By Mike McCoy, Executive Director, Kern County Museum
I was nosing around in the museum’s archives the other day and found a funny but enlightening article by J.M. Hunter on the Kern dairy industry. It originally appeared in the Bakersfield Californian but reprinted in the Pacific Rural Press June 11, 1898. Hunter was a purported Kern County dairyman and apparently quite a humorist as well. He writes the article to remind his fellow Kern County residents that the “modern dairy industry of 1898” had very humble beginnings.
Hunter begins his history of milk production in the Central Valley by saying that the industry was an afterthought by stockmen who were focused on raising beef. He said that milking cows had always been done “but in the crudest manner possible.” He went on to say that, “There was never the least realization of the vast possibilities for successful dairying as an independent industry.” Hunter then says in about 1880, some of the ranchers cobbled together some simple sheds and began to think about milking the wild range cows for commercial milk and butter. “Attracted no doubt by the distended udders of the wild cows on the succulent alfalfa fields.”
Milking wild cattle was no easy affair. Wooden chutes were constructed. “Long box affairs that were just wide enough to squeeze in one cow after another.” He says the vaqueros would round up the cows into a pen and one at a time the cows were shoved into the milking crates. “Through a hole in the side of the chute, the cow’s hind legs were tied and the Chinese or Swiss milker proceeded to jerk what milk he could from the frightened cow.” If a cow was found to be a good milker, she was used to suckle calves and then put out to pasture after three months.
Hunter, writing in 1898, reminds his audience that in the pioneer days there were none of the “modern appliances for cooling milk” and this made commercial production of milk and butter difficult. He did comment favorably on an early cheese industry and said, “large quantities were shipped even under such difficulties.” Hunter went on to comment that a winter dairy industry in Kern County would have been successful, but tradition always held with spring and summer milking with cows going to pasture in the Fall. This led to the few dairy operations going out of business in the 1880s. All that was left was a subsistence dairy business that just supplied the local area with milk and butter.
Things turned around though toward the end of the century. Modern cooling appliances and better stock breeding led to a re-emergence of the dairy industry in the Southern Valley. The other important boost to the industry was the development of commercial alfalfa. Baker’s original field was alfalfa and farmers were reporting seven crops a year in the long growing season. Hunter noted this was the essential ingredient in successful dairy farming—“good forage,” and Kern had plenty for the dairies.
With the advent of cooling appliances, the hot central valley could now compete with California’s coastal dairy industry. Another advantage was that the warm nights eliminated the need for barns. There were also opposite seasons from the East and the California Coast so that Kern’s dairy could produce when the competitors were dry. Butter was being shipped to San Francisco and Los Angeles from Kern County by 1898. Cheese had always been a subsistence article in Kern County with the limited supply being consumed by local residents. In 1896 the Bakersfield Creamery was built and began “making a uniform cheese of good quality and in condition for shipment.”
The other large dairy in Kern County at the turn of the century was the Rosedale Creamery with its 150 cows. Their butter made the news when it scored a high 98 points at the Dairyman’s Union in San Francisco. Hunter said that this dispelled the old story that it was too hot to make butter in Bakersfield. He advocated for better cattle and “more of them.”
Hunter ends his article with the suggestion that the sky was the limit for a Kern County dairy industry with its mild winters and access to large city markets. “A growing realization of what can be done here and coming into competition with outside markets are awakening attention.”