A Brief History of the California Dairy Industry
Organization and Processing Notes
Scope and Content Summary
Title: California Dairy Industry History
Dates: 1856-1986 (bulk
Collection number: Consult repository
38.7 cubic feet in 52 boxes and 34.75 cubic feet of bound
1416 9th Street, Room 943, Sacramento, Ca.
Abstract: The California Dairy Industry History Collection
contains documentary items extracted from a large assemblage of materials
collected for use at an anticipated California Dairy Museum. Between 1976 and
1981 California State Parks, in cooperation with the California Dairy Museum
and Educational Foundation (CDMEF), participated in a joint venture to create a
museum at Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz County. The museum was intended
to showcase the contributions of the dairy industry to the social and economic
development of California. In 1976 the CDMEF donated its collection of dairy
machinery, equipment, and archival materials to the California State Parks. The
foundation also established an advisory committee to assist California State
Parks in managing the collection and in locating and acquiring additional
materials for the proposed museum. In 1981 the State Parks Commission voted not
to fund the museum, and the collection went into storage—first at Wilder Ranch
State Park and then at the State Museum Resources Center in West Sacramento.
The archival collection described in this guide covers the period of 1856 to
1986 with the bulk of the material dating from 1930 to 1978..
Physical location: The collection resides at California
State Parks Archives, Sacramento.
The collection is open for research.
Property rights reside with the California State Parks. Literary rights
are retained by the creators of the records and their heirs. For permission to
reproduce or to publish, please contact California State Parks.
[item], California Dairy Industry History Collection, California State
Parks, Sacramento, California.
The collection described in this finding aid represents those materials
that are archival in nature. Artifacts (including some very large pieces of
machinery) that are also identified by the accession number 85-2 are not
included in this guide. For information on the artifactual materials related to
this collection contact California State Parks.
A Brief History of the California Dairy Industry
Cattle first entered California with the Spanish missionaries in the
late 1700’s. Milk and cheese were consumed at the Franciscan Missions from San
Diego to the northernmost mission at Sonoma. At times milk may even have been
an essential element of the missionaries’ diet. Father Junipero Serra wrote in
1772 that milk was their “chief subsistence” at Mission San Carlos in Carmel,
and other records show that as early as 1776 women were making cheese and
butter at Mission San Gabriel. But the first cattle in California were of
Mexican stock, better suited for meat, hide and tallow than for milk. As these
herds grew, a lucrative trade in tallow and hides developed. These goods left
California by ship, and the Eastern merchants’ desire for these products in the
1830s contributed to the growth of seaport trading communities at San Diego,
Santa Barbara, and Monterey. In the first few decades after the arrival of
cattle in California, dairying was incidental to the more lucrative tallow and
hide trades. But as the herds grew stronger and larger, dairying became more
and more popular.
The first export of dairy products, however, probably happened much
farther north than the centers of the tallow and hide trades. The Russians at
Fort Ross on the Sonoma coast engaged in farming and dairying and shipped
butter, cheese, and locally grown produce to fur-trapping settlements in Alaska
between the years of 1812 and 1841. After the Russians left California in 1841,
John Sutter of Sacramento acquired most of the materials at the fort, including
the small dairy herd, and he operated small dairies on land at Mills Station
(modern-day Rancho Cordova, in the Sacramento area) and Yuba City. But until
the great influx of fortune seekers in the 1850’s following the discovery of
gold in California, dairying in the state was still primarily a domestic
activity, and not an economic one.
Many families who braved the overland trek from the eastern United
States brought with them cows to provide milk for their children and infants.
In the Mother Lode mining communities dairy cattle soon became valuable
commodities. In many cases, while husbands were mining, wives managed the
family’s livestock and found that they could sell fresh milk and butter at a
favorable price. Dairy herds began appearing in the Sierra foothills to satisfy
the Easterners’ desire for milk and butter; simple pleasures that they had left
behind when they decided to seek their fortunes in the untamed gold fields. As
California’s population swelled over succeeding decades, the demand for milk
Fluid milk is more perishable than butter or cheese, so initially milk
had to be produced within a short wagon ride of its consumers. Larger dairy
herds first emerged close to California’s most populated areas to ensure that
milk could be supplied to the rapidly growing urban populations. According to
the 1860 census, there were 264,000 people in California and 104,000 cows, and
the principal dairy regions that year were the San Francisco Bay area and the
Sacramento Valley. Because of the great demand for milk in San Francisco, and
because of the area’s good rainfall and natural pasturage, the Bay Area became
the state’s first major dairy center.
In the late 1850’s dairies in Petaluma began shipping butter and cheese
down the coast by ship to the San Francisco Bay area; however, this answered
only a fraction of the demand at the time and the majority of dairy products
were still being shipped from the East Coast. California’s cheese and butter
industries saw dramatic growth in the second half of the century. In 1850 only
705 pounds of butter and 150 pounds of cheese were produced in California, but
by 1880 those numbers had increased to 16 million pounds and 3.7 million pounds
Today milk is produced in every state in the United States, but since
1980 more than half of the total U.S. milk production has come from only five
states: California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania. In 2000
California produced about twenty percent of the U.S. total, surpassing
Wisconsin as the nation’s largest milk producer. Yet the total number of dairy
operations in California declined steadily in the second half of the twentieth
century and now the state has less than one-seventh the number of dairies as
Wisconsin. The average size of California’s dairy herds, on the other hand, is
about seven times the national average and almost nine times the Wisconsin
average. In 2002 California produced 1.7 billion pounds of cheese, second only
to Wisconsin, and it also led the nation in production of butter, nonfat dry
milk, cottage cheese, and ice cream.
California’s success in dairying is due in large part to environmental
factors. Its temperate climate mitigates the need to house dairy cattle in
winter months, and also contributes to the production of high quality alfalfa.
California’s geographic isolation, with the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain
ranges as obstacles to the transport of raw milk either east or west,
necessitated the rapid development of in-state production and processing
capacities. The state’s phenomenal population growth in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries created steady demand for dairy products, which
stimulated the development of storage, packaging, and delivery systems. But the
rise of California’s dairy industry from humble beginnings to national
prominence is also a story of technological innovation, and cooperation and
organization by its dairymen.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, just as California’s
population exploded and its demand for dairy products increased accordingly,
several new technologies emerged to help jumpstart the state’s dairy industry.
Mechanical cream separation, pasteurization, a reliable method of butterfat
measurement and even the glass milk bottle were all developed between 1877 and
1892. Dairying in California shifted from a domestic activity to a major
industry about 1890. Shortly before that time the centrifugal cream separator,
a mechanical device for separating cream from raw milk in large batches, made
its appearance in California, and the first commercial creamery in the state
opened in Ferndale, California in 1899. The emergence of creameries created a
division between production and manufacturing/marketing operations. Before
1900, California dairying was primarily an integrated endeavor, and included
growing feed for the cows, producing the milk, skimming the cream, churning the
butter and making the cheese all in one location—the dairy farm.
As the division of production and processing operations became the norm,
other factors began reshaping the dairy industry as well. Dairy herd
improvement associations aided the dairy farmer in selectively breeding cows
that produced higher and higher volumes of milk, with higher levels of
butterfat. Improvements in the treatment and diagnosis of bovine diseases, and
improvements in milking machine technology in conjunction with newly improved
herds saw production explode in the beginning of the twentieth century. In
order to take advantage of increased demand for dairy products and to protect
themselves financially, dairy farmers recognized a need to bargain collectively
with processors or to do their own processing and distributing collectively.
Farmer-owned dairy cooperatives developed in the first decades of the twentieth
century to provide members an assured market for their milk and to help them
negotiate prices, assemble, haul, manufacture, process, and market milk and
dairy products to wholesalers. A dairy cooperative business is owned, operated,
and controlled by the dairy farmers who benefit from its services.
Concerned about the marketing of their cream, dairy farmers in Tulare
County, California formed the Dairyman’s Cooperative Creamery Association in
1910. The association operated its own creamery to manufacture butter, but left
the marketing of their product to a Los Angeles firm. The following year the
association merged with the nearby Riverdale Cooperative Creamery and they
began marketing their own butter in Los Angeles under the “Challenge Butter”
name. Today Challenge Butter is the largest-selling butter in the western
United States. The Challenge Cream and Butter Association developed the first
lab in California to sample and ensure butter quality, and their mechanical
department developed the world’s first industrial metal churn, an innovation
which quickly spread worldwide.
In 1919 California’s dairy industry faced a new threat. In January of
that year, the State Legislature began considering two bills which would have
had great impact on California’s dairymen and creamery operators. One would
have permitted the manufacturers of margarine to color their product in
imitation of butter; the other would have permitted the manufacture and
distribution of a milk and coconut oil blend to remain unregulated. The dairy
industry considered the first an affront to the integrity of their beloved
butter and the latter to be a threat to the health of California’s children.
That month the California Dairy Council was formed to go before the Legislature
as the official representative of the industry. In addition to its legislative
efforts, the California Dairy Council pledged to “promote human welfare and
efficiency, by cooperative and united effort, in educating the public to
appreciate the importance of the dairy cow and the value of dairy products as
human food.” Many other such organizations were founded in California in the
middle of the twentieth century with similar promotional goals, including the
California Milk Advisory Board, the League of California Milk Producers, the
California Creamery Operators Association, and the Dairy Institute of
One of these organizations, the California Dairy Industry Advisory Board
was created by an act of the State Legislature in 1946 to provide substantial
and dependable funding for dairy products research at the university level. In
1904 the California Livestock Breeder’s Association introduced a bill before
the State Legislature calling for the purchase of at least 250 acres of the
best agricultural land in the state to build a “University Farm” that would be
operated by the regents of the University of California to advance the science
of farming and dairying for the benefit of California. In 1905 an appointed
commission selected 786 acres near Davisville (now Davis), California for the
site. The following year the University occupied the site. Courses in dairying
began in the fall of 1908, with twenty-five students studying butter making.
The “University Farm Creamery” offered students the opportunity to see all the
operations conducted in a commercial creamery from a practical point of view.
The University Farm eventually became the University of California at Davis,
one of the nation’s most prestigious universities for studying agriculture,
medicine, and engineering. The California Dairy Industry Advisory Board now
operates through the Dairy Industry Division of the University.
The rise of California’s dairy industry from humble beginnings to
national and even international prominence is a story of technological
innovation, legislative efforts, and masterful marketing, but most of all the
cooperative spirit and organizational acumen of its dairymen.
The collection contains the papers of Herman Grabow (1898-1993), a cow
tester, dairyman, radio personality, journalist and lobbyist for the California
Grange. Trained as a cow tester at the University of Minnesota, Grabow came to
California in 1923, where he found work as a tester in Ventura County. After
losing his dairy in the midst of the Great Depression, Grabow came to San
Joaquin County where he acquired a spread that was being sold for back taxes.
With financial help from Roosevelt's New Deal, Grabow bought alfalfa seed and
twenty cows. By the late 1930s he was well-established and had become Director
of the local artificial insemination association. Beginning in the 1940’s,
Grabow became a farmer’s advocate, working for forty years to advance the cause
of the California dairy industry through legislation and promotion as a
lobbyist for the California State Grange and as President of the California
Dairymen, Inc. Grabow also published a regular column on dairy-related topics
in the California Farmer during the 1960s and hosted a weekly radio program, "A
Dairyman's Views on the News" on KTRB in Modesto, California from 1955 to 1960.
He will be best remembered (among dairymen in particular) for his contributions
to the passage of the California Milk Pooling Act (1969), which gave
independent dairymen greater protection from milk price fluctuations.
The collection also contains material collected by Neil McPherson
(1904-1983). A native of Scotland, McPherson was a dairy farmer, a regional
representative for the American Jersey Cattle Club, and Industry Relations
Director of the Dairy Council of California. His personal collection of dairy
artifacts and documentary material, acquired through many years of visiting
California’s historic dairy ranches and researching their histories, was the
impetus for the development of the California Dairy Museum and Educational
Foundation, where McPherson served as the founding and only curator from 1974
until his death 1983. In 1978, the American Association for State and Local
History commended him for his “service and scholarship in the promotion and
documentation of California’s dairy history,” and in 1983 The Dairyman magazine
bestowed on him the title of California Dairy Industry Historian Laureate, and
proclaimed that “Seldom has one man contributed so much to one industry’s rich
Also featured prominently in this collection are materials relating to
one of California’s pioneer dairy families, the Steele family. Cousins George
(1825-1901) and Rensselaer (1808-1886) Steele immigrated to California’s Sonoma
County from the East Coast in 1855, followed by George’s brothers Edgar in 1856
and Isaac in 1857. Initially farmers rather than dairymen, the family soon
discovered a lucrative market for cheese and butter in San Francisco. In 1857
George and Isaac took possession of land at Punta del Reyes on the Marin County
coast and established a prosperous dairy operation there. The Steeles produced
a startling forty-five tons of butter in 1861. That year they added 15,000
acres to their dairy operations with the acquisition of land farther south at
Año Nuevo on what was at that time the Santa Cruz County coast. In 1866 Edgar
Steele moved from Marin County to San Luis Obispo County where he introduced
dairy farming on an additional 45,000 acres, and by 1870 the Steele’s combined
net worth was estimated to be about $1.5 million. Legal disputes over land
titles eventually forced the sale of some of their acreage, but Isaac
maintained the ranch at Año Nuevo until his death in 1903 and Isaac’s grandson
William Steele continued operation there until his death in 1956. In 1967
William’s widow, Catherine B. Steele made a gift of the Green Oaks ranch to the
County of San Mateo to be used for historical and educational purposes.
||Cattle first enter California from Mexico with the Spanish
||The Russian settlement at Fort Ross exports dairy products from
California to Alaska.
||Gold is discovered at Coloma
||California becomes a state. Mass migrations of gold-seekers
||The Steele family of Marin county begin earliest major dairy
operations in California. Gail Borden receives a patent for condensed milk in
New York. Louis Pasteur begins bacteriological experiments in France leading to
the development of the pasteurization process.
||The centrifugal cream separator is invented by Albert Delaval in
||The glass milk bottle with reliable closure is invented by
Harvey Thatcher in New York.
||Dr. Stephen Babcock of Wisconsin develops a simple method of
determining butterfat content in milk. “Babcock Test” becomes the standard
method of grading milk. Tuberculin testing of dairy herds introduced.
||Delaval patents his first mechanical milking machine. California
State Dairy Bureau is established.
||The first commercial creamery in California opens in Ferndale,
||Cooperative dairies and creameries appear in Southern
||Homogenization of milk is invented.
||The ice cream cone is invented.
||Pasteurized milk becomes commercially practical.
||The University of California Agricultural College at Davis
begins offering dairy classes.
||The Delaval mechanical milker utilizing controlled and uniform
pulsations is introduced.
||The Dairy Council of California founded.
||The continuous ice cream freezer is developed. The commercial
homogenization of milk becomes practical. The widespread adoption of stainless
steel containers in dairies and creameries becomes reality.
||The first farm bulk tanks for milk begin to replace milk
||The California Dairy Industry Advisory Board is created.
||Ultra high temperature pasteurization is introduced.
||Plastic milk containers are introduced.
||The California Dairy Museum and Educational Foundation is
Organization and Processing Notes
The California Dairy Industry History Collection is an artificial
collection encompassing materials acquired from various sources. Since the
California State Parks’ acquisition of the bulk of this collection from the
California Dairy Museum and Educational Foundation in 1978, a variety of
efforts were made to catalog and organize the material. Unfortunately, none of
these attempts resulted in the organizational or descriptive tools required to
lend research functionality to the collection. For example, a typed inventory
of the collection described items “from McPherson’s home,” but the inventory is
undated, the author is not stated, the material was not arranged, and only the
contents of a single box of documents were described.
In addition, the collection has been relocated more than once, and shows
evidence of having been repackaged and resorted, eliminating the possibility of
reassembling the order created by the original collector(s). It is also likely
that items were added to the collection between 1977 and 2002, and records of
these accruals, where present, have not been maintained or preserved. These
factors, as well as the undocumented provenance of the materials, resulted in
the decision to process the collection as a single entity. The total absence of
a usable original order necessitated the imposition of a new overall
arrangement to improve accessibility and facilitate locating, retrieving, and
filing the materials.
Researchers may note what appear to be discrepancies or omissions in
this finding aid regarding the numbering conventions used for boxes in the
collection. To maintain an effective intellectual arrangement of the material,
all items are listed within the context of the series or subseries they relate
to, despite having been physically relocated because of size, format, or
preservation need. The notation “Moved to Box [box number]” guides the user to
The collection has been organized into the following series and
Series I: Organizations
- Subseries 1: American Dairy Association
- Subseries 2: California Dairy Industries Association
- Subseries 3: California Dairy Museum and Educational
- Subseries 4: California Milk Advisory Board
- Subseries 5: Dairy Council of California
- Subseries 6: University of California
- Subseries 7: Organizations, various
Series II: Companies and Cooperatives
Series III: California Dairy People
- Subseries 1: Herman J. Grabow Papers
- Subseries 2: Neil McPherson Collection
- Subseries 3: Steel Family Papers
- Subseries 4: California Dairy People, various
Series IV: Machinery and Equipment
Series V: Legislation and Regulation
- Subseries 1: California State Assembly
- Subseries 2: California State Senate
- Subseries 3: California State Department of Agriculture
- Subseries 4: Various Legislative and Regulatory Offices and
Series VI: Dairy Trade Journals and University
Series VII: Photographic Material
Scope and Content Summary
The Dairy Industry History Collection in its totality includes a large
collection of artifacts, including milk bottles, butter churns, cream
separators, cheese presses, storage containers, milking machines, and large
pieces of dairying and processing of equipment. The material in the archival
collection described in this guide includes brochures, bulletins, catalogs,
ephemera, interviews, minutes, ledgers, receipts, press releases,
advertisements, research reports, newspaper clippings, speeches, testimonies,
transcripts, correspondence, publications, original histories, non-original
documents (mostly photocopies), audio and video recordings, books, journals,
slides, negatives, and photographic prints.
This collection records the development of California’s dairy industry
in histories of and records from individual dairy farms, cooperatives,
marketing organizations, processors, and distributors. Also included is
biographical material relating to many dairy pioneers, entrepreneurs,
scientists, and statesmen who contributed to the industry. The role of
California’s legislature in protecting and regulating the dairy industry is
evinced through legislative bill files, and the creation and operation of the
California Dairy Museum and Educational Foundation is documented in
newsletters, correspondence, minutes, and corporate documents. The material in
this collection covers the years 1856 to 1986 with the bulk of the material
dating from 1953 to 1978.
During the time period covered by this collection, many cooperatives,
marketing, and educational organizations were formed. Organizations represented
in this collection include the University of California Agricultural College at
Davis, the American Dairy Association, California Dairy Council, the California
Dairy Museum and Educational Foundation, and the California Milk Advisory
Board. Material spanning the period from 1909 to 1983 evince the contributions
made by these and many other organizations.
Several modern dairy technologies emerged during the time period
covered by this collection. With items spanning the period of 1851 to 1988,
these innovations are revealed in the collection’s large quantity of vendor
publications, equipment descriptions, technical drawings, and patents. Vendors
that are well represented in the collection include Coast Creamery Equipment,
Damrow Brothers Equipment, De Laval, and McHale Manufacturing. Materials
documenting the history and operations of these and other companies include
business records, articles of incorporation, ledgers, organizational charts,
brochures, catalogs, and photographs.
The collection also contains the personal and professional papers of
two men who contributed to the story of California’s dairy history and
considerable material pertaining to one of California’s founding dairy
families. Herman Grabow (1898-1993) founded the Grabow Jersey Dairy in Escalon,
California in 1935, served as president of California Dairymen Inc, and was the
Legislative Representative for the California Grange from 1961 to 1978. Items
collected by Grabow and contained in this collection include autobiographical
essays, correspondence, memorabilia, business records, clippings, legislative
reports and committee minutes, photographs and audio recordings documenting his
career as a dairyman or dairyman’s advocate during the period from 1924 to
1988. Neil McPherson (1904-1983), a native of Scotland, was instrumental in the
creation of the California Dairy Museum and Educational Foundation in 1974 and
served as its founding curator until his death. Correspondence, clippings,
original writings, histories, photographs, and notebooks spanning the period
from 1867 to 1983 illustrate McPherson’s passion for dairying. Also collected
by McPherson and included in this collection are audio and video tapes, movie
film, and collected histories of many of California’s fifty-eight counties, and
descriptive material on several dairy cattle breeds. George and Rensselaer
Steele emigrated to California in 1856 and began dairying in Sonoma County in
1857. For the next one hundred years the Steele family operated dairies in
Marin, San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties. Materials documenting their
contributions to California’s dairy story include correspondence, clippings,
receipts, invoices, photographs, and reminiscences spanning the period from
1857 to 1967.
The California State Legislature’s role in the development of the
State’s dairy industry is evidenced by copies of bills and resolutions,
committee transcripts, publications, and reports issued between 1950 and 1975.
Likewise, annual reports, bulletins, court briefs, publications, transcripts,
minutes and agendas spanning the period from 1920 to 1980 document California’s
dairy regulation through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the California
Department of Agriculture, and the State Dairy Bureau. A small quantity of
material from U.S. House and Senate committees concerned with the dairy
industry is also included.
Lastly, this collection contains a large number of books, magazines,
student papers, and trade journals, with publication dates ranging from 1890 to
1984, which address the entire spectrum of dairying, from the selection of
cattle breeds to the marketing of processed products.
This collection is open for research
The following terms have been used to index the description of this
Borden's Condensed Milk
California. Dairy Industry
California. Dairy Council
California. Dairy Bureau,
California Milk Advisory
Stabilization, Bureau of
Certified Milk Producers
Association of America
DeLaval Separator Company
National Dairy Council
National Milk Producers
University of California
University of California
(1868-1952). College of Agriculture
Dairy farming—Handbooks, manuals, etc.
Dairy plants—Equipment and supplies
Dairy products—Cooperative marketing
Dairy products industry 1850-1880.
Ice cream industry
Margarine—Law and legislation
Milk Grading and standardization
Additional information on the history of the dairy industry in
California can be found in the following publications:
A History of the California Creamery Operator’s
Davis, California: 1984.
Hittell, John S.,
The Commerce and Industries of the Pacific Coast
of North America,
San Francisco: A.L. Bancroft and Company,
Jones, Robert E.,
The Beginning of Dairying on the Pacific, Berkeley:
University of California, 1930.
Santos, Robert L.,
“Dairying in California Through 1910,” Southern California
Quarterly, 76 (Summer 1994), 175-194.
Steele, Catherine B.,
“The Steele Brothers: Pioneers in California’s Great Dairy
California Historical Quarterly, 20, (September 1941),
Public Regulation of Milk Marketing in California,
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1938.
Dairying in California, issued by the United States
Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Animal Industry, Washington D.C.: United
States Government Printing Office, 1896.