Two Centuries Of Prominence And Personalities

California’s Dairy Industry:  The Early Years (1769-1900)

California is the nation’s leading dairy state, providing Californians with a richness and diversity of dairy products that place it among the top dairy regions of the world.  In recent times, California staked its claim to the number one state ranking when it surpassed Wisconsin in total milk production in 1993.

Its leadership can be traced back more than two centuries to the industry’s origins.  It was then, with Europeans arriving in California, that many of the agriculture products that characterize California cuisine today, such as wine and cheese, first appeared.

Among the milestones marking the industry’s rise to prominence are:

  • The creation in 1857 of what was one of the first commercial dairies in the United States. 
  • The emergence of Point Reyes in the 1860s as the leading dairy region in the country as its dairies supplied San Francisco’s booming Gold Rush population with fresh dairy products.
  • What was perhaps the industry’s first branding of a product in 1880, when a dairy in Point Reyes trademarked and stamped its butter to fight counterfeited imitations being sold.
  • The commercialization in the 1880s of a popular local cheese that became known as Monterey Jack.  Many experts consider it the most important cheese created in the U.S.
  • More than 100 years of efforts by the state’s dairy industry to ensure the highest quality standards for its products.

1769:  The Spanish Arrive

The Spanish soldiers and priests marching across the deserts of Baja California in 1769 brought more than politics and religion to what they called “Alta California.”  They also brought a way of life and an Indo-European taste for food.  Their saddlebags carried sugar, flour, lard, raisins and wine.  Ahead of them, they herded nearly 200 cattle – some of which they would use for milking – as well as goats and sheep.  Their compatriots sailing up the coast to meet them at San Diego carried such exotic products as brandy, figs, dates, garlic, chocolate and cheese – 450 pounds of cheese.  With this “Sacred Expedition,” as it was called by the Spanish, the colonial or modern history of California begins, and so does the history of California's dairy industry.

This initial herd of 200 longhorn Spanish range cattle grew to nearly 74,000 by 1800.  Most belonged to the missions and were raised to provide beef, leather and tallow.  Additionally, the laws of 1795 awarded each soldier two milk cows. The missionaries, who taught the native people the word of God, also taught them to make queso del pais, a soft, creamy cheese made with surplus fresh milk. This native cheese was the ancestor to today’s popular cheese, Monterey Jack.

1840s:  The Americans Arrive

Americans began settling in California in significant numbers in the 1840s, bringing with them a love for fresh milk, butter and cheese.  Many families came overland by wagon train, and many brought cattle with them.  Women did the work of tending the cows, doing the milking and churning the butter.  Some made Cottage Cheese or Farmers Cheese, but few could make a good ripe hard cheese.  Until the 1850s, household or farmstead production accounted for most of the dairy products available in California.  But in 1848, the state’s history took a dramatic turn.

Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, and over the next year-and-a-half more than 100,000 people poured into the once-sleepy territory hoping to strike it rich.  Many discovered, however, that they could make more money by selling groceries and other supplies to the miners.  To feed the population of immigrants, entrepreneurs brought beef cattle from as far away as Texas.  Miners in the Sierra foothills relied on small dairies based in the San Joaquin Valley to drive their cows to the mountains in the spring and bring with them the necessary tools to make butter and cheese. These nomad dairies would stay until the October frost when they would return to the valley for the winter.

In San Francisco, butter and cheese came by ship from Boston, New York and Chile.  But these supplies, often inferior to begin with, were rendered almost inedible by the deteriorating effects of long sea voyages. Local production of butter and cheese was paltry – 705 pounds of butter and 150 pounds of cheese in 1850 – and generally depended on milk from Mexican beef cattle.  Naturally, this limited production commanded high prices for the times – $1.50 a pound for butter and 40 cents a pound for cheese.

Encouraged by the high price of dairy products during the gold rush, entrepreneurs imported milk cows to increase local production.  In 1860, California had about 100,000 milk cows. Farms encircling the San Francisco and Sacramento regions, the state’s two most populous areas, dominated production.  Butter was the primary product of this budding dairy industry.  Local fresh cheese was made from skimmed milk and sweet buttermilk combined, and sold the same day it was taken from the hoop for 25 to 27 cents a pound.  But ripe cheeses generally were imported.  By the mid-1850s, however, the Steele family arrived in California and catalyzed the beginnings of the commercial cheese industry.

1850s:  Pioneering Spirit Prospered on Point Reyes

The Steele family, including Clara and her husband Rensselaer and his cousins Isaac, Edgar and George, arrived from Ohio and started farming north of San Francisco.  In 1857, Clara hired a local Indian man to rope some of the wild cattle that grazed near her home.  She milked these cows and, using a recipe from a cookbook that belonged to her English grandmother, began making Cheddar cheese.  The cheese was an immediate success in the San Francisco market, which prompted the Steeles to launch a commercial dairy operation, that made high quality butter and cheese.  Their dairy was one of the first, and quite possibly the first commercial dairy in the entire United States.  Looking to expand, the Steeles explored Point Reyes as a possibility. 

When their business partner, Colonel Lewis, surveyed the land with Isaac Steele, he declared it “cow heaven!”  The family’s new 6,000-acre dairy farm soon prospered on Point Reyes, with its rolling, green grasslands and temperate climate thanks to the recurrent fog. 

The Steele’s success sparked the growth of the Point Reyes region, eventually placing it alongside New York state as the two centers of commercial dairy production in the country.  Their 1861 production of 45 tons of cheese made them the largest producers of cheese in California.  In fact, during the 1861 season, they made 640 pounds of cheese and 75 pounds of butter per day.  They shipped their cheese to San Francisco by steamer since rough roads made the trip impossible.  In return, the schooners brought back the comforts of the city to Point Reyes. Cash accounts from 1861 accounted for smoked salmon, brandy, clothing, sarsaparilla, coffin trimmings and a Steinway piano.

Although the Steeles were the first to operate a commercial dairy in the rugged new state, they were not the only prospering dairy on Point Reyes.  Brothers George and Charles Laird, who leased 3,000 acres on Tomales Point, the northernmost tip of Point Reyes, operated a dairy that rivaled the Steeles’ in size, output and quality.  In 1859, the Laird’s cheese captured first place from the Steeles at the state fair and, in 1860, George Laird gained fame for producing a 1,600 pound cheese.

1857-1919:  The Shafter Empire

While the Laird and Steele families are credited with pioneering the Point Reyes dairy industry, brothers Oscar and James Shafter, prominent and energetic businessmen with keen foresight, developed Point Reyes to be the leading dairy region not only in California but in the entire West. Both brothers were prominent attorneys from Vermont before they moved to San Francisco.  In 1857, during a twisted legal battle in which five men claimed ownership of Point Reyes, the Shafter legal team won the territory for their client, Dr. Robert McMillan.  In return, McMillan sold the highly regarded property to the firm. In total, the Shafter brothers bought almost the entire peninsula for less than $85,000.

Oscar and James Shafter, along with Oscar’s son-in-law, Charles Howard, promptly established their home ranch on the property (home of the present day Murphy Ranch) and wrote leases to the Steele, Laird, and other dairies already established on the territory.  Howard became the most active member at the ranches, providing hands-on management of ranch construction and dairy operation.

The family resolved to keep the property together and pursue a tenant system.  Each ranch was named a letter of the alphabet, starting at the tip of Point Reyes (A Ranch). Under Howard’s stewardship, the dairies doubled in number.  By 1870, Shafter-Howard owned 20 dairies with plans to add seven more from the ones previously leased.  Typically, tenants leased the ranches from one to three years. The tenant rented the cows ($20-$25 per cow, annually), buildings and land, but provided their own home furnishings, dairy and farm implements, horses and pigs.

By 1866, the Point Reyes dairies led the field in production.  Although the family experimented with producing cheese, they felt the land was better adapted to making butter.  Consequently, they pursued their goal to produce the finest quality butter in great quantities for San Francisco. 

Certainly, the market existed.  Demand in the rapidly growing city was so great that the inferior butter from South America and the East Coast was still being imported.  But this product was no comparison to the Point Reyes standards.  As one contemporary journalist reported, “…the grass growing in the fields on Monday is the butter on the city tables on Sunday.”

The Shafter and Howard ranches became famous as examples of well-organized, clean and successful dairies producing the highest quality products.  In 1875, the Marin County Journal reported that the excellent quality of Point Reyes’ butter resulted from the advantages of the peninsula’s climate, “coupled with the evident enterprise and liberality of the owners of the land in improvements, and the wide-awake spirit of the tenants in efforts to out-vie each other in the quality of their products have given to the Point Reyes butter a most enviable reputation in the markets.”  No doubt, competition among the prospering farms existed.  Many of the tenants immigrated from Sweden, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and Portugal, each bringing their desire for success to the new territory.

At the height of the Shafter and Howard Empire, 31 dairy ranches were in operation.  For each location, a reasonably flat site was chosen that was central to the grazing area and had a nearby spring to supply water for both the ranch house and the cows in the corral.  Because it rarely rained, milking was done outdoors in a well-drained, central corral.  Each milker took charge of a string of cows (between 20-25) and could milk them in two hours.

The buttermaker reigned over the dairy and had tremendous responsibilities to the tenant and owners.  He usually worked his way up in the dairy, starting as a milker and learning the skills on the job. To make butter, the cream had to be separated then churned through laborious processes that required skill to prevent spoilage.  Then, the freshly churned butter was salted to prolong storage, divided into two-pound blocks and stored in a cool cellar until it was shipped by schooner to San Francisco.  By 1880, the demand for the Point Reyes butter was so great that dairies around the area were counterfeiting it.  Empty Point Reyes butter boxes left by the commission merchants would be repacked with “common” butter and sold at a higher price.  Upon learning this, Shafter and Howard trademarked their butter and stamped the letters P.R. on each package made at their ranches.  This step to protect the quality and authenticity of their products may be one of the first forms of branding of a consumer product in California.

The Shafter and Howard families owned most of Point Reyes for 82 years, from 1857-1939.  During that time, the operation of the ranches changed little, except for modernization in technology and transportation.  The eventual sale of the ranches, between 1919 to 1939, was done in three transactions, ten years apart from each other.  Most of the ranches were sold to tenants, resulting in increased prosperity and pride.  Moreover, dairy production increased through herd improvements and physical modernization unhindered by a distant landlord. Indeed, a new way of life swept through the dairies at Point Reyes.

1870s:  California Dairy Industry Expands

The dairy industry in California prospered outside of Point Reyes, as well.  Many dairy farmers sought affordable land and to take advantage of the newly constructed railroads to gain access to urban markets.  The Steele family, unable to purchase their dairy from the Shafters, bought an 18,000 acre ranch in San Mateo County and later a larger ranch in San Luis Obispo County.  By 1880, they operated the state’s most productive cheesemaking factory and the second largest dairy in the state after the Shafters.  With cheese production on the upswing, California further staked its claim to being one of the leading dairy states in the nation.

Marin County remained the state’s leading dairy region, followed by Sacramento.  But production in the San Joaquin Valley increased in the 1870s when William S. Chapman, one of the largest landowners in the state, sold 80,000 acres of land to a group of German settlers in the Central Valley and encouraged them to cultivate alfalfa with irrigated water.  This crop fostered tremendous growth in the dairy industry in central and southern California during the last two decades of the 19th century.  Together with the arrival of rail lines through most of the San Joaquin Valley by the latter part of the decade, it also set the stage for the gradual rise of California’s Central Valley as the state’s primary dairy region, as it is today.

While irrigation in the San Joaquin Valley made dairy farming possible, the cool temperatures and long grass-growing seasons of the state’s coastal areas, particularly in San Luis Obispo, Sonoma and Humboldt counties, drew more people into the dairy industry.  The introduction of cream separators, and the establishment of the state’s first creamery in Ferndale in 1889, sparked tremendous investment, especially in Humboldt County.  By the late 1890s, Humboldt had become the leading dairy county in the state.           

In Monterey County, businessman and landowner David Jacks used milk from his dairies to be the first to commercialize a popular local cheese – a soft, white cheese that was to bear his name – Monterey Jack.  This cheese made its first appearance by railcar shipment to San Francisco in 1882, and eventually became what many cheese experts consider the most important cheese created in the U.S.

Throughout these years, the state’s dairy production rose steadily.  By the late 1870s, for the first time since the gold rush, local production of butter and cheese equaled consumption.  The census of 1880 counted 210,000 milk cows producing nearly 12 million gallons of milk.  By the end of the decade, the dairy herd had increased to 260,000 milk cows.  And as surpluses developed, California dairymen began to export butter and cheese to other cities along the West Coast. 

1890s:  Dairy Industry Sets Quality Standards

Food safety and quality issues, which have come to the fore in the 1990s, have been priorities in the dairy industry for more than 100 years.  In 1891, the Dairymen’s Union of California (renamed the California Dairy Association in 1893) was founded to improve distribution both inside and outside the state and to set quality standards and benchmark prices.  Led by Louis Tomasini of Marin County, the Dairymen’s Union pushed for the creation of the State Dairy Bureau to administer laws against butter and cheese imitations.  This three-man commission also oversaw labeling and grading of cheeses.  And, in a step that formalized the first form of product branding in the 1880s when Shafter and Howard trademarked and stamped their butter, the commission began issuing brand names to manufacturers.  The Bureau promoted dairy research and education at the state's agricultural colleges.  All of these efforts led to productivity improvements.

At the turn of the century, however, the American public became increasingly concerned about food quality and safety rather than production.  To reassure consumers, the State Dairy Bureau began to inspect dairy operations to verify that they met state health standards.  These regulatory innovations marked the beginning of nearly a century of cooperation between dairy farmers and the government – a partnership that has helped make the California dairy industry a major factor in the state’s economic success.

Today, California’s dairy industry enjoys the highest standards in the nation, employing the latest techniques in dairy farm management, herd health and milk handling.  Dairy products are California’s number one agricultural commodity.  Since 1993, the state has led the nation in milk production.  The state also produces more ice cream, butter and nonfat dry milk than any other state in the nation and is second in cheese production.

All of these products fuel the state’s economy, but they also provide a tangible and savory link to the past and a rich tradition of quality and innovation that began with the arrival of the Spanish missionaries.  A visit to the verdant grasslands of Point Reyes and the scent of the fresh, coastal fog bring back the nostalgia of the first dairies that still dot the coastal grasslands today.

While their winemaking brethren draw tourists to “Wine Country,” the dairy farmers producing fresh, top-quality milk and the growing number of small specialty cheesemakers producing handmade, artisan cheeses can make a claim to a similarly historic and, yes, even romantic “Cheese Country” in the pastoral coastlands and mountains of Marin and Sonoma counties. 

Information provided courtesy of the California Milk Advisory Board


Reference Sources

The following are sources used in developing this historical backgrounder. 

Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of California, Volume 1, 1542-1800 (Santa Barbara: Wallace Hebberd, 1953 -- facsimile reprint from 1886 edition)

Kaye Tomlin, editor, Outpost of an Empire (Fort Ross: Fort Ross Interpretive Association, Inc., 1993)

John Mack Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979)

Edward Dickson, Dairying In California (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896) 

James D. Hart, A Companion to California (Berkeley: U.C. Press, 1987)

Douglas E. Kyle, Historic Spots in California (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990)

California Milk Advisory Board, South San Francisco, California.

Gerald D. Nash, State Government and Economic Development: A History of Administrative Policies in California, 1849-1933 (California, 1964)

Ann Foley Scheuring, editor, A Guidebook to California Agriculture (Berkeley: U.C. Press, 1983)

Donald Pisani, From the Family Farm to Agribusiness (Berkeley: UC Press, 1984)

California State Dairy Bureau, First Report, (Sacramento, State of California, October 1896)

California State Dairy Bureau, Third Report, (Sacramento, State of California, October 1900)

Daniel Cornford, Workers and Dissent in the Redwood Empire (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987)

Dewey Livingston, Ranching on the Point Reyes Penninsula (Historic Resource Study Point Reyes National Seashore, July 1994)

Last updated: June 2009