Wednesday, Jul. 17, 2019

Rural Life: The Roots of Marin County’s Prosperity

By Dewey Livingston · May 25, 2012

Dairy Cows grazing in West Marin, c.1937 <span>&copy;  </span>

Dairy Cows grazing in West Marin, c.1937

Nicasio Valley Cheese Company <span>&copy;  </span> Marin French Cheese Company, 1950s <span>&copy; Corda Family Archive </span> Two men at the Fallon Train stop with a 450 lb cheese destined for the 1894 Mid-Winter Fair in San Francisco <span>&copy;  </span>

What makes Marin County such a desirable place today? I could confidently answer that its prosperity, good schools, proximity to San Francisco and –most significantly- its natural beauty and vast open spaces add up to its universal attractiveness. Professional planner, citizen activists and local government have labored for decades to preserve Marin’s sense of place, but the foundation of the county’s magic was laid in its earliest days by the plain and hard-working people, mostly immigrants, who worked the land and passed it on, sometimes stubbornly, through the generations.

Agriculture, specifically dairying, dominated Marin County commerce and economics for a hundred years, and still contributes in major ways. By the end of the nineteenth century, dairy ranches occupied every bit of open space, and cows grazed even within city limits of most Marin towns. Many members of dairy families evolved into leaders in both business and political spectrums, and their names remain in the modern public conscience: Freitas, Giacomini, Lucas, Kehoe and Burbank, to name a few. But we tend to relegate the ranches and ranchers to the merely decorative role of providing pretty rural scenes and local color, ignoring the fact that California’s dairy industry, the nation’s largest, began right here in Marin County.

The great California Gold Rush made it happen. Until that time, the rich pastures of the Marin Peninsula and the coast in general provided sustenance for rangy longhorn cattle that were tended in the laid-back manner of Mexican Alta California. With the arrival of thousands of gold seekers in 1849 and the years following, the new county to the north of San Francisco acquired importance: providing food to the newcomers in both the cities and the mining camps. At first, local cattlemen like James Black (Black Mountain) and Lorenzo White (White’s Hill) drove their herds to the gold fields and made great profits, but soon the Sierra foothills were stocked with cattle and the Marin breeds were no longer needed. The next step required the foresight and intelligence of a woman to inspire a business that would, within years, change history in California.

Clara Steele had settled in Sonoma County in the mid-1850s with her husband and various bothers-and cousins-in-law. Like hundreds of others, the Steeles had tried their hand at mining but were attracted to the verdant hills surrounding the Bay Area.  The agricultural opportunities in the region had yet to gel, however, and the collective Steeles found themselves poorly occupied. Clara, noting the need for fresh dairy products while on a visit to the bustling city of San Francisco, came home, promptly caught and milked a wild cow, and made a cheese from one of her old recipes. Returning to the city, she found ready buyers. Clara was not the first to milk a cow or to make butter or cheese; many people had dairy cows but nobody had gone into business to the extent that an industry could be defined. Clara Steele recognized the need for fresh products and spurred her family members to act before someone else did.

It seemed to all happen at once. The Steeles traveled southwest into Marin County in search for good grazing land with plenty of water and access to transportation. They found it at Point Reyes, and signed a lease on the Fourth of July, 1857. The Steeles invested in the creation of a vast, well-run, 10,000-acre dairy ranch on the coast, bathed in fogs that created conditions that Isaac Steele termed “Cow Heaven.” Within years, the Steeles operated three dairy ranches and a schooner that made regular deliveries to San Francisco where the Point Reyes cheese got top dollar. Theirs was the first large-scale dairy business, and others quickly followed. Within five years, Marin County became the biggest producer of dairy products in the state, and within fifteen years national publications took note of the Point Reyes dairy industry as perhaps the biggest in the country or world.

As “dairy fever” struck Marin County during the 1850s and 1860s, every available bit of grassland formerly grazed by elk and the Mexican longhorns became forage for dairy cattle. While the Steele’s made cheese, most new dairymen produced butter, a commodity that became California’s other gold.

 The Shafter family of Oakland and San Francisco operated the most famous, successful and long-lived (1857-1939) agricultural entity in Marin County. Two brothers from Vermont, James M. and Oscar L. Shafter, came to San Francisco as attorneys in the early days of the Gold Rush. The Shafter firm represented a party in the struggle over ownership of Rancho Punta de los Reyes and its larger sobrante, and ended up owning the entire 60,000-acre property. Among their new tenants were the Steele’s and, apparently inspired by the successful dairy pioneers, the Shafters took personal control of the land grant. With the help of Oscar’s son-in-law Charles Webb Howard, they divided up the peninsula into thirty dairy ranches. The partnership named the parcels with letters of the alphabet, built up-to-date ranch buildings and leased them to tenants. By 1870 the entire Point Reyes Peninsula was one dairy ranch with 10,000 cows, called the largest “Butter Rancho” in the country according to federal records.

Families arrived in Marin County from the East looking for an opportunity, and they found it on the dairy ranches. The eastern gold-seekers arrived in the 1850s and 1860s but were mostly supplanted by immigrants from Ireland, southern Switzerland and the Portuguese Azores, all escaping poor conditions at home and searching for a good life in the United States. By 1880 most ranches in the county had foreign names on the ranch house porch. Virtually all of these families strived to become good Americans and most did so, becoming the essence of Marin County culture.

To learn more about the history of the Dairy and Cheese industries in Marin, please join us on June 14 at 12 noon for Dewey Livingston's illustrated lecture on the subject followed by a cheese tasting courtesy of Rick LaFranchi of the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company. Space is limited and reservations are required; Please RSVP to Laurie Thompson at


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