The Grasses that Feed the Cows
In the late 1700s Spanish missionaries caused significant changes to the California landscape by introducing European plants and animals. Grazing lands were created by burning on lowland slopes to support large numbers of cattle, horse and sheep.
Prior to European settlement, grasses in the Monterey Bay area were primarily perennial bunch grasses such as purple needlegrass. Patches of native grasses can still be found, especially on rougher terrain that is inaccessible to grazing and cultivation. These grasses, though able to recover from a burn, do not tolerate repeated grazing. Thus exotic plants, originating in the Mediterranean, took hold and spread outward from Monterey—the main site of Spanish activity.
Accounts show that by 1846 landscapes had been noticeably changed and non-native species like wild oats, filaree, wild mustard, wild radish, foxtail, and burclover had taken hold on much of the coastal California landscape. This didn’t bother the cattle, who ate whatever grasses they found and ultimately helped create an industry based on leather, meat, and milk.
Changing Land Ownership and Three Early Divas of Dairy
While the influence of European grasses was dominating the landscape in the late 1840s, the political influence of Spain waned. When the Mexican government seized control of the missions from Spain, they divided the vast amount of land held by each mission into large land grants known as “ranchos.” In Santa Cruz, ranching and cattle grazing was concentrated in in two main areas: from the City of Santa Cruz to the San Mateo County line, and from Aptos to the southern boundary of the Pajaro Valley.
Unusual for the time, three women held ownership of significant ranching tracts in northern Santa Cruz. Rancho Refugio (twelve thousand acres along the north coast) ended up in the ownership of the three Castro sisters whose father, Jose Joaquin Castro, was a member of the 1775-6 Anza Expedition from Sinaloa, Mexico. Via marriage, the eldest sister, Maria Candida Castro Bolcoff was also owner for a time of Rancho San Agustin, which includes the area of present day Scotts Valley. The Castro sister’s properties would later become Wilder Ranch, Coast Dairies State Park, and part of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
A Tale of Displacement
The Spanish “missionized” and displaced the native people living in California and Santa Cruz (link to MR articles on this) beginning in the late 1700s. Spain was then removed from power and influence when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 and seized power of California. The Mexicans were displaced themselves by a second wave of European born immigrants following the end of Mexican-American War in 1848.
The US government said it would honor all of the existing Mexican land grants. However, the owners of the Mexican ranchos were forced to file claims with the federal Public Land Commission for patents to their properties. The arduous, expensive process resulted in numerous patent disputes, rejected claims, and an opportunity for savvy salesmen who understood the property laws to turn a quick profit in real estate in the Golden State. By the 1870s, much of the Mexican rancho land in Santa Cruz County had been divided into parcels and sold to American homesteaders, gold miners, and immigrants.
The result was that the coastal ecosystems of California and Santa Cruz, and much of its grassland, underwent huge change in a 100 year period, from wild land with only native species of plants and animals managed by native peoples, to land management by settlers of European descent, immense ranchos dominated by non-native grasses and animals, and ultimately division into small farms or mines.
The Early Dairy Business
One of the most widely recognized dairies in the area is Wilder Ranch, now a California State Park. In 1871, Wilder and his business partner, L. K. Baldwin purchased 4,030 acres, established a dairy, and quickly acquired a reputation for making the finest butter in the region. Despite the dissolution of the partnership and the splitting of the ranch into two properties in 1885, Wilder continued to expand his dairy and revolutionize the industry. Wilder harnessed the power of water on his ranch, and replaced a steam wheel, the conventional method for generating power at the time, with a Pelton water wheel. This Pelton wheel powered everything on the ranch, from the two cream separators to the incandescent lights that illuminated the entire property. The ranch did not produce any cheese but sold milk, cream, and butter in large quantities throughout the county.
Wilder Ranch was but one of numerous family-owned dairies on the North Coast, many of the families having Swiss and Italian heritage. Wilder’s neighbor, Pio Scaroni, came to the United States from Gordola, Switzerland in 1868 and was known for his Fancy Flat cheddar cheese rounds, each weighing 24 pounds. At the height of production, Scaroni Ranch produced 300 pounds of cheese per day. Slightly further north along Highway One was the Winterhalder family ranch at Yellow Bank, known today as Panther Beach.
The region produced a wide variety of cheese including aged cheddars, a catch-all “American cheese,” Swiss cheese, and the newly-invented Monterey Jack. Monterey Jack originated in Monterey County, most likely developed by Franciscan Missionaries, and was made famous by businessman come dairyman David Jacks. Local food historian and cookbook author Nikki Silva estimates that from 1860 to 1960 there were more than 100 dairies in the greater Santa Cruz region.
Ice Cream, Begonia Scream
One of the pioneers of ice cream production in Santa Cruz, County was James Brown who in 1911, purchased a five-acre parcel of land along 41st Avenue in Capitola. He began with fourteen registered Guernsey heifers and one bull. He built a dairy, and fed the cattle only weed-free feed. His dairy business flourished: he bottled and delivered milk throughout Santa Cruz, and opened several creameries under the name “Moo Cow Ice Cream.”
Brown actually had a lot more than grazing going on at his ranch. Initially, he grew strawberries, but within three years he abandoned strawberries for begonia bulbs. He quickly became an international producer of begonia bulbs, and is the inspiration behind today’s Begonia Festival, and other fresh cut flowers that we associate with Capitola. Incidentally, his weed-free fertilizer business also did quite well.
Moo Cow Ice Cream was a hit both locally and internationally. Brown eventually opened and operated eleven ice cream shops spanning four counties. In addition to the stores, Brown negotiated a deal to include his Moo Cow Ice Cream in the dining cars of the Southern Pacific Railroad. In the 1920s, the Brown Ranch was the leading producer of ice cream in the county. Brown Ranch Marketplace and the Capitola Mall are now located at the site of the original Brown Ranch, which some locals still refer to as “Brown’s Bulb Ranch”.
Ice-Creameries of Today
Going out for ice cream can be a delightful treat, and buying artisan ice cream from a local creamery is as popular now as it was in the early 20th century. People from Santa Cruz loved their ice cream then and do to this day, as one can often witness an impassioned debate over the merits of each local creamery. However, there is no need to choose between Penny Ice Creamery or Marianne’s Ice Cream, Mission Hill Creamery or Polar Bear. If you spend time in Santa Cruz, you can enjoy them all.
Get the Book
This post was written by The Santa Cruz Heritage Food Project and is just one piece of their research on the history and culture of Santa Cruz County through the lens of food. Their book, featuring history and recipes starring many of the major crops of the Santa Cruz region, should be available Fall 2017. Please contact them at SCHeritageFoods@gmail.com with questions.