VAIL, Alexander Lennox

From Islapedia
Russ & Al Vail 1925
Al Vail, EK Smith, Charlie Smith, Russ Vail & Margaret Vail 1930s
Kay, Nita (on horse) and Al Vail, c. 1959
Alexander Lennox Vail (1921-2000)
Alexander Lennox Vail (1921-2000)
Al Vail, Santa Rosa Island
Main Ranch House, Santa Rosa Island, 1987
Island owners together: Russ Vail, John Gherini, Pier Gherini, Carey Stanton and Al Vail (left to right)
Front Row: Waldo Abbott; Betsy Lester Roberti; Carey Stanton;
Vera Amy; Red Craine. Rear: John Gherini; Pier Gherini;
Russ Vail; Al Vail; E. K. Smith; (unk)
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, March 2, 1986
Al Vail, E. K. Smith, Russ Vail and Charles Storke, Santa Cruz Island c. 1996

VAIL, Alexander Lennox (1921-2000) [SS# 565-22-2050], Los Angeles-born twin brother of Nathaniel Russell (Russ), son of Nathan Russell Vail and Nita Hayden Mills Vail, and grandson of Walter L. Vail and Margaret Russell Newhall Vail. Al Vail worked on Santa Rosa Island for most of his life. As he once said:

“I grew up cowboying. I can’t remember when I started. It was just something I always did. Spent summers cowboying on different ranches in California, not just the island, then went to college in 1942 at Davis and UCLA. I wasn’t too happy with college…When the war started, I was 4F—I was turned down twice for the service, once in the Navy Air Corps and the Army. It was my asthma. So I was on Santa Rosa Island all those years… I liked it best out here. Didn’t go to the mainland very often…”

Al Vail became manager for Vail & Vickers in 1962 after the death of his uncle, Ed Vail. He was known as a cattleman with integrity — someone who did business on the value of a man’s handshake.

In 1956 Al Vail married Catherine "Kay" Sutherland (1924-2012), and they had two daughters:

  • Nita Vail (b. 1957)
  • Mary (b. 1959)

Al Vail died on January 4, 2000 at age 78. His ashes are scattered on Santa Rosa Island.

  • Ehrlich, Gretel Cowboy Island, 2000

Interview with Al Vail
March 11, 1993

Interview Transcript PDF
Interview with Al Vail
April 22, 1993

Interview Transcript PDF

In the News~

November 8, 1941: “The first contingent of the Museum party left Terminal Island at 8:00 A.M. November 8, 1941, sailing on the Velero III, as guests of Captain Allan Hancock. The museum group consisted of Kenneth Stager, mammalogist and ornithologist; Mrs. Stager, as field assistant to her husband, and camp cook; King A. Richey, paleontologist; Harry Fletcher and John C. Stock, assistant paleontologists, and the writer [John A. Comstock], as coordinator. Anchorage was made in Becher’s Bay just before dusk, in a high wind. Landing dunnage and camp supplies proved difficult, but was finally completed without mishap. Mr. N. R. Vail furnished a tractor and trailer to move the equipment and supplies from the pier to a cabin which was generously placed at the disposal of the Survey party. Mr. [Al] Vail and the ranch foreman, Mr. George Haise, were very helpful in organizing facilities for the convenience and comfort of our group…” [LACM Expedition #13.] Comstock, John A. Brief notes on the expeditions conducted between March 16, 1940 and December 14, 1941. Contributions from the Los Angeles Museum Channel Islands Biological Survey. Bulletin of the So. Cal. Acad. Sciences XLV, May-August, 1946, Part 2.

May 11, 1997 [LAT]: “We are disappointed that the federal government has done it again. The federal government has demonstrated that it is unable to keep its word. Ordinary citizens who believe an agreement means something don’t have a chance when they are up against the bureaucracy. The Channel Islands National Park was created and Santa Rosa Island was acquired with a clear understanding that Vail & Vickers would be able to continue its historic cattle operation for 25 years. Obviously the proposed management plan is a thinly veiled attempt to renege on the federal government’s agreement. The proposed management plan grossly overstates the impact on the environment. The cattle operation has been on the island for more than 95 years and has been managed successfully by Vail & Vickers. The cattle and wildlife management operations cannot be causing this wholesale damage or else the federal government would not have been interested in turning it into a national park in the late 1980s. The proposed management plan not only violates the agreement reached at the time of acquisition, but the plan they have asked us to implement is impossible. They demand drastic changes that include the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of elk and Kaibab mule deer. We are taking steps to persuade the federal government to honor its agreement. Al Vail, Managing partner, Vail & Vickers, Santa Barbara.”

January 8, 2000 [LAT]: “Al Vail’s life was once described as being like a Louis L’Amour novel, chock full of cowboys, adventure and wide open land as pristine as a Montana prairie. Vail, however, considered himself a regular guy who simply earned a living. But it was a living ranching a 54,000-acre spread on an island in the Pacific Ocean. Alexander Lennox Vail, a lifelong rancher from Santa Barbara whose family owned and managed Santa Rosa Island for nearly 100 years, had a heart attack at his Santa Barbara office Tuesday and died. He was 78. “He was a straight-talking guy, a principled guy and a hell of a good cattleman,” said Vail’s twin brother, Russ Vail. Arnold Bohlander, a longtime business associate and friend of Vail, said the Santa Barbara rancher was a special kind of friend who comes along once in a lifetime. “I always considered him kind of a throwback to simpler times, when a deal was a deal and everyone didn’t need a lawyer and a million-dollar liability policy,” Bohlander said. “Al told it like it was, and you didn’t need him to draw you a picture.” Ironically, attorneys and litigation were all that were mentioned publicly about the Vail family in the last few years. More than a decade ago, the island 45 miles off the Ventura coast was drawn into Channel Islands National Park, after which the government essentially forced Vail and the Vickers family, a silent partner in the island, to sell. In what Russ Vail once referred to as a gentlemen’s agreement, the Vail & Vickers firm consented to sell the island for nearly $30 million with the condition they be able to continue ranching cattle until 2011. A bitter dispute ensued over the years about grazing rights, public access and endangered species protection. In 1998, the Vail & Vickers firm was forced to remove the last of its 6,500 Angus and Hereford cows. “I think to my father, his greatest achievement was taking care of the land and the livestock and the people who worked for him,” said his daughter, Nita Catherine Vail. “He felt what happened was a violation of the code of ethics he taught all of us.” Vail was born Nov. 24, 1921, in Los Angeles and attended UC Davis and UCLA. He began working full time on Santa Rosa Island as a cowboy in 1942. Until his death, Vail continued to run a commercial hunting operation on the island, said Nita Vail. The business attracted people from around the globe who sought to hunt deer and elk. In his free time, Vail enjoyed golf, flying, reading and watching sports on television. He was a member of the Los Alamos Society and the California Cattlemen’s Assn. Vail is survived by his wife of 43 years, Catherine “Kay” Sutherland of Santa Barbara; two daughters, Nita Catherine Vail of Sacramento and Mary Louise Vail of Moorpark; a brother, Russell Vail of Pasadena; a sister, Margaret Vail Woolley of Pasadena; and several nieces and nephews. The Neptune Society of Santa Barbara is handling the arrangements.”

May 10, 2012 [The Independent]: “Kay Vail, 87 of Santa Barbara, California passed away in her home on March 7, 2012, surrounded by family and friends, including her adopted canine companion, Bradley. Catherine “Kay” Sutherland Vail was born on December 6, 1924 in San Francisco, California to Harold Sutherland, a civil engineer and Army Colonel, and Maize Fountaine Sutherland, a music teacher. Kay’s grandmother, Mary Gavin emigrated from Ireland to Boston in her twenties and later settled in Tombstone, Arizona where she married Colbert Fountaine, a French-Canadian mining engineer. They lived in Tombstone at the time of Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and Doc Holiday and eventually moved to Los Angeles to provide their five children a better education. Kay attended the University of California at Berkeley where she majored in English and wrote feature stories and social columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Watsonvilleon Newspaper. She also worked for the Westwood, Santa Monica and Venice Independents and was on the staff of Fortnight Magazine writing feature stories. Prior to her marriage, Kay culminated her professional career in journalism as owner and publisher of her own weekly newspaper in West Los Angeles, the Pico Wondermiler. In 1956, Kay was “swept off her feet” by cattle rancher Al Vail, whose family had been in the business for over 100 years, and Kay and Al married soon thereafter. Kay spent her early years of motherhood on the windswept Santa Rosa Island ranch – the city girl was introduced to the cowboy life. Kay continued to do freelance writing and published a book about a dog named “Toby” to help children deal with the loss of a pet. She also wrote cowboy poetry for fun and in honor of her husband Al. Kay and Al remained together for 43 years until Al passed in 2000. Kay adored her family and friends, especially her furry ones. She always enjoyed good music, taking photographs and writing poetry about everyone. An extraordinarily pretty woman, Kay was known to adore fashion, have a great sense of humor, loved a good laugh, and had a smile that lit up a room. She was generous, always ready for a party and a true lady until the end. Kay is survived by her two daughters, Nita Catherine Vail and Mary Louise Vail, and first cousins George Frakes and Anthony Drewry. Donations in lieu of flowers may be sent to: K-9 Pals at the SB County Animal Shelter, PO Box 60755, Santa Barbara, CA 93160,, or California Rangeland Trust, 1225 H Street, Sacramento 95814, The family invites friends to celebrate Kay’s life on Friday, May 18th at the Santa Barbara Yacht Club from 2:30pm-5:00 pm. “May Irish angels rest their wings right beside your door.” A very special thank you to Visiting Nurse and Hospice Care of Santa Barbara and our wonderful caregivers for their tremendous help and comfort to our family.”