When we hear the words “Nellie Gail,” we think of our beautiful neighborhood with its large estates and lovely trails; it’s hard to associate the words with anything else. But before our home became known as Nellie Gail Ranch, the name belonged to an incredible woman: Nellie Gail Moulton.
Originally from Irving, Kansas, Nellie spent her life in several of the states. After her birth in December 1878, Nellie moved to Nebraska, where she lived until the early 1900s. She then moved to Washington and became a school teacher, but she often visited Southern California, where her father was a storekeeper in El Toro.
Nellie was initially not fond of Southern California. Coming from Washington, where the plant life remains lusciously green throughout the year, the brown, desert grass was distasteful. She was heard saying, “You couldn’t even give me this land!” But she would later eat her words when she met the recently divorced Lewis Moulton, one of Orange County’s most eligible bachelors.
Lewis Moulton was born in Chicago in 1854. Raised by a family of doctors, he yearned for an outdoor lifestyle. At the age of twenty, he followed his heart and began his journey to California. As this was long before the era of commercial airlines, his journey was not a short trip. First, he took a boat to the Isthmus of Panama, where he crossed the land by train. Then he took another boat to San Francisco, where he caught yet another boat headed toward San Diego. He disembarked from the San Diego bound boat at Wilmington, where he proceeded by coach to Santa Ana.
Finally, in Santa Ana, Moulton began living the outdoor lifestyle he had always dreamed about. He immediately found work under Charles French tending to sheep but was soon able to buy out the business. As the owner of French’s business, Moulton continued tending sheep and rented land all the way from Oceanside to Wilmington. In 1881, he bought out Jonathan Bacon’s sheep and rented his 1,600 acres, and in 1884 he rented Cyrus Rawson’s 17,000 acres. At this point, Moulton was renting the entirety of Rancho Niguel, a 19,000-acre plot of land that was known at the time by the Native American pronunciation, Rancho “Nee-well”.
Having accomplished so much on his own, Moulton found himself a business partner, Jean Pierre Daguerre. Daguerre was a French Basque émigré who had moved to California around the same time as Moulton, and he too had immediately involved himself in the sheep business. The partnership was the beginning of a long and successful personal and professional relationship between the two men and their families. In 1895, Moulton purchased all of the land he had previously rented, and together, they successfully utilized the land for raising sheep and dry-farming. With financial aid from his uncle in Boston, Moulton continued to purchase more pieces of land until their ranch comprised of 21,723 acres. But with hard work, Moulton’s business succeeded and he paid his uncle back in no time.
As his business bloomed, Moulton’s first marriage wilted, and he was divorced in 1899. But soon enough he laid eyes on Nellie Gail when they ran into each other at her father’s shop. He courted her for many years until they were finally married in 1908.
The newlyweds honeymooned in Honolulu before they settled down on what we now call Nellie Gail Ranch. Here, they raised their two daughters, Charlotte and Louise. The firstborn, Charlotte, was born in a hospital in Los Angeles on January 1st,1910. Her birthplace was fitting, seeing as she grew up to be quite the city girl. She went to school in Santa Ana and stayed with her friends there instead of living on her father’s ranch. Louise, on the other hand, was born on December 30th, 1914 right on the ranch in El Toro. She lived there with her family throughout her childhood and became quite the horsewoman, riding to and from school every day on her pony Dickie, a gift from her father.
Right up to the birth of Moulton’s first daughter, the ranch was thriving. But in 1911, his friend and partner Daguerre was killed in a tragic accident. A team of horses he had been driving were spooked by the passing of an automobile. When they bolted, the wagon rolled and crushed poor Daguerre. While the two families remained friends and partners, Daguerre’s death was the beginning of the ranch’s downfall.
The one successful decision the families made without Daguerre was to turn their sheep business into a cattle business. The land was often too dry for the sheep and they sometimes had to drive the animals all the way to Big Bear Lake just to graze them. While making the transition may have been a sound decision, in 1919 another disaster hit. The influenza pandemic befell many of the Moultons and killed Domingo, Daguerre’s only son.
The cattle business lingered on until Lewis Moulton died in 1938, just before his eighty-fifth (85th) birthday. Nellie, age fifty-nine (59), took over managing the land until 1950 when she turned it over to her daughters and the Daguerre daughters. The Daguerre daughters soon gave up on the business and the land was split up between the two families – a little over 7,000 acres went to the Daguerre’s while 14,000 acres went to the Moulton sisters.
As the population of Orange County increased, the cattle business drew to a close. Eventually, Charlotte and Louise divided the land between them and arranged a land swap to move their herds to Santa Barbara. The recently evacuated ranch continued to be divided, sold, populated, and built upon. Moulton’s ranch once included Laguna Niguel, Laguna Hills, Mission Viejo, several other local cities, and apparently even Big Bear Lake. The Laguna Hills Mall and the Oakbridge Village Shopping Center sprang up to suit the needs of the growing population, but all the while, Nellie Gail kept some of the ranch to herself.
When Nellie gave up most of the land to her daughters and the Daguerre’s, she kept a relatively small plot for her own purposes. Nellie was never the rancher her husband was; instead, she was a painter and a strong arts supporter. She studied her craft under the famous Laguna Beach artist, Anna Hill, and two of her famous paintings are on display at the Heritage Hill Historical Park. She was a founding member of Laguna’s College of Art and Design, the president of the Laguna Art gallery, and a major benefactor for the Laguna Moulton Playhouse. Her generosity prevailed right up to her death in 1972, when she left two hundred fifty (250) acres of her land to Chapman University. The rest of her land was sold for $18,357,000, the land we now know as the Nellie Gail Ranch.
A friend once told me, “We shape our lives and our lives shape the world.” Well, the Moultons shaped their lives and their lives shaped our world. The ranch-like yards behind our large homes are a reminder of what this land used to be. We should be proud to know our history and proud to know that our neighborhood is named after a woman as accomplished as Nellie Gail Moulton.
Today, there are 25 miles of riding trails in Nellie Gail Ranch for the enjoyment of residents and horses alike.