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Toolin’ Around Town: How Petaluma’s Bob Singleton built a career in the cattle industry

From the time Bob Singleton first milked his family’s five cows every morning before school, and returned home to deliver the afternoon Press Democrat in the afternoon/evening, he knew he wanted a career involving cattle. Born at Petaluma General Hospital in 1937 to Walter Jr. and Inez Singleton, Bob lived with his grandparents for several years following his parents’ divorce, until he moved to Sonoma in 1946 to live with his remarried father, who operated Hill View Grocery.

His desire to work with cattle began taking shape while he was a student at Sonoma High School. He started by selling the family cows and buying three Black Angus breeding bulls, which he took to small dairies for a fee of $5 each, and started attending cattle auctions. There he purchased veal calves, gradually getting into the business and learning that the best calves were sold to local butcher shops.

Singleton also raised Rhode Island Reds on his father’s property, and he sold the processed chickens out of the trunk of his car to Marin City residents. By the time he turned 21, he was a dealer, selling about 150 calves a week. Backed by the dream of operating his own slaughterhouse, he attended auction yards all around the region, buying old dairy cows.

In 1966, after learning that Sebastopol Meat Co. was to be torn down, Singleton arranged with the owner to purchase the rundown property for $500 down, and immediately began rebuilding the corrals. The plant was redesigned and modernized, and it soon began delivering beef between San Rafael and Ukiah. The plant grew with demand, obtaining cattle from as far away as Oregon and Washington. Trucking equipment was added and the company’s name was changed to Rancho Veal around 1976. The facility required considerable upkeep, with 20 percent of the profits going into maintenance and repairs.

In 1984, Singleton bought a small airplane to travel to cattle sales.

As the owner, Singleton did the buying and selling and oversaw the work crew. He later hired others, including his friend Jesse “Babe” Amaral Jr., as manager. Over the years, procedures changed, along with rules and regulations. At one time, Singleton was on the verge of selling the property to a home developer, but those plans fell through.

The Bay Area’s only slaughterhouse, Rancho was a key supplier to local meat producers, and an important factor in the local niche meat business, serving a consumer demand for premium meat. Due to reported indiscretions and violations involving a lack of oversight, the plant was eventually sold to David Evans in 2014, and renamed Marin Sun Farms.

Bob Singleton was not the only member of his family to make his name in Petaluma. In 1920, his grandfather — English immigrant Walter Singleton, a talented builder — came here at the age of 33 to start a contracting business. His early projects included erecting the Co-operative Creamery plant, the long-since-demolished Spartan Athletic Club at Kenilworth Park, the Jewish synagogue, and a wing of Petaluma High School. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he constructed apartment buildings and elegant residences, including Petaluma’s first all-electric home on Brown Court, in 1924.

In a sales booklet prepared for potential homebuyers in the mid-1920s, the prominent Petaluma builder described several advantages of living in this community.

“The distinctive surroundings of rolling hills and level land give to Petaluma an ideal setting for a city of homes. Scenic beauty, genial climate and unequaled recreational facilities unite in making (this) a delightful place,” Singleton wrote in an invitation to become a part of Petaluma’s growing population of 7,000 residents.

Although Petaluma was not immune to economic decline, many indicators point toward a robust local economy prior to and during the Great Depression that crippled much of the nation from 1929 to 1938. During that era, builder Singleton kept multiple construction crews and subcontractors working full-time as he boldly kept pace with the steady development and strong demand for luxury homes, particularly in the D Street neighborhood.

As one of the most sought-after builders in the area, he was known for constructing homes designed by, among others, architects Brainerd Jones and Albert Farr. Singleton emphasized quality and lasting satisfaction through good design, the best materials, and highly skilled labor, his work leaving a lasting impression on the local landscape.

Walter Singleton, his wife, Elizabeth, and their three sons, Earl, Walter Jr. and John, lived in Petaluma until 1938, when he and his wife moved to San Anselmo, where Bob, their grandson, lived with them for several years before moving to Sonoma County, where he started his own business career.

(Toolin’ Around Town, by Harlan Osborne, runs every other week. Contact him at harlan@sonic.net)