandfather William H. Rickard who emigrated from England to Hawai’i in 1867 and became a pioneer sugar cane planter on the Big Island, in Honoka’a, on a 67-acre land grant he purchased in 1876 from King Kalakaua for $128.61. In 1878, Kalakaua’s sister, Lili’uokalani — a devotee of her Hawaiian culture, composer of Aloha ‘Oe, and later the last monarch of the Hawaiian kingdom — acted as godmother for Rickard’s son, James B. Rickard, who came to be Bill’s grandfather after he sailed to California and married Acacia Oreña, granddaughter of Don José De la Guerra, Santa Barbara’s paterfamilias.
De la Guerra and his son-in-law, Gaspar Oreña, were prominent ranchers and businessmen in Spanish and Mexican Santa Barbara County. At the time of his death, Bill and his family still owned Oreña’s adobe home, built in 1849, across from City Hall on East De la Guerra Street, one of the rare Santa Barbara properties in continuous family ownership from before California statehood in 1850. As a boy in the early 1940s, while visiting his grandmother’s adobe, Bill literally ran into one of the adjacent El Paseo studio tenants, an artist, who made a quick drawing for the youngster, signing it “To Bill King, from Ed Borein.”
Bill’s favorite life stories centered around his family and cattle ranching. When he died on February 13 — at the home he shared with his wife, Saundra — it was on Rancho Los Alamos, land that was granted to his ancestors by California’s Mexican governor in 1839. His mother, Consuelo Rickard King, along with her brother John T. Rickard, owned ranches in Los Alamos and the western Cuyama Valley. Because Bill and Chuck’s father, Captain C. E. King, was a naval officer, the family moved often; when the boys were young they enjoyed spending summers at the family ranches. All three of Bill’s adult children, Jenny, Billy, and Katy, were raised on the ranch and continue to work in agriculture.
The King brothers operated their cattle partnership until Chuck moved to a career in real estate. Bill’s daughter Jenny began working with him and eventually took over management of the operation along with her brother, Billy, and husband, Luke Hardin. They loved the business, shipping cattle to Northern California or Oregon for summer feed when grass was scarce in Santa Barbara, and then back for fall calving. Bill joked “our cattle moved around so much they had their own suitcases.” When the Buellton livestock sales yard closed in 1999, the Kings began to operate it as a receiving station for local ranchers, transporting the cattle to the nearest livestock auction market in Templeton for almost 20 years. By that time Bill enjoyed telling friends he worked for Jenny.
Bill and Chuck received accolades for their community leadership as Honorary Vaqueros of Santa Barbara’s Old Spanish Days Fiesta Rodeo in 2005, the community festival established by their grandfather Rickard, as well as by the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum in 2011.
One of Bill’s favorite cowboy feats was the two weeks he spent with expert cattleman Ralph Lausten removing the cattle from Santa Cruz Island in 1988 during the island’s transition from cattle ranch to nature preserve. It took nine cowboys two weeks to gather the cattle from the 54,000-acre Stanton Ranch and ship them to the mainland. In fact, it took them several days longer than they’d anticipated. When Nita Vail arrived at the island’s Prisoners’ Harbor pier with her father, Al, in their Vaquero II livestock boat from Santa Rosa Island, the cowboys had been out of food for several days. Nita reminisced, “Bill King never forgot those tri-tip sandwiches we brought.” For the cowboys, Ralph Lausten recalled, “It was a once in a lifetime adventure, taking off the last cattle … our best times were camped on the beach at Laguna Canyon on the island’s south side … Bill had brought his guitar and sang around the campfire.”
Bill often narrated his life’s storybook with his rich singing voice, which he shared beyond island beach and ranchero campfires. Even at Los Alamos Cemetery, where Bill was interred next to his brother, Chuck, the cemetery’s tombstones echoed Bill’s voice singing “ … empty saddles in the old corral … empty boots covered with dust.” The farewells that day saw two of Bill’s longtime cowboys leading away two riderless white horses, Bill’s empty boots on one empty saddle and Chuck’s on the other.
Bill would be called upon to sing the Star-Spangled Banner at community events, which he was proud to do. “Bill always nailed it, and people loved him,” said Nita Vail, who remembered how he sang the less familiar stanzas: “He insisted the words be printed and pasted inside his hat, so when he took it off to sing the National Anthem, he could secretly read the words as he held it. Bill could sing, and he made people feel special. He never met a stranger.”