Baja’s East Cape Sportfishing – It Began With A Goat Ranch

I met with Bobby Van Wormer patriarch of Van Wormer Resorts  decades ago to discuss the Van Wormer dynasty. There, once he began, he entertained me with story after story and I was fascinated with his account of the beginnings of Rancho Buena Vista. He began, “In 1957 the two-year-old Palmilla Hotel, located on the dirt road to San José del Cabo, was the only hotel at that time. Its sole competitor Rancho Buena Vista had been an old goat ranch called “Buena Vista,” fifty miles up into the Sea of Cortés near Los Barriles. Herb Tansey, the first owner of the resort, had two students he was teaching to fly in San Diego at that time and they both played a vital part in RBV’s history. Enrique Garcia was the son of José “Joe” García who would tell Tansey that if anyone ever wanted to set up a fishing resort, the goat-farm “Buena Vista” was the best possible place and it was for sale. His other student that made a difference in where I landed was my brother, Frank.”

“I met Ray Cannon in 1957,” Van Wormer continued. “Cabo San Lucas was a ramshackle village with a fish cannery. We formed a friendship that first time we met.”

By the time Cannon’s book, The Sea of Cortez, appeared in 1966, Rancho Buena Vista’s reputation as one of the premier sportfishing resorts in the world was established. After my meeting with Bobby, my quest for more history on ‘the fish camp that became a resort’ was born.

By today’s standards, the world was very dark and dreary in Spokane, Washington in 1896 when Eugene Paul Walters was born. His father was a self-ordained, hellfire and brimstone, fundamentalist, bible-thumping minister. Consumed by tuberculosis, his sickly mother left her overbearing husband when Eugene was seven and his baby sister Monta was five. Fleeing to California, she died and was buried in San Francisco.

The two children began life’s journey on an isolated 40-acre hillside spread with neither water nor electricity. It was a hard life, but it instilled a resilient toughness in young Eugene that would serve him well throughout his life. Both he and his sister ruefully recall being considered the “poor kids” even by their extremely poor classmates.

His father accepted his family’s meager existence as the “will of God” anchored in the sternest, biblical terms and dealt out unwarranted and constant discipline.

Saddled with the two children, the senior Walters hired Florence, a live-in housekeeper, who he subsequently married – not for love, but because it was his Christian duty. A simple, honest woman, she attempted to introduce kindness into the children’s lives.

After several hard years, their grandmother moved the family down the hill to a small farm where they had lights and water, but the soil was rocky and the climate unbearably hot in the summer.

By the time he was 14, Gene had enough of the isolation – coupled with the harsh discipline – and he fled, resolving that he would never again live such a forlorn existence. He remained estranged from his father for the remainder of his life.

Only 35 miles away in Tacoma, he found his uncle, Colonel Bob Ades, and a nurturing family atmosphere that was worlds apart from the oppressive environment he had escaped.
His adopted family welcomed him, and Gene flourished. Excelling in high school, he graduated and enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry at 18 when World War I broke out. Because of his ability to read and write, he was offered a commission; a superb rider, he saw action throughout Europe.

Superficially injured when a bomb landed nearby and with shrapnel in his knee and eye, he refused to return home and continued fighting. He remained in the U.S. Army Reserves well into the 1950s.

Upon his discharge from active duty, he enrolled in the University of Oregon, subsequently graduating from Oregon State at Corvallis.

His Beta Theta Pi Fraternity membership contributed to his growing popularity and he reveled in his ability to sell himself to others… a trait that allowed him to support himself, selling insurance and working at clerical jobs.

While attending Oregon State, he met and fell in love with Eunice Romilda Haines from Everett, Washington. Described as a flapper and sorority sister, she was still a small-town girl who was determined to marry this very eligible bachelor. Over nearly everyone’s objections, they married.

Life post-WWI was filled with parties during prohibition – liquor was illegal and purchased from the bootleggers. There were speakeasies where they danced, smoked and bought illegal alcohol.

After graduation, Gene settled down; he became a full-time life insurance agent.

Life changed for Eunice with the birth of their son, Chuck, on July 5, 1923. At first, Gene was delighted with his son’s arrival, but soon tired of the responsibility and grappled with his craving to return to the life he had left behind. Eunice tried to hold the marriage together, but by the time their second child, Jean arrived, the five-year marriage had serious problems.

Gene wanted to live life to its fullest and his fraternity brothers were there to help him. One especially, Z. Wayne Griffin, offered him Hollywood connections which were irresistible to the boy from the dirt farm in Spokane!

His children, five-year-old Jean and seven-year-old Chuck were sent to live with Aunt Monta in Hawaii, ironically, the same ages as he and Monta had been when their mother had left them.

The ultimate decision came with Gene’s close brush with death. Flying with two friends, the plane crashed. The rescuers removed the still-living pilot and other passenger and left Gene for dead – his head resting on the dash with his skull cracked in half. Finally, they realized that he was still alive. He became more determined than ever to get the most out of life.

He divorced Eunice, moving to Hollywood to be near some of his fraternity brothers. He sold trainloads of sugar to ice cream and candy factories; he was in the Hollywood crowd and well accepted.

Hollywood was full of excitement: movie stars, wealthy friends, fabulous homes and all that glittered was gold! Gene was a tall, handsome, charismatic man who always managed to meet and know those he considered “important people.” During this period, he became friends with Ray Cannon, a Hollywood “bit” actor, who became a director and producer.

At the invitation of his friend Howard Hawks (director of Academy Award-winning Sergeant York) Gene agreed to serve as a U.S. Army technical director during production of the film in 1941.

His children spent their summers with him in Hollywood, having the time of their young lives: beaches, movie stars, freedom and sunshine!

At the beginning of World War II, Gene returned to military service, reluctantly accepting the Special Services Branch instead of the Active Military because of his age and health. Later, he would become a member of the Military Government overseeing the occupation of Germany. His years in service in the Army Reserve Corp between wars earned him a promotion to Captain.

At war’s end, he entered Germany as a member of the occupying forces, and was ultimately assigned to Stuttgart, as the Assistant Director of Military Government for the entire state. He quickly discovered that only officers with dependents qualified for a house instead of military barracks, so he invited daughter Jean to join him. He lived in Germany until 1957, eventually leaving the War Department to join the State Department where he received the rank of Colonel.

It was while he lived in Germany that he met the Countess Paula Clary-Aldringen. They were friends for several years before her husband, Count Marcus Clary-Aldringen returned from Russia where he had been a prisoner of war.

Gene had married Bebe Jorgenson of Pasadena, California in 1955 in Frankfurt. She had been his great love when he was married to Eunice. Unfortunately, Bebe was quite ill when they married and died a year later.

Following Countess Paula Clary-Aldringen’s eventual divorce and after the death of Gene’s second wife, Bebe, they began to see each other again and later married in Baja.

Returning to Hollywood, he ran into Ray Cannon, who once again played an important role in his life. Cannon had become an outdoor writer for Western Outdoor News and had recently visited a small fishing resort in Baja with fellow writer Frank Dufresne of Field & Stream. Cannon regaled him with tales of remarkable fishing, the likes of which he and few others had ever experienced.

The small fishing resort was owned by Cannon’s friend, Herb Tansey, an ex-captain for Trans-World Airlines who was the sole survivor of a crash in Shannon, Ireland. He lost his leg, spent a year in the hospital. But with the settlement from TWA, he bought Rancho Buena Vista with his friend José “Joe” Garcia.

Located on the southernmost part of the remote Baja Peninsula, Tansey and Garcia had turned a goat farm into a small fishing resort, Rancho Buena Vista. With a dozen or so employees, two outboard-powered skiffs, fishing tackle and acres and acres of fish, they opened in May of 1952 when a group of planes flew down for the grand opening.

Herb Tansey (with crutches, left), founder of Rancho Buena Vista, with Western Outdoor News’ first Baja Editor Ray Cannon (center), c. 1957. Rancho Buena Vista had opened as one of Baja’s first fishing resorts in 1952

The two writers had been on their first trip around the southern tip of Baja, and they stopped at Rancho Buena Vista to sample the fishing – hoping to find the so-called “albacore” which turned out to be yellowfin tuna. This was a major disappointment for Cannon and Dufresne, but otherwise the fishing was a spectacular success!

Then, business began slowing at the resort. José sold his share of the operation to Tansey who then moved to “The Ranch” and took over operations.

After hearing of this paradise, the Colonel soon made the first of several trips with Cannon. There, the two drew close and discussed the Colonel’s desire to find a place in Greece where he might retire to write his memoirs and paint.

Relying only on “word of mouth” advertising, the enterprise was struggling and by January 1957, Tansey’s money was almost gone; he considered giving Rancho Buena Vista back to the goats, but the two writers encouraged the disheartened entrepreneur to hang in there a little longer, promising him that their respective stories might save the “Rancho.”

Over the next two years, widespread publicity in Western Outdoor News and in such national publications as Saturday Evening Post and Field & Stream did cause the East Cape sport fishing business to skyrocket, and Rancho Buena Vista became the most popular fishing resort in Baja.

But on January 5, 1959, Tansey and his employee, Arthur Young, were killed when Tansey’s plane – the foot pedal-less Ercoupe – crashed near the town of El Triunfo. Herb Tansey, the one-legged pilot, liked to drink.

Late one afternoon in 1959, after hitting the bars in La Paz, he climbed into his plane with his friend Arty Young, to fly back to Buena Vista. He got lost; soon it was dark. He flew around in circles until he ran out of gas and crashed on a mountaintop near the little mining town of El Triunfo.

Bob Van Wormer retrieved the bodies and they were subsequently buried at the entrance to the RBV property.

Shortly after the crash, Cannon contacted Colonel Walters and informed him that Rancho Buena Vista was for sale.

In March 1959, using some of the money he had received from Bebe’s estate, Colonel Walters purchased East Cape’s Rancho Buena Vista with his Mexican partners, the Hermosillo family from mainland Mexico.

His daughter Jean Walters Gayle noted in her book, The Colonel’s Daughter,

“There he was – the grand patron. The little boy from Spokane had finally made it. He was quite wealthy and famous people were his guests and friends.”

Meanwhile, management, led by the Colonel who had been part of the U.S. Military and State Department teams overseeing the restoration of order in Nazi Germany after WWII, was prepared for the challenge!

The Colonel recruited his son, retired Navy Lt. Commander Chuck Walters, to handle the promotion of RBV in 1959.

Chuck moved his family from Salinas to Newport and began exhibiting at the outdoor and fishing shows throughout the country – making presentations to Fred Hall fishing shows and hunting clubs. With Cannon’s WON columns and Chuck’s promotional efforts, business boomed! In 1961, Chuck and his wife “Toddy” moved their family to Rancho Buena Vista.

He purchased 100-acres south of the hotel known as “La Capilla” (the chapel) and subsequently built a sprawling home on a beachfront lot surrounded by a funky, little-known trailer park with a few houses scattered on his property overlooking the Sea of Cortez.

In the beginning, RBV consisted of “boys’ only trips,” laughter fueled by alcohol, filled with all-night card games and x-rated stories at a rock table, followed by dazzling fishing that wouldn’t quit from dawn to dusk. By day’s end, anglers brimming with excitement, ignoring their exhaustion, bellied up to the bar grasping their salt-rimmed margaritas as they excitedly recited their personal best catch story or the story they wished it had been, and then they wandered back to the rock table with a cerveza where they would begin again! The next couple of decades became legend and will always be fondly remembered by guests and management alike. These trips were reminiscent of the prohibition days where there were no boundaries.

The resort had attracted a long list of distinguished clients: California Governor Pat Brown, Jose Ferrer, Bing Crosby, Roy Clark, Chuck Connors, Zeppo Marx, Richard Boone, Jimmie Doolittle, televangelist Robert Harold Schuller, John Wayne, James Garner, the Smothers Brothers, Merlin Olsen, Bill Walton, Rufus Parnell “Parnelli” Jones and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Construction was at a frantic pace to accommodate the growing number of guests. Rooms, kitchen, dining room and swimming pool were all built by locals closely supervised by management.

Quickly, the few outboard-powered boats were replaced with wooden cruisers, then fiberglass ones built by Mac Shroyer – another gringo entrepreneur just starting out in La Paz.

Thus, began the high point of ‘the fish camp that became a resort’ which we will explore in Part 2…