January 19, 2014

Pierce Point Dairy -- one quart of history

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

Dairy ranching at Point Reyes started on a small scale when Franciscan missionaries introduced feral cattle to the area in 1817. The plan was to supply food to a "recuperative center" known as San Rafael Asistencia, for ailing Coast Miwok and Ohlone natives who were succumbing to the diseases of the White Man at an alarming rate.

Starting in 1849 the California Gold Rush brought wealth to just a few and heartache to many, and the real fortune was made by catering to the basic needs of wannabe miners. Due to scarcity, just one egg could cost as much as $10 and butter and cheese became only a fond memory.

Although isolated and difficult to get to, some of the more enterprising immigrants saw an opportunity here at Point Reyes. For centuries the native Indians had taken great care of this land with frequent burning, weeding, pruning, and harvesting. There was abundant grass, a long growing season, and sufficient fresh water.

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

Many of the new arrivals, disillusioned by their lack of success in the gold fields, already had experience with dairy cows and saw an opportunity. With the lack of refrigeration, transporting fresh milk was problematic, but shipping out butter and cheese in casks or in long rolls was entirely do-able. By-products from the butter and cheese operations were slopped to hogs and suddenly the dairy ranchers another product they could sell to hungry San Franciscans--fresh pork. Once again, the lack of refrigeration required that the hogs be shipped out to the City un-slaughtered.

In 1867, Marin County produced 932,429 pounds of butter, the largest yield of butter in California. These huge amounts of butter were produced in an era when the finest restaurants served every good steak with a melting slab of butter on top. Yum.

Eventually, transportation to San Francisco was improved. Schooners were replaced by ferries and rail, but there were hard times ahead for the dairy ranches of Point Reyes. The earthquake of 1906 did major damage to many ranches, and in 1929 the stock market crash spelled disaster for many of the major landholders. Speculators moved in to pick up the pieces, resold dairy parcels, and made a bloody fortune. Due to overgrazing, the quality of the pastures declined and only a handful of dairies survived. Beef was seen as a more promising commodity.

A few milk producers still operate here under special leases from the Federal Government who now own all of Point Reyes, but Pierce Point Dairy at the extreme north end of Point Reyes remains as an example of what it must have been like in the 1800's. The inability to keep up with improving food purity laws forced the shutting down of Pierce Point Dairy in the 1940's.

Photographing Marin County - the exhibit and book   

1 comment:

Zoomie said...

Pierce Ranch is a wonderful, lonely place today, with stunning photo ops, such as the ones you found.

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