George Francis “Dottie” Gallagher, one of the last great ranchers from a long-gone age, passed away peacefully in his Oregon home on April 14. He was 92.George was a generous, hardworking man who spent nearly all of his life on the family ranch in Nicasio, where he raised cattle and pigs. He was also a volunteer fireman, who diligently served his community, once extricating three wounded passengers from a wrecked car. George was a great friend of Nicasio’s youth, and would take local children on hunting and skiing trips at his own cost. He was a hero to his wife, stepchildren and friends.
“He was a real part of the community’s history. He was a good man and a very good friend,” said Harold Drady, his friend and former partner in the fire department. “He was much loved, and admired by the community.”
George was born on August 5, 1919 to ranchers Edward A. and Mary L. Gallagher, on the Kehoe Ranch in Point Reyes. When he was four, the family bought and moved to a dairy in Nicasio, where he would spend the great majority of his life.
In a family of large men, George was short and slight. “He was what you call wiry,” said his brother Rich. “He was the smallest of all of us, by a bunch. But he could outwork all of us.” Life was difficult growing up. “It was rough.
He’d milk cows before he went to school, work in the hay in the summer time, cutting the hay and bringing it into the barn here,” Rich said. “Then he’d be plowing and sowing the fields. It was a ton of work. They worked hard in those days.”
George would wake at 4 a.m. to finish chores, before going to the one-room Pacheco School, adjacent to the 1,000 acre ranch. In fact, many believe George was the last living graduate of Pacheco School. Though he was a bright child, school was difficult for him. “I don’t think he was crazy about school,” Rich said. Part of the problem stemmed from his being left-handed, which was not allowed by the strict schoolmarm, Mrs. Hawkins. “In those days, you weren’t supposed to be left-handed. So Mrs. Hawkins made him write with his right hand. He couldn’t write very well,” Rich said.
After graduation, George took the bus to San Rafael High School each morning. He enjoyed high school more than he did Mrs. Hawkins, but his duties on the dairy left George with little free time. “Girlfriends? No, he had to come home and milk his cows,” Rich said. “There wasn’t much time for socializing.”
Young George was an amateur photographer and filmmaker growing up. He took numerous reels of footage, and would take his projector and screen to ranches around the neighborhood, showing off his projects.
Nearly all of George’s high school friends were later drafted during the Second World War, and many of them did not make it back. At least one of his friends perished aboard the USS Arizona along with 1,176 other sailors during the raid on Pearl Harbor. George was exempt from the draft board, as the United States desperately needed dairy products.
Hunting was one of George’s only opportunities for recreation growing up. For six weeks of the year, George and his brothers hunted deer across West Marin. “We’d start out with a 22 [caliber] rifle at age 10 or 11, and then you graduated into a 30-30 hunting rifle,” Rich said.
Hunting remained a passion his entire life. One time, however, the deer fought back. Once, while George was trying to flush deer from a thicket into the open, a startled deer trampled him. “The deer leapt over the bushes and landed on top of George.
When they went back, they found his glasses 20 feet up in a tree,” said his wife, Debbie. “It knocked him cuckoo and scraped him up.” Harold joked, “He was the only hunter I know that got run over by a deer.”
George loved to drive his mint green, two-tone Ford LTD muscle car. To get away from his responsibilities on the dairy, George would drive and drive, sometimes for days, just for the experience.
“He stuck to the ranch, or he’d go on road trips with his LTD,” Debbie said. “He liked to just go on drives, just to leave the ranch and business behind for a few days.” She added, “After we were married, he quit doing that.”
In 1976, George was made the Nicasio Volunteer Fire Chief. He was responsible for getting the department outfitted with protective clothing, rather than asking his men to rush into a fire in street clothes. “Up to that time volunteers would just show up in Levis and cowboy boots and whatever,” Harold said.
George was always willing to step up and help people who needed it. “Back in the mid-70s, when we had the drought and the lake dried up, it became a popular place for 4-wheelers to drive around, which of course was not allowed,” Harold said.
“Some guys got stuck out on the lake, and I went to pull them out. The fire truck got stuck. George said ‘Well, don’t worry about it. I’ll be back.’And 20 minutes later I heard this ‘chugga chugga chugga’ coming, and there was George in his 1920s high-wheel tractor, a thing that looked like it shouldn’t be running any more.
It just chugged up to the fire truck, he stuck the chain around it, and ‘chug, chug, chug,’ towed the truck right out of the mud.
Then he went back and hooked the back end of the trespasser’s vehicle, and pulled them out too. Then he said ‘Okay, take care,’ and off he went, ‘chug, chug, chug,’ back towards his ranch. It was hilarious.”
And once, George showed true heroism. “We had a serious auto accident where three guys were trapped in a car, late at night in an embankment,” Harold said. “George was a completely changed man.He was all over it, getting those guys out of the car. It was something to see. A man who was basically a cattle rancher and a pig farmer was removing those guys from the car; guys who were seriously injured. It impressed me, and I’ve been around a lot of accident scenes.”
In the 1970s, when the USDA was demanding more restrictions for dairy farms, George switched the ranch over to beef cattle. “He worked real hard on that ranch, and held it together with the help of his brothers,” Debbie said.
A perpetual bachelor, George didn’t get married until he was 57. “We knew each other in passing from church”—George was a devout Catholic, who attended St. Mary’s every week, and said his prayers each day—“but it wasn’t until there was a fire department function at the ranch house, when he came up behind me and asked me to go to his annual deer club party,” Debbie said. “The deer club was shocked, because I guess he never dated anybody. We dated several times more, and at some point we agreed to get married. He didn’t ask me, and I didn’t ask him. We just mutually agreed.” They were married on September 4, 1976, in Nicasio.
George moved in with Debbie and her children, and commuted to work on the ranch every day. He instantly bonded with the children. “Oh good Lord, they took to each other like bees to honey. Those kids loved him dearly,” Debbie said.
“He was the most generous person. He was so accommodating,” said his stepdaughter, Loring.
“Nothing ever bothered him. He loved us all and we loved him.” Although a tough, pragmatic rancher, who didn’t shirk from the harsh realities of rural life (he once significantly decreased the ranch’s feral cat population with a shotgun), George was tender to his stepchildren. When his stepdaughter Helen’s champion pig Emma died, he buried it rather than leaving it to the vultures. “Because she was my sister’s pig, he buried her. He was so sweet that way; he would do what was thoughtful for us.”
George never lost his temper with the children, even after they wrecked his precious mint green Ford LTD. “He never got angry. I got angry, but he didn’t,” Debbie said.
George rode horses late into his eighties, and only stopped after taking a spill several years ago. Finally realizing it was time to retire, he and Debbie packed up and moved to a beautiful 14-acre home near Bend, Oregon. In his last week, George knew the end was coming. “I’m just trying to die here,” he told Rich. He slipped into a coma late Wednesday, and passed away peacefully on Thursday.
George is survived by his wife, Debbie; his stepdaughters, Loring and Helen; his stepsons, Peter and Mark; and his brother, Rich. He was predeceased by his sisters, Patricia and Marion; and brothers, Thomas, Edward, James, John and Raymond. Donations in George’s name may be made to St. Mary’s Catholic Church Preservation Fund, P.O. Box 501, Nicasio, CA 94946, or to a charity of your choice.