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Guide to the California Dairy Industry History Collection
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Collection Details
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  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • A Brief History of the California Dairy Industry
  • Biographical Notes
  • Chronology
  • Organization and Processing Notes
  • Scope and Content Summary
  • Access
  • Indexing Terms
  • Bibliography

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: California Dairy Industry History Collection
    Dates: 1856-1986 (bulk 1953-1978)
    Collection number: Consult repository
    Collector: California State Parks
    Extent: 38.7 cubic feet in 52 boxes and 34.75 cubic feet of bound volumes.
    Repository: California State Parks
    1416 9th Street, Room 943, Sacramento, Ca. 95814
    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.
    Language: English

    Administrative Information


    The collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    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.

    Preferred citation

    [item], California Dairy Industry History Collection, California State Parks, Sacramento, California.

    Related materials

    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 increased proportionally.
    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 respectively.
    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 California.
    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.

    Biographical Notes

    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 history.”
    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.


    1769 Cattle first enter California from Mexico with the Spanish missionaries.
    1812-1841 The Russian settlement at Fort Ross exports dairy products from California to Alaska.
    1848 Gold is discovered at Coloma
    1850 California becomes a state. Mass migrations of gold-seekers flood in.
    1856 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.
    1878 The centrifugal cream separator is invented by Albert Delaval in Sweden.
    1886 The glass milk bottle with reliable closure is invented by Harvey Thatcher in New York.
    1890 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.
    1894 Delaval patents his first mechanical milking machine. California State Dairy Bureau is established.
    1899 The first commercial creamery in California opens in Ferndale, Humboldt County.
    1900-1910 Cooperative dairies and creameries appear in Southern California.
    1902 Homogenization of milk is invented.
    1904 The ice cream cone is invented.
    1907 Pasteurized milk becomes commercially practical.
    1908 The University of California Agricultural College at Davis begins offering dairy classes.
    1918 The Delaval mechanical milker utilizing controlled and uniform pulsations is introduced.
    1919 The Dairy Council of California founded.
    1930-1935 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.
    1938 The first farm bulk tanks for milk begin to replace milk cans.
    1946 The California Dairy Industry Advisory Board is created.
    1948 Ultra high temperature pasteurization is introduced.
    1964 Plastic milk containers are introduced.
    1974 The California Dairy Museum and Educational Foundation is established.

    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 material.
    The collection has been organized into the following series and subseries:
    • Series I: Organizations
    • Subseries 1: American Dairy Association
    • Subseries 2: California Dairy Industries Association
    • Subseries 3: California Dairy Museum and Educational Foundation
    • 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 Committees
    • Series VI: Dairy Trade Journals and University Publications
    • 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

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection.

    Personal Names

    Delaval, Albert
    Grabow, Herman
    McPherson, Neil

    Business Names

    American Dairy Association
    Borden's Condensed Milk Company
    California. Dairy Industry Advisory Board
    California. Dairy Council
    California. Dairy Bureau, State
    California Milk Advisory Board
    California. Milk Stabilization, Bureau of
    California creamery operators' association
    Certified Milk Producers Association of America
    Cherry-Burrell Corporation.
    DeLaval Separator Company
    Ex-Cell-O Corporation
    Frigidaire Corporation
    James Manufacturing Co
    National Dairy Council
    National Grange
    National Milk Producers Federation
    Owens-Illinois Glass Company
    University of California
    University of California (1868-1952). College of Agriculture


    Butter industry
    Cheese industry
    Dairy cattle—Breeding
    Dairy farming—California
    Dairy farming—Handbooks, manuals, etc.
    Dairy farming—Periodicals
    Dairy inspection
    Dairy laws—California
    Dairy plants—Equipment and supplies
    Dairy products—Cooperative marketing
    Dairy products industry 1850-1880.
    Dairy products—Marketing
    Dairying—Economic aspects—California
    Dairying—Government policy
    Ice cream industry
    Margarine—Law and legislation
    Milk Advertising
    Milk Grading and standardization


    Additional information on the history of the dairy industry in California can be found in the following publications:
    Herbert, Rand, A History of the California Creamery Operator’s Association, Davis, California: 1984.
    Hittell, John S., The Commerce and Industries of the Pacific Coast of North America, San Francisco: A.L. Bancroft and Company, 1882.
    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 Industry,” California Historical Quarterly, 20, (September 1941), 259-273.
    Tinley, J.M., Public Regulation of Milk Marketing in California, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1938.
    Wickson, E.J., Dairying in California, issued by the United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Animal Industry, Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1896.