Farewell to Ailie Chamberlin

On a Saturday evening this past summer, Ailie Chamberlin died at 102 years of age on her beloved Rancho Los Potreros, a fitting place considering that some of her most memorable life moments were equine-related. For those who don’t know Spanish, potreros translates as “a grazing field for horses,” and during the seventy-five years she spent on the 6,000-acre ranch in Los Olivos, Ailie bore seven children, buried three (as well as her husband and one granddaughter), outlived her seven younger siblings, and lived a life that seems more like a novel than a true story.

I’ve thought a lot about Ailie since her death on August 16, and decided that she deserved a story beyond the obituary facts, although those death notice tidbits are what drove my curiosity to learn more about the stalwart woman who earned them. By the time I met Ailie, the mother of my good friend Sarah Chamberlin, she was in her mid-nineties, confined to a wheelchair and suffering from the congestive heart failure that would ultimately claim her life. But the spark was still there, discernable through the sun-creased face and frail body that could no longer gallop bareback across hillsides covered with California poppies and blue lupine.

It seems entirely appropriate that Ailie’s life began with the great San Francisco earthquake. The seismic waves sent her mother into labor, and Ailie greeted the world the next day, April 19, 1906, across the Bay in Oakland, California. Christened “Helen Adele Elizabeth van Loben Sels,” she was called after her mother and grandmother, both named Helen. To differentiate among the three, she was known by her initials “H.A.E.” But even that proved too much of a mouthful for one of her younger siblings, who could only pronounce “Ailie,” although “Aftershock” might have been a better nickname given how she rocked tradition.

Ailie grew up on her family’s Amistad Ranch in the Sacramento delta, where eighty teams of Percherons (160 horses) were needed to till the vast farming fields. “When Mom was growing up, her father insisted his children ride bareback until they were fifteen, then they could ride in a saddle,” recalls Sarah Chamberlin. “Her mother rode side-saddle. As a girl, Mom and some of her younger siblings would help drive a herd of young Percheron horses to the high Sierras to get them out of the swampy areas during the summer. This was pre-World War One, and they rode a hundred-fifty miles over three days, fifty miles a day, bareback.” (For reference, a twenty-mile horseback ride is considered a very long day for modern pleasure riders, and riding bareback is far less comfortable than using a saddle.)

“All four of Mom’s brothers went to Thacher School in Ojai. Her brother, my Uncle Maurits, rode from their ranch in Courtland [south of Sacramento] to Ojai by himself. But on the first day of his trek he had to go to the dentist, so Mom took his horse and started the ride for him. When Maurits finished at the dentist’s, their father drove him in a car to catch up to Mom. He got on the horse and continued alone to Ojai. It was like a relay,” said Sarah.

Ailie Chamberlin’s most celebrated story as a “long rider” is the trek she made at age twenty-two. The tale has oft been repeated, but deservedly so. Her brother Peter was bitten by a rattlesnake while attending Thacher, and was deemed too ill to continue his studies. Ailie’s father gave her fifty dollars, and put her on the train to Ojai with instructions to buy horses and ride back to Grass Valley (in the Sierra foothills), where the family was temporarily staying. “They rode over the Sespe into the Cuyama Valley and dropped into the upper part of the Salinas River drainage,” relates Sarah. “They decided that following the inland route would be too hot, and so crossed over the coastal mountains from the Paso Robles area and arrived at the coast in Cambria. From there they rode up the Big Sur coastline following trails. At that time Highway One was only just under construction by convict labor. They camped or stayed with local ranchers.”

But how could a boy who was too sick to study possibly ride several hundred miles by horseback? “I was an adult before I thought to ask Mom about that, because it’s what everyone wants to know,” laughs Sarah. “Her answer was: ‘We really didn’t push it. We didn’t ride more than twenty miles a day. We took it in easy stages.’” Again the irony is not lost on us modern riders, tenderfoots by comparison. Another assisting factor was word-of-mouth provided by the local mail carriers, who were spreading the news about these two young people doing this long ride. It was entertaining, so Ailie and Peter were well received by farmers and ranchers along their route, including the Hearsts in San Simeon.

The ability to spend long hours in the saddle belied Ailie’s intellectual accomplishments, fostered by parents who met at Cornell University and believed that girls as well as boys should be well educated. Initially, Ailie learned at home under a series of governesses. “Mom’s first governess was Dutch, so for the first few years she spoke Dutch,” said Sarah. “Her next governess was French, so she learned mathematics and other subjects in French. She spoke very good French all her life.” Ailie matriculated at Stanford University, where she referred to herself as one of the “Stanford 500,” as there were five hundred women in the student body. She graduated from Stanford in 1929 with a degree in biology, and then went on to Cornell where she received a Masters degree in entomology.

Space does not allow for the rest of Ailie’s story, which includes a career as a plantation governess, high school teacher, pioneer rancher’s wife, revered mother, dedicated community volunteer, political activist as a self-described “staunch Republican,” (her son Willy Chamberlin served on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors), world traveler and elephant-riding parade marshal. Perhaps someday we’ll all have a chance to meet Ailie at “The Big Roundup in the Sky,” and she can tell us first-hand the tales of her long and remarkable life.