Life and times of Willis Linn Jepson
January 30, 2021
The first notation was written in longhand by pre-eminent botanist, University of California, Berkeley professor and Vacaville native Willis Linn Jepson, in what would become a 70-volume journal and field book, simply started “Vacaville. 1888.”
The first plant he mentioned was the Valley Oak, the largest oak found in the state and common around Vacaville.Read More
“Proud aristocrat with lofty wide-spreading branches. The child born beneath its branches looks into its top as something very distant and mysterious; and who has such a jolly time as the woodpecker, El Carpinteros, beneath its branches? As the child grows, what inspiration these lofty arches above his head,” Jepson wrote later.
His plant collection notations list specimens found as close as Little Oak Ranch, where he grew up in the Vaca Valley, and as far away as Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
An early trip on horseback to Weldon Canyon prompted him to write of it as “a lovely place to botanize as a lad. It was utterly wild; no habitations down to the bottom.”
“I saw and collected for the first time the Crimson Sage, Audibertia grandflora,” Jepson wrote. “It was a wonderful sight and its aroma made a permanent impression on my senses.”
The journals, preserved at the Jepson Herbarium at UC Berkeley, not only chronicle Jepson’s nearly 60 years of research but also illuminate Vaca Valley and Vacaville, the late 19th century town he often referred to as “the village.”
Jepson’s interest in botany started as a boy as he explored the area around Vacaville, meeting with botanists before he entered college.
He was the first person from Vacaville to earn a doctoral degree. He got the degree in botany at UC Berkeley in 1899. He made assistant professor that same year, and professor in 1918. He served as president of the California Botanical Society and was a charter member of the Sierra Club in 1892.
His 1923 book, “Manual of the Flowering Plants of California,” is one of the field’s outstanding works and was most recently republished in 2012.
His fieldwork covered most of the state where he did most of his research. He also made botanical expeditions to Alaska in 1899 and to the Middle East in 1926.
Jepson’s fame rolled off him like water off a duck.
He wrote in 1916 “my reputation as an authority on California botany is international.
Every once and a while I learn from a letter or otherwise of my books in some far-off
corner of the southern hemisphere, but that isn’t what I care for. I don’t give a rap for it.”
“The real thing is to be able to hike outside the usual places in the flush of spring, to
study plants in my laboratory, to write them up and illustrate them when the spirit says
‘now is the time’.” Jepson wrote. “That is the real pleasure and a carefree existence.”
Jepson was born on Aug. 18, 1867, at Little Oak Ranch, located near what is now Peabody Road and Alamo Drive. His parents, Martha and William Jepson, settled there in 1857 after coming west with three ox wagons and some livestock.
William Jepson initially came to California in 1850 to find gold. He also spent time in Hawaii and Panama before returning to Missouri to marry Martha Potts.
Jepson described his father as “rather dour, undoubtedly deeply religious and somewhat rigid about it, yet the pagan in him at times cropped out.”
His father objected to anyone passing his carriage on Vaca Valley’s dirt roads and “at such a juncture, he would speed the carriage horses to their utmost, causing my mother to scream with fright. She objected strongly to this horse-racing, but it never did any good.”
“The majority of the settlers in our neighborhood were Missourian,” Jepson wrote. “They betrayed themselves by their speech. It was this speech on which I was raised. People said what they want – a very different speech from those in the cities where language is used disassemble. Our speech was influenced and tempered by two books – the Bible and Shakespeare.”
Jepson read any book he could get his hand on. His father had a small library of religious books. What he truly loved were dime novels which “occasionally ranch
workmen would have and I would devour.”
“How could anyone resist such thrilling passages as those written by the real artist of dime novel production,” Jepson wrote.
Little Oak was described as a spare place where the Jepsons “cut out all possible expenses.”
Their home had a couple of bedrooms, a kitchen and a common room where “when work hours ran from daylight to dark, the great luxury was to sit, a place of rest more than anything.”
“There were no luxuries or frills of any sort, not even little ones,” Jepson wrote. “School
books were bought that was about all. The wheat in those days was hauled to Suisun
and made into flour which was bought back home.”
“The ranch was to a large degree self-sustaining. All the laundry and kitchen soap was manufactured on the ranch. All the children’s clothing, both boys and girls, was made at home; all the beds, bedding and bed clothes,” Jepson wrote. “I was never given a toy. Made a wagon from gang plows and from stray pieces of oak.”
Water was provided by a slap-jack, a wind-driven pump and “during those quiet weeks, we had to pump water for the stock by hand; my little sisters did it until their arms ached.”
On hot fall days walking home from school “we children rushed to the pump, and pumped long and vigorously to get a cool drink from the far underground waters,”
Outside cattle and a neighboring family’s mules wandered in to drink the Jepson’s water. “Stones, sticks and whips were useless. We were too little and the mules knew it.” The incursions ended after the Jepson’s spent two months building fences to keep them out.
On a buggy trip to Winters, Jepson described the road as “all grassy with only a thin wagon trail” and a Fourth of July trip to Dixon as “a really slow journey, but I never tired of it.”
While on a trip to Putah Creek “we fell in with a great band of turkeys that were being driven to the railroad east of us. The band consisted of some 300 to 400 birds, moving slowly along in a rather stately fashion, feeding off the seeds of the (mullein) that grew abundantly on the wide expanse. The drivers were a man and a boy and they had come a long way from the north of Putah Creek.”
The young Jepson spent time talking to Vacaville pioneers such as Arculus Hawkins, who came to California in 1853, settled at Bodega to raise potatoes, didn’t like it and initially came to Sweeney Creek near Vacaville.
“Sweeney attempted to run him off and Hawkins said ‘Let’s fight for it,’” Jepson wrote.
“So they fought and Sweeney was triumphant. Hawkins then came down to Ulatis Creek and tried cattle on the plains toward Elmira.”
His oxen kept leaving for water and Hawkins had to go after them, once returning to his wife and saying “the oxen know better than we, where to settle, so we are going to pull up stakes and follow them.” They followed them to a site where they established Hawkins Ranch (near present-day Elmira) where he built a brick house and raised wheat.
“And so Hawkins proudly claimed he got the finest ranch in northern Solano County as a result of being licked by Sweeney.”
Not all the neighbors were upstanding citizens. One was a man Jepson remembered as named Adcock who would run off a pig or calf, and took a shot at a neighbor named Creath Hawkins over a fence line. “but Creath was not hit because Frank Williams, standing by, struck up the rifle as Adcock took aim and fired.”
He also mentioned a ‘Johnny Walker’ who shot Jeff Dobbins, the son of a leading Vacaville citizen, who later shot and killed a man over a poker game in a Main Street saloon.
“I would certainly, with great pride, have claimed him (Walker) as a relation anyway if he had only killed Jeff Dobbins. That would have been a real service to society. Of all the ‘bad men’ I knew as a child, Jeff was the most odious and the foulest,” Jepson wrote.
Vacaville’s population in 1880 was only 361 people, rising to 725 by 1890.
“It was a quiet place, a truly country village,” Jepson wrote. “Sounds there were the most distinctive the clang of the anvil in the blacksmith shops. The most distinctive, the most picturesque, was Cernon’s. Hugh Cernon, the Blacksmith, had a huge place, tremendous, cavernous with great recessed nooks. A wagon shop on one side where wagons were built.”
“Libraries were few and scarce in early days. There was a school library at Center School but it did not appeal to me as much as the one at the Vacaville Grammar School. There was a bookstore at Tilson’s Drugstore.”
A characteristic of the town Jepson pointed out was the hitching rack, “where farmers tied their teams for the time they did business.” Mail was also hauled from the railroad station to downtown in a two-wheeled dray.
He noted with his botanist’s eye that since there are no local trees with wood good enough for building, Vacaville had to get its wood (redwood) from a mill in Bodega.
“The justice of the peace of the township of Vacaville was always called Squire after the ancient English custom,” he wrote. “I remember Squire Gray, an ancient worthy. After him was Squire Ward who held court in his homes repair shop, set well back from the village street.”
When he went with his father to Vacaville “I wandered to the end of the village business street and stood a bit by the Wilson House, looking down the street shaded by tall trees and beyond the trees, the grain fields stretch away to the hills.”
Most of his notations are about the natural world around Vacaville, writing “before the gringo came, California was one great natural garden.”
“Inevitably, with the coming of the Americano and his pervasive, not to say destroying civilization, much of the more delicate places of this native beauty suffered and suffered seriously.” Jepson wrote. “Goldfields, Tidy tips and nemophilas rioted in wide-flung sheets of color where there are now grain fields and orchards.”
Many times, he didn’t even have to leave Little Oak to study wildlife.
“Last night, a great owl, grey and white, that lives at Little Oak, flew amongst the trees and lighted for a bit on a fence post in the first twilight when I had a good look at his eyes like two young moons. This morning, the field larks are singing in the edge of the wheat stubble, the woodpeckers are noisy in the edge of the trees and I can hear the cry of the sparrow hawks as they go about their business. It seems that I shall go back to the fog blanket with not a little reluctance.”
Black gnats came by late May and are “usually gone by apricot time.”
“They are an awful nuisance,” he wrote.” They get into one’s ears, around one’s eyes and bite like anything.”
“Flocks of black birds are trying breast this north wind which today is gale force,” Jepson wrote of one very windy day. “The flocks rise and swing back in beautiful curves like swinging waves – but make no progress – indeed seeming to lose a little.”
Jepson, 79, passed away in Berkeley on Nov. 7, 1946. He is buried in the Vacaville-Elmira Cemetery. His headstone described him as a ‘Profound Scholar, Inspiring Teacher, Indefatigable Botanical Explorer” and reads “In the Ordered Beauty of Nature, He Found Enduring Communion.”
The Jepson Prairie Reserve south of Vacaville and east of Travis AFB was named after him and preserves one of the best few vernal pools habitats left in the country.
He also has a small genus of flowering plants named after him, Jepsonia, whose species include the Foothill Jepsonia, Island Jepsonia and Parry’s Jepsonia.
“He was remarkably successful both as a teacher and writer in communicating his great enthusiasm for the flora which he done so much to make understandable,” Jepson’s obituary said.