Times Past

Dairy farming booms in SLO County after the Great Drought of 1862-64

Special to The TribuneMarch 15, 2014 

The Ira Van Gordon Dairy in Green Valley, east of the hamlet of Harmony in 1883 from Myron Angel’s History of San Luis Obispo County, California.

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The rains came back in 1865 following the Great Drought of 1862 to 1864.

The hills were once again green. The vast herds of mission era cattle, once at the center of our region’s economy, had vanished. There were great opportunities for new forms of agriculture.

George and Edgar Steele, who operated a large dairy on the Pescadero Ranch surrounding the beautiful Pigeon Point Lighthouse in San Mateo County, purchased 45,000 acres of land in the southern Edna Valley. The Steeles stocked their dairy lands with more than 600 head of first register milking cows. They employed more than 100 men in raising fences, milking sheds and hayfields. Their experience in dairying attracted other farmers.

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.

Edgar W. Steele undertook an experiment with 150 milking stock. Over a three-day period, he produced a pound of butter with every 17.76 pounds of milk and a pound of cheese with every 8.75 pounds of milk. The statewide average was 25 pounds of milk for every pound of butter and it took 10 pounds of milk to make a pound of cheese!

The Steeles’ specialty was cheese. They 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 Steeles holdings at $150 million.

In 1868, Ira Van Gordon purchased more than 4,000 acres of the San Simeon rancho, stocking it with 200 head of high grade milkers. The Van Gordons built a spacious home on San Simeon Creek, where their holdings were soon coveted by George Hearst, who had purchased the massive Piedra Blanca Rancho in 1865.

Cheese makers from the upstate dairy counties of New York began to move into the region. During the autumn of 1869, the partnership of Ivans and Everett had established a cheese factory on the southern part of the Santa Rosa Rancho. The operation was purchased by Bower and Black in 1871.

They operated it under the name of Excelsior Cheese Factory, producing at “the astonishing rate of 1,200 pounds [of cheese] a day from a total of 9,000 pounds of milk.” This eventually became the Harmony Valley Creamery.

The production statistics attracted other experienced dairymen like Morgan Brians from Sonoma County. He moved his operations into Green Valley just north of Harmony in 1871. He milked 165 first register cows, devoted exclusively to butter production.

The high quantity and grade of milk production could not be sustained throughout the year. The statistics reflected the so-called "green months,” March through June, when production peaked. Things were not so easy during the remainder of the year.

It would take stalwart farmers as well as good stock to make a go of dairying along the North Coast. Large dairy operations from Northern California quickly purchased dairy ranches in the North Coast region near San Simeon and Santa Rosa Creeks.

Names like B. F. Mayfield, Bowen & Baker, Leffingwell, Mathers, Campbell, Scott, Phelan, Gillespie and Whitaker soon appeared on County tax rolls. This marked the beginning of the first stable tax funding for county government.

Following the Steeles lead in the Edna Valley, they employed newly-arrived immigrants of Portuguese descent from the Azores and Italian Swiss from the cantons adjacent to the newly unified nation of Italy. The immigration was essential to the development of the fledgling dairy industry along the Central Coast.

Next week we will look at the trans-Atlantic reasons for the Portuguese and Swiss-Italian emigration.

To be continued.

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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