Monday, April 19, 2010

The Truth about Dairies

One of the fun parts of this hobby is learning all sorts of trivial details about California history, industries, and agriculture. Take, for example, dairies. A friend gave a talk on the milk trains and dairy industries along the New York Central railroad in the Northeast, and about the creameries that processed the milk. Kind of interesting (even if his stories only reminded me of snow and New Yorkers)... Ever since then, the other local modelers keep asking me, "so, do you have milk trains on the Vasona Branch, just like Ed talked about on the NYC?"

I didn't know. I don't know how the California dairy industry worked, except that there used to be dairies on the San Francisco Peninsula back in the days before suburbia. The cows handled the fog and wind better than the teenagers in Colma: The Musical.

Or at least, I didn't know until recently. My mom lent me a copy of A Barrelful of Memories: Stories of my Azorean Family by Pauline Correia Stonehill, a few weeks ago. The author talks about growing up on a dairy outside Los Banos run by her parents, first generation Portuguese immigrants. It's a great book, and not just because it hints at my grandmother's life on her parents' fruit ranch up above Hayward at the same time. The stories about the dairies talk about buying a herd of cattle from another immigrant, renting a farm, and then putting in the hard work needed for a dairy - twice daily milking, growing and harvesting hay, dealing with the hired help, and fighting against all the obstacles that that the world threw at them.

In the 1920's and 1930's, the Los Banos area had tons of dairies run by Portuguese and Italian immigrants. The descendents still run dairies around there; when I drove Highway 59 between Los Banos and Merced a couple weeks ago, the farms had the same family names: "Silva Dairy", "Brazil Ranch".

In the stories, Stonehill remembers her father taking the wagon or truck to the creamery into town with the day's milk - no milk trains for them or anyone, even though they were next to the train tracks, three miles out of town. There were so many dairies in the area around Los Banos to give the processing plant plenty of raw material to work with, and the wagons probably were the easiest way to get the milk into town. It also meant that Pauline got to do all the same high school activities as the city kids because her father could give her a ride home on his way back from the creamery.

The same was probably true in San Jose; the stories about the dairies on Dairy Hill south of town and the American Dairy Company (Borden) creamery near 17th and Santa Clara St. match those of Los Banos. (Borden took over the Sneath Dairies, too. I didn't know that either.)

And if those stories weren't enough, the lack of any milk trains on the Southern Pacific timetable definitely say that milk wasn't shipped around by train. There's no trains marked as stopping at all locations as the traditional milk train did, and the stories of the dairies talk about the need for morning and night milking putting out milk each night for the early morning train seems awfully inefficient for what should be a five mile drive into town. Milk trains might be a bit romantic, but it sounds like they were east coast-specific (or perhaps from an earlier era). Maybe they made sense in the narrow valleys of the northeast where the dairies couldn't be clustered together, but when you had a twenty mile (or hundred mile wide) valley, you could put an awful lot of dairies close together and right next to the creameries.

And one last bit of trivia that I also learned in this particular thread: did you know that most barns in Los Banos face west or northwest? I didn't before, but now I do. Bet that barns in San Jose faced the same direction.

Not that any of those trivial details make much difference in my life, but fun in the same way that puzzles or collecting might be: learning a few related facts to build a bigger idea, visiting out-of-the-way museums (like Los Banos's) to collect other little tidbits, and making connections from books I once read
. And best of all, unlike collecting physical things, I don't have a boxful of thoughts filling up the closet.

[Picture shamelessly cribbed from]

No comments:

Post a Comment