Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 9/1989
Until the 1930s the north, west and southwest edges of the Mountain had a long association with cows and dairying. It started with the good padres who rather non-pragmatically founded Mission Dolores on sand, where food wouldn’t grow. So, they planted their gardens in the rich soil of Pacifica, and moved further south, to what is now Half Moon Bay, to separate their cows from their crops.
Cows were mostly raised for hides, which were as good as money, with recognized trade value here and in Mexico. Soon there where so many cattle roaming our peaceful coastside that they were often mass slaughtered for their hides alone, leaving the carcasses to rot – which ironically fed a grizzly bear. For for perspective: 1834 Mission records show a whopping 424,000 cattle – about one tenth of the Bay Area’s current human Population. And it all started in HMB. They had so many cattle that in 18250 our local Purisima Rancho – on the Mountain’s west base – declared a “free slaughter” to reduce the herds. Cows wandered everywhere, including into our hills. The tree line then was almost exactly where it is now. Below the trees had been a constant sagebrush tangle. But, the result of this cattle explosion was like God’s own mass tractor: they chewed, stomped, trampled and rolled the hills until the original landscape of sagebrush vanished. In its place came fast growing native grasses, all the, more ideal for American pure-bred dairyers of the 1850. Assessor’s records of 1853 show an American dairy cow ‘was worth about $75 versus an old-style Spanish “hide” cow at $40″ – based on milk quality and output. Dairies were small, but flourishing, with the milk stored in a cold creek until being taken to town. Because there were better located dairies than ours, most of our milk found its way into cheese and buttermilk.
Perhaps our Mountain’s first dairyers were brothers Thomas G. and W.W. Durham, who also claimed to be the first to cut a road over the summit in 1857 (what is now Star Hill Road). They owned a square mile ranging from the current junction of Star Hill and Native Sons roads to the bottom of Tunitas Creek. Immediately south was Jacob Downing with another 1.3 square miles, who was also dairyed. Immediately east of Downing was the Ray Ranch where, as mentioned last issue, outlaw Cole Younger hid out. Just east of the Durhams was the Starr ranch (from which came “Star(r) Hill), later owned and operated by Alfred Fay. In between, Thomas Beebe carved off a small ranch from the Durham property. As opposed to the wild and rough lumbermen, dairyers were quiet, civilized, steady, and family and community oriented. They had big families ,worried about schools, belonged to churches in town and sometimes even attended. Beebe married the Durhams’ sister. W. W. Durham married our school teacher. Kids were everywhere.
Ditto on the north end: running from the tree line down to present Hwy 92 were non-stop dairy farms owned by names like McFarland, Claffy ,Ward, Van Winkle, Moylen, Wilsey and McNee. In my next blog I will profile in detail the Van Winkle family, about which I’ve done extensive work including interviewing descendants and gathering family documents. For now, suffice it to say, they had 11 kids, owned the land through two generations from 1859 to the 1930s, and were – as one 1883 reference describes it – “eminently pastoral.” Because of their color, Mountain history to date has focused too exclusively on the mill men and hermits,and almost totally ignored the more drab Dairyers, who interestingly came first, and lasted longer.
Our only fame in Dairying came via E.B. McFarland, whose 670 acre “Steybrae Farm” sat west of Skyline, just below the tree line, where the Christmas tree farm now sits – what was recently known as Cypress Ridge Ranch. Until the 1930s McFarland ran Ayrshires, one of five main diary breeds. History is funny – I don’t even know his first name, much less his birthdate, but his prize Ayershire, Willowmoor Vesta the 4th was born on March 12, 1912. She is pictured below. As a four year old she set a world record for the breed, producing 17,755 pounds of milk testing 4.24% butter-fat. Imagine that. According to “The Ayrshire Advocate” of June, 1923 she “was entered in the five-day butter contest, producing 10.69 pounds of butter-fat. She carried off first honors in the inter-breed contest. In 1921, as a nine year old she won the Grand Championship at the California National Livestock Show in San Francisco… Kings Mountain’s proudest moment, no doubt!
Other local Ayershire farms bragged, not only of her offspring, but of the third generation as well. For example, the Redwoods Ayrshire Farm in La Honda proudly advertised their “Defender of the Redwoods” – whose best feature seemingly was being: “a grandson of Willowmoor Vesta, 4th, being sired by her son, Steybrae Improver.”
But to show the prestige of McFarland’s Steybrae Farm, Defender of the Redwoods was secondarily advertised due to his mother, “Lady Stair of Steybrae who made a record of 11,971 pounds milk and 448.50 butterfat in 311 days and under very adverse circumstances.” And when J.N. Gilman, in conjunction with the De Laval Diary Supply Company sought to establish a showcase, numero uno, big bucks, new generation, Ayrshire ranch of the west, he started his herd with McFarlandls best cows, bought at top dollar, including Willowmoor Vesta the 4th and Lady Stair. He promoted his cows. And it is because of him we have the following picture with big operations like Gilman’s and modern milking technology, the little dairymen of the Mountain all vanished by the 1930s. And since then, most of what was once grassland has returned to sage. Only where they actively run horses, on the 3,000 acre ranch at the pass, can you see a remnant of the kind of grassland that was once prevalent everywhere where there aren’t trees.