Times Past: Cheesemakers make home here

Special to The TribuneAugust 19, 2012 

‘This is cow heaven.” Marin and San Mateo County dairyman Edgar W. Steele was seeking inexpensive pasture land in June 1866. After a devastating, three-year drought, the rains had returned to the Central Coast. The green grass rose almost to his saddle bags as he traversed the Corral de Piedra, Pismo, Bolsa de Chemisal and Arroyo Grande ranches.

He immediately negotiated with the drought stricken owners to purchase 45,000 acres for $1.10 per acre. That was less than a year after George Hearst had paid only 75 cents an acre for the Piedra Blanca Rancho where Hearst Castle now stands.

But “E. W.” knew that he was getting an incredible value. Monterey County rancher Jacinto Rodriguez had persuaded the sons of his sister, Rafaela Villavicencio, to sell their share of the Corral de Piedra. It had been granted to their father by Mexico in 1841. The widowed matriarch and her sons wanted to escape from heavy debts and seemed fine with the deal.

Soon, E. W. and his brother George brought 600 first register milking cows to their Edna Valley ranching operation. They hired experienced dairymen from Canton Ticino and other mountainous dairy regions along the new border between Switzerland and Italy. The recent Italian War of Independence had disrupted the traditional routes of commerce and the younger sons of large dairying families were forced to emigrate. The green hills of the Central Coast seemed like a good place to settle.

There was also a large influx of Portuguese-speaking laborers from the overpopulated Azores’ Islands to the coast and valleys of California. The Steele brothers were instant beneficiaries of this hard-working and talented labor surplus. Their dairy operations soon employed several hundred workers.

Monterey County’s David Jacks had begun marketing the mission-era semi-hard cheese that is now associated with his name during the Gold Rush. The Steele brothers began making this cheese in their Marin and San Mateo County operations. With the rich pasture to the south of San Luis Obispo, they were truly the “cheese kings” of California.

By 1887, the San Luis Obispo Board of Trade boasted that the county had surpassed even Marin County as the “banner cow country” of California.

The Steele brothers divided their property into five dairies with approximately 150 cows on each dairy. They built 50 to 60 miles of board fences to nurture the cows on rich feed. As early as 1870, The San Francisco Commercial Herald, the standard commercial and credit reporter for the West, valued the Steele holdings at $150 million.

Their success caused members of the Villavicencio family to consult attorneys in San Francisco. The Corral de Piedra proved to be something less than a bargain. The Villas claimed that a signature in the title to the 30,911-acre rancho was defective. The Steeles became involved in years of costly litigation over the matter. The issue went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1870. As a resulting of the ruling in Villa v. Rodríguez, the Steeles had to pay a $150,000 judgment — nearly three times the amount that they had originally paid for all four ranches.

With legal and court fees, the Steeles had to spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars during the economic bust of the early 1870s. It momentarily destroyed their reputations and nearly ruined them.

But their success started the dairy boom in our region on the very lands that had been ruined by drought just a few years earlier.

Soon dozens of dairy farms stretched between Point Sal southwest of Santa Maria and Point Piedras Blancas north of Cambria. The necessity of shipping cheese and butter caused wharves and lighthouses to be built and drew the attention of the railroad builders.

“Cow Heaven” marked the beginning of a modern San Luis Obispo.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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