Cattle Ranch or Castle?

On Tuesday, my husband and I celebrated 20 years of marriage. He planned an elaborate mystery trip for me, not telling me anything about where we were going. Not even when we were on the plane. We were married in California and spent our honeymoon night at the legendary Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Our only regret at the time was that we arrived after dark and left early the next morning so we didn’t get the chance to fully enjoy this one-of-a-kind inn. So where did we go after 20 years? Yep, back to the Madonna Inn for a leisurely 3 night stay. (I may have to do a separate post someday just on the Madonna Inn. Every room is unique, decorated with it’s own theme, rock showers, a two-story waterfall at the pool, and a steak house that is completely done in pink.)

One of the days we were there, we drove up to San Simeon to tour Hearst Castle. I’m sure many of you have heard of William Randolph Hearst, the multi-millionaire media mogul who hit his peak in the 1920s and 30s. But what you may not know is that the land where Hearst Castle is situated was originally a family cattle ranch where young William grew up with his parents.

In 1865, George Hearst bought 40,000 acres of California ranchland with the wealth he’d accumulated from his mining endeavors. By the time William inherited the land from his mother Phoebe in 1919, the ranch had grown to encompass over 250,000 acres. The hill where Hearst eventually built his palatial mansion started as a favorite family camping spot. When he inherited the land, however, he decided he was getting too old to camp out and went in search of an architect to help him “build a little something”.

The architect he hired was Julia Morgan, one of the first female architects in California. Hearst chose her for his project for several reasons, one being the fact that she’d studied in Paris. Since he was a collector of European art, he wanted his home to reflect European influences. But even more valuable to Hearst, was the fact that Miss Morgan had studied concrete construction. After the devastation of the great San Francisco earthquake in 1906, Hearst wanted to ensure his home withstood whatever the California landscape threw at him.

As Wes and I toured the grounds and the inner rooms of this castle which Hearst always referred to as simply The Ranch, we were awed by the antique furniture and amazing architecture. The grand assembly rooms were panelled with 15th century tapestries and wood carvings from old European churches that still had the wooden built-in seats attached. Nothing like being so practical as to bring in antique wall panelling that could double as additional seating.

Hearst also collected ceilings. Can you imagine? What a thing to collect. But each of the 165 rooms of the castle has a different ceiling. Some are elabroate wood carvings. Other are painted masterpieces. All are awe-inspiring. This blue one from one of the upstairs bedrooms was my favorite.

Some of my other favorite rooms included, of course, the library and Mr. Hearst’s study. He had the house wired for telegraph, telephone, and teletype so he could run his empire from this remote estate. Even before the Internet, he had a fully functioning, global, home office.

Here I am in one little nook of this huge library with wall-to-wall books.
How does your home office compare?













Now this castle is central California’s biggest tourist attraction, but if you are looking out your window on the way up the mountain, you can still see the hacienda where the cattle ranchers continue on the family legacy. Yes, Hearst castle may sit atop the hills of San Simeon, but the Hearst family still runs their cattle ranch there. A true rancher’s legacy never dies.

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at:

23 thoughts on “Cattle Ranch or Castle?”

  1. Wow, beautiful. I shall have to see more of this. Thanks for sharing and Happy Anniversary.

  2. Hi Karen, I’ve been to the Madonna Inn and it’s everything you say it is. I heard so much about the men’s restroom I made my husband take me in there. Yep! Gotta see that restroom!

    Thank you sharing and happy anniversary! Your husband sounds like a sweetheart.

  3. Hi Karen!

    Happy Anniversary! The Madonna Inn sounds amazing, and WOW that The Ranch is a quite a site to behold. I would be in that library for hours upon hours. While no where near as elegant, it always amazes me when I visit some of the old “ranch houses” in Wyoming and Montana that are really mansions on a hill.

    Thanks for sharing this information and the pictures!


  4. Hi, Connie. I grew up along California’s central coast, and it really is a beautiful area. Even without the castle. 🙂 I couldn’t capture it well on film, but there are great ocean views from Hearts’s ranch.

  5. The men’s bathroom, Margaret? How did I not know about this treasure? Which one is it? At the steak house? I guess we’ll just have to go back. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to go in myself, but maybe Wes could sneak me some pictures (as long as there were no actual men around).

  6. Hi, Kirsten. Yes, the Madonna Inn is one of a kind. When we would leave the room, we would peak through the windows of neighboring rooms just to try to get a glimpse inside. We stayed in two rooms while we were there – The Mountain Cabin and the Matterhorn. Can you tell that I love mountains? Ha! My hubby is so good to me.

  7. I’ve never been to the West Coast… but I did read somewhere that while Hurst was collecting for the home/castle.. he’d occasionally forget what all he had previously bought.. and would try to buy it again… ie, a special ceiling or woodwork…

  8. Cate – That wouldn’t surprise me. It took something like 28 years for him to have the castle built. And some of the ceilings he had already purchased 10 years before he even started building. He just saw something he liked and added it to his collection.

  9. Karen, first let me say I just finished Short Straw Bride. I seriously cannot say enough good about it.
    I haven’t had that much fun reading a book in a long, long time. I absolutely loved it.

  10. When you say Hearst collected ceilings do you mean the ceilings in his house came from other places? Like he bought them and brought them to San Simeon? Or he just went nuts making the ceilings each one, unique and beautiful?

  11. My last anniversary, my 35th, at about ten seconds to midnight on the day of the anniversary, when I came to bed I woke my husband up, accidentally and as he rolled over he said, “Oh, Happy Anniversary.”
    I said, “Back atcha.”

    The sentiment is making me weepy.

  12. Mary – Thanks so much for your comments about Short-Straw. That’s a high compliment coming from the queen of funny! 🙂

    Yes, Hearst actually collected ceilings from other buildings. He travelled a lot in Europe and would buy ceilings. Most were ornate carved and painted wood that he would then install in his castle with cables draped from the cement structure. I guess they were broken down in pieces and then fit together like a giant puzzle.

    LOL about all that mushy romance at your last anniversary. 😀 My hubby only goes big like this once in a blue moon. Usually it’s just dinner and maybe a movie. The last time he surprised me this big was on my 25th birthday. So maybe by the time our 35th rolls around, he’ll have worked himself up for another surprise. One can hope!

  13. How neat! What a way to celebrate and anniversary. I’d love to see the Hearst estate. I think I could lose myself in there and never come out. A very interesting blog. One thing I learned over the years is that big cattle ranchers love doing things over the top and they excel in it.

    Happy anniversary!

  14. Linda, you are so right about doing things over the top. I guess if you’ve got the money, might as well.

    Hearst had two pools. One is a glorious outdoor pool surrounded by Greek columns and mermaid statues. The other is indoors, hiding beneath the very ordinary-looking tennis courts. The Roman pool is wall to wall, floor to ceiling gold and blue tile with marble ladders descending into the water and two inlet coves where you can frolic with the statues hidden there or climb to a high dive covered in the same tile and plunge back into the water. Talk about extravagance.

  15. What a thoughtful and romantic husband you have! I do hope that you post pictures of the Madonna Inn’s interiors on a future post.

  16. Hi, Cheryl. Yep, I think I got me a keeper. 🙂

    I didn’t take too many pictures because I wasn’t inside very many rooms, but you can find all kind of great pictures if you do a Google search for Madonna Inn Rooms.

    The mountain cabin room I stayed in the first night had an iron bed that incorporated pine cone designs in the headboard. So cool! There was also a huge mural painted on the walls. On one side there were a pair of crouching Indians peering over a rock overhang at the stage coach down below. My writer’s imagination immediately started spinning stories. It was fabulous.

    Some of the rooms almost reach the point of being gaudy, but they are just so unique, I’d be willing to enjoy them anyway.

  17. I love California’s Central Coast. My daughter went to Cal Poly at SLO, so we visited that area a lot. Since we are from “Over the Mountains” from the rest of California, it is fun to visit all the Ocean stuff. I’ve been to the Madonna Inn, but didn’t know about the men’s bathroom. We MUST go back sometime and check it out.
    Thanks for sharing your anniversary with us. My 35th wasn’t the greatest. My husband decided he didn’t want to be married any more!!! Happy Day!
    But that was 5 years ago…I’m doing just fine, thank you very much.

  18. Mary J – My dad was a Cal Poly SLO grad. How fun! I think he graduated in the late 60s. I can remember going back a couple of times to hear the band play. He played the tuba. Let me know if you learn the secrets of the Madonna Inn men’s bathroom! 🙂

  19. Happy Anniversary. We really need to visit out there. We have Biltmore Castle in our neck of the woods but it isn’t quite the same.

    Just got Short Straw on my kindle. There is something about preordering on a kindle that makes one believe in the Book Fairy. Can’t wait to dive in.

    Peace, Julie

  20. Thanks, Julie! A book fairy? I LOVE that idea. Can you believe I still don’t have a Kindle? I have the app for my phone and read on there occasionally, but I mostly still read good old-fashioned paperbacks.

    Hope you enjoy Short-Straw!

  21. Hi Karen, I’ll ask my daughter if she ever heard about the Madonna Inn men’s bathroom story. She’s in Mammoth Lakes working, at the moment, and our cell phones don’t work until she goes into town. (She is up at the Lakes Basin). She was at SLO for 4 years, so it’s possible.

  22. Thank you for a most interesting post. I have seen pictures of the Hearst Castle, but they have all been taken on the grounds. The perspective of the distant shots here give the place an entirely different feel. I had no idea they started off as cattle ranchers and continue on today.

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