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Heart of the Valley: The success of Frederick Wickenden

Heart of the Valley: The success of Frederick Wickenden

After engineering the building of a railroad in Peru in the early 1850s, Frederick Wickenden joined a party of Americans headed for the California gold fields by way of Panama. Arriving in San Francisco in 1850, they traveled up the Feather River. Using the $3,000 that he’d earned in Peru, Wickenden built a flume in hopes of changing the course of the river. However, when he finished the job, a heavy storm blew in and carried the flume away, causing him to lose everything. In short, the man was penniless.

Bitterly disappointed, during the following months Wickenden did a lot of walking -- first to Sacramento where he managed to earn enough money to pay for his fare to San Francisco. However, when he went to the train station to purchase a ticket, he learned that a seat wouldn’t be available for three weeks. So, he grabbed his blanket and joined two Americans and walked to San Francisco, where he gained employment with a Captain Wilson, who was running a shipping business between San Francisco and San Diego.

Always looking for a place in which to settle, Wickenden stopped at Port Harford in 1852 and worked his way to San Luis Peak, where he began raising sheep to support himself before heading back to England. While there, he met a fellow Englishman, Dr. Charles James Freeman who was married to Martina Foxen, daughter of Benjamin and Eduarda Foxen, owners of the Rancho Tinaquaic. Freeman was also engaged in sheep ranching.

After trying to persuade Wickenden to stay in town for a while, Freeman finally convinced him to give it a try for a year.

Wickenden often visited the Freemans. He eventually met Martina’s sister, Maria de la Soladad Ramona Foxen, who often rode by horseback to visit her sister in San Luis Obispo.

A romance blossomed between Fred and Ramona and on July 16, 1860, they were married at the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolusa.

Wickenden never returned to England.

The Wickendens made their home and raised sheep in San Luis Obispo where their first son, William Frederick, was born. The couple eventually had nine children.

Wickenden became secretary to the vigilante committee, formed when the town was a hotbed of crime. In 1860, he ran for county supervisor but was not elected.

In 1862, when Benjamin Foxen divided his 8,874 acres of Rancho property among his 11 children, Ramona took Lot 11.

The Wickendens moved to the Rancho Tinaquaic with their growing family, where they opened a dry goods store and continued to raise sheep. He also became one of Santa Barbara County’s earliest postmasters, and operated a post office for about 40 years. Since his three-room adobe was also a stage stop between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, his place was a commercial and social center for the area for many years.

Once a year, when it was time to shave the sheep, hired hands congregated at the Wickenden ranch to take part in the annual shearing. After a sheep had been shaved of its wool, the foreman would give the workers an Indian Head penny. These pennies had particular value: When the pay period ended, each worker would be paid a predetermined amount of money per penny.

Some of the workers, who figured they could pull a fast one on Wickenden, brought their own pennies from home. Everything worked out to the workers’ advantage until Wickenden became wise to their game and began pounding his initials into the pennies, thus putting an end to the scam. From that point on, only the special Indian Head pennies on which the initials “F.W.” were hammered could be used to tally the workers’ pay. Their game was over.

In 1874, when Wickenden decided to give up the sheep business, he drove 5,000 head to Redwood City, where he sold them for $1 each, and used that money to purchase lumber to expand his house in the Tinaquaic Ranch.

However, before he left the ranch, Ramona, who had always resented the fact that her father (who had died in February of that same year) was buried “out in the pasture,” asked her husband to purchase enough lumber to build a church.

Wickenden sent two boatloads of lumber from San Francisco to Port Harford, enough to both enlarge his house and to build the little church, which would one day be named the San Ramon Chapel. The rest is history.

Wickenden went into the cattle business and became one of the most successful ranchers in the Sisquoc area.

He died in 1918 and his wife, Ramona, died in September of the following year.

Many years later, Winston Wickenden (son of Fred and Ramona’s youngest son, John Richard), came across 465 specially marked 1871 Indian Head pennies while rummaging through an old desk at the ranch.

He contacted a local coin collector and asked if he’d take a look at the coins and appraise them for numismatic value, even offering to split the profits. The man found that, had they not been defaced by the “F.W.” stamp, the coins would have been worth $14,000. However, in their present condition, there wasn’t a dime’s worth of numismatic value in the whole lot.

* * *

The Santa Maria Valley Historical Society is sponsoring a tour of the Frederick Wickenden house in Sisquoc on July 22. For more information, call 922-3130.

Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 623-8193 or at Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.


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