Gilman Ranch: Willie Boy and Wagon Wheels

Update 12/08/21: Efforts to build a new community park at Historic Gilman Ranch in Banning will move forward after it received a grant from State Parks for more than $6 million for Stagecoach Stop Park.

James Marshall Gilman was born in Meredith, New Hampshire, on June 9, 1842. As a young man, his parents sent him to join his brother, a wholesale liquor salesman in San Francisco. After a short stint as a mercantile businessman in Oregon, James ventured to Banning, California. He founded the 160 acre Gilman Ranch and stagecoach station on the Bradshaw Trail, a major route for freight coaches traveling through Riverside County. Originating in San Bernardino, the 180 mile long trail was used to haul miners and other passengers to the gold fields at La Paz, Arizona.

It was a pleasure meeting docent Leslie at a desert gem called the Gilman Historic Ranch and Wagon Museum in Banning, California.

In 1871, Gilman married Martha Benoist Smith, the daughter of Isaac Smith, who during the 1850s helped settle what is now Highland Springs.

Circa 1900. Photo courtesy Banning Library District

The Gilman Historic Ranch & Wagon Museum opened in 1991 and is a re-creation of the ranch as it existed during Gilman’s life.

The museum features a replica of the Gilman house, a wagon museum displaying about 14 stagecoaches and wagons, some dating to the 1850s, a carriage house, an adobe milk house and the ruins of the Jose Pope adobe, which was built in 1854. It was the first permanent landmark in the Banning area. James Gilman took over the property in 1869 and lived in the adobe while building the ranch house. 

Pope adobe house, “”the old stage station,” on the Gilman Ranch, circa 1890s. Child by the tree is identified as Ethel Gilman. Woman next to the horse is identified as Molly Rogers. Courtesy Banning Library District.
William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, 1875. He founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1883, taking his large company on tours in the United States and, beginning in 1887, in Great Britain and continental Europe.

“Tomlinson Stage Lines had bucked Banning for the La Paz trade and now made dashing runs from San Bernardino’s Bella Union Hotel out through Old San Bernardino, Ukipe (sic), and past Edgar’s and Smith’s son-in-law in Gilman’s, east half of Weaver Ranch in San Gorgonio. If the forecasts were true, of coming communication arteries down state after the bridging of the continent by the “iron mules,” then stage travel and wagon travel would be “of the bygone days.” ~Saga of the San Bernardinos by Pauliena B. LaFuze, published 1971.

Displays show the artifacts and history of the Gilman Ranch.

Exhibits include authentic wagons, including an Overland stagecoach, a prairie schooner and a chuck wagon, a saddle collection and Western ranching tools and artifacts. 

Docent Maureen gave us a personal tour of the Gilman Ranch House and adjoining property. The Wagon Museum and the house are in two different areas of the ranch.
Original Gilman Ranch home, circa 1900. You can clearly see how closely the new house resembles the old one. Photo courtesy Banning Library District.
The scenic view from the front porch of the Gilman Home.

The ranch house burned down in 1977 and was rebuilt 32 years later. The only part of the original house, built in 1879, are the bricks in the fireplace.

Ranch Hands located the original oak dining room table and chairs, the piano — which is still in playable condition — and other original furnishings.
The Gilman Ranch china closet.
Martha Gilman and daughters Ethel, Mabel, Carrie and Frances at the Gilman Ranch, circa 1910. Photo courtesy Banning Library District.

“Willie Boy was a Paiute Indian, about twenty-eight years old, living on the Morongo Indian Reservation. Isoleta, a buxom Indian maiden of fourteen summers, attended the reservation school. Although her family lived in Twentynine Palms, they were at the time of this event working at the Gilman Ranch northwest of Banning. ” ~A Peculiar Piece of Desert by Lulu Rasmussen O’Neal, published 1957.

Gilman’s orchards are where in 1909, Captain Boniface and his family were working as fruit pickers the night Willie Boy shot Old Mike and made away with Old Mike’s daughter, Carlota, what was to begin a seventeen day manhunt crisscrossing the desert that would ultimately end in both of their deaths, as the story of the last manhunt in the American West goes.

“There have been many reports that his name was actually Billy Boy, but because President Taft was coming to Riverside and often called Billy Boy, the newspaper changed the name to Willie Boy.” ~Caught Dead to Rights by Zoe De Crevecoeur-Erickson, published 2009.

Gilman Ranch showcases 1800s ranching life and offers important lessons about California and national history. Excavations have shown that a prehistoric Native American village also occupied the site.

The 1969 movie “Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here” starring Robert Redford and Robert Blake was filmed at Gilman Ranch and the surrounding Banning area.  Actor Jason Mamoa recently met with the museum director to discuss producing a new movie about Willie Boy. Many disagree with the official story, and have sought out the alternative opinions of tribal members and others. In its day, it was a story that mesmerized the nation. Malki Museum founder Katherine Siva Saubel was quoted as having been told by sources that Willie Boy got away.

It’s always fun strolling on the same soil where history was made.

We nibbled a veritable smorgasbord from nature at the Gilman Ranch recently during a guided tour thanks to docent Maureen. We tried wild grapes, blackberries, walnuts, persimmons, and figs right off the tree. The olives, oranges, grapefruit and pomegranates weren’t quite ripe yet when we visited but they sure were pretty.

The biggest, sweetest pomegranates we’ve ever experienced grow here.
Native American metates. A mano, a smooth hand-held stone, is used against a metate, typically a large stone with a depression or bowl. The movement of the mano against the metate consists of a circular, rocking or chopping grinding motion using one or both hands.
We enjoyed strolling the paths behind the ranch while docent Maureen pointed out interesting sights.

In 2006 Banning had two big fires. The Gilman Ranch Fire was the closest to town. The fire burned down the Gilman Ranch barn, but the house and most other buildings were saved.

An arrastra is a primitive mill for grinding and pulverizing (typically) gold or silver ore. Its simplest form is two or more flat-bottomed drag stones placed in a circular pit paved with flat stones, and connected to a center post by a long arm.
The blacksmith’s shop and outer buildings are filled with equipment from the period and interesting to look at.
Enjoy the shady olive grove with its rows of picnic tables and the citrus grove laden with fruits. Trails around the ranch include a bit of the historic Bradshaw Trail. 


The ranch is located at 1901 W. Wilson St., Banning. For more information, call (951) 922-9200 or visit

2 thoughts on “Gilman Ranch: Willie Boy and Wagon Wheels

  1. Curious…I went to school with a young man of the Gilman family, i.e. Bud Gilman. Is he involved with the ranch today?

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