Harmony undergoes major rehabilitation project

The Harmony Creamery building is being renovated and the grounds around it are also being refurbished. The work is part of a large restoration project by new town owners Alan and Rebecca Vander Horst.
The Harmony Creamery building is being renovated and the grounds around it are also being refurbished. The work is part of a large restoration project by new town owners Alan and Rebecca Vander Horst. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

For years, it’s been a relatively quiet existence in the 1-block burg of Harmony, about 5 miles south of Cambria on Highway 1. But now the tiny, historic town that’s been under new ownership since July is a veritable beehive of activity.

Alan and Rebecca Vander Horst of San Luis Obispo have big plans, including possibly restoring the historical postal service and participating in the creation a new museum about the county’s dairying history.

Alan Vander Horst is a Cal Poly agricultural business graduate and third-generation dairy farmer. The family returned to the area, rediscovered Harmony, saw its need for historical preservation and revitalization, and promptly bought the town.

“It’s no small task to rehabilitate an old dairy town,” he wrote in an FAQ (frequently asked questions) for his little town, “so we are taking our time finding the right folks for the job.” 

Frasier Seiple Architects is the architectural firm, Barcellos Construction is the contractor and Gardens by Gabriel handles landscaping.

Visitors to Harmony now will see lots of yellow caution tape around areas of reconstruction and renovation, including upsizing the historic patio and making walkways, sidewalks and other areas compliant with laws mandating ease of access according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.  

Vander Horst estimated the “renovation of the gardens and outdoor venue should be done by this May, and the newly remodeled restaurant and the Harmony Valley Creamery Dairy Shoppe” by this fall. 

Artisans such as the Harmony Glassworks and Harmony Pottery Works “are staying here,” Vander Horst wrote, “and we hope more will join to offer classes and special events to visiting patrons.”

He said the town’s restaurant will change to an upscale, farm-to-table eatery, but the management, menu and final plans are not yet set. 

“Our vision is to open a restaurant that epitomizes Central Coast cuisine, celebrating and appreciating the abundance of the region,” he wrote.

Former Harmony Café operator Giovanni Grillenzoni has closed that business and now sells après-theater sweets, coffee and wines at the Pewter Plough Playhouse, with plans to open soon for lunch and dinner. 

“It’s a mammoth undertaking,” said Aarika Wells, Harmony’s town manager, of all the work. “We’re booked up for weddings in May,” but the calendar’s blacked out till then to accommodate all that’s going on.

Vander Horst did not disclose the projected cost of the renovations. “All I’d say is that we are 100 percent dedicated toward preserving Harmony’s unique history and its glorious future.”

Plans for the return of the post office and the dairy museum are in the fledgling stage, and nothing has been confirmed.

Harmony’s branch of the U.S. Postal Service suspended services in 2008 and closed in August 2011, much to the dismay of customers who loved having “Harmony” imprinted across their stamped mail, and people who rented the more than 100 postal boxes.

Negotiations with the U.S. Postal Service are continuing, Wells said, because Vander Horst is firm on wanting the right to apply the town’s seal on the mail, either as the official postal cancellation or elsewhere on the envelope or package. 

There are a couple of options, Wells said, including having the town operate the post office, as it did for many years until the early 1980s, when Jeff Prostovich became the town’s official postmaster under USPS authority.

As for the dairy museum, Mary Golden, executive director of the Central Coast Natural History Association, visited Harmony and talked to Wells earlier this year. In a January email to Wells, Golden confirmed their discussions, saying that in the 1970s, State Parks had planned a state dairying museum at Wilder Ranch State Park near Santa Cruz, but lacked funds to develop it. Items collected for exhibits are now housed at State Park collections in Sacramento.

“Roughly between 1880 and 1920,” Golden said, this county “was the largest dairy county in the world.”

“There are currently three dairy history projects in the county that I know of: The Spooner Ranch House and Creamery at Montaña de Oro State Park,” which is Golden’s project, “the Octagon Barn in San Luis Obispo and the town of Harmony,” she said.

According to Wells’ research, there was a creamery in 1869 in what is now Harmony. A Harmony creamery “was purchased and developed into the Harmony Valley Creamery Association by M.G. Salmina,” she said in her email. “It thrived … with a reputation for producing some of the finest butter and cheese in the state … the town’s buildings survived several incarnations as restaurants, galleries and, most recently, a recording studio.” 

Golden said she hopes State Parks will “give or loan their collections to these three sites,” and that those sites develop exhibits of dairy/agriculture history together, to complement each other without duplicating any efforts or displays. 

The exhibits could be marketed as a “dairy history trail.”

Cambrian Managing Editor Steve Provost contributed to this report.