Harmony Along the Coast
by Paula Juelke Carr
Cheesemaking is a traditional aspect of dairying, but until the mid-nineteenth century each farm was responsible for making its own, the work traditionally performed by the female members of the household or female servants. The shift toward commercial operation – the cheese factory – began in the rich dairy regions of upstate New York. The term “factory” is derived from nineteenth-century usage:
Although everyone called them “factories,” these plants did not fundamentally change cheesemaking in the way that, for example, textile factories revolutionized cloth production; methods remained the same, and tools were merely enlarged versions of those that had been used at home. Capital requirements were modest, and these were met by pooling of small contributions made by individual farmers. Early cheese “factories” resembled modern cooperatives more than large-scale capitalist ventures.
The first modern cheese factory in the United States was built in Oneida County in 1851 by Jesse Williams. The factory method of cheesemaking involved the collection of milk or cream from more than one dairy farmer. The liquid was literally pooled together and processed into cheese by a professional cheesemaker, and the profits from the sale of the finished cheese were divided up according to the amount of milk or cream contributed by each farmer.
During the 1850s, cheese factories remained, by and large, a novelty confined to a small section of Oneida County, but interest in them grew over the next two decades. By the mid-1870s, “the crossroads cheese factory had become ubiquitous throughout Oneida County, often appearing next to the village schoolhouse at the center of the rural neighborhood; home cheesemaking had virtually disappeared.
New York State was universally regarded as the leading exponent of commercial cheese manufacture, in terms of both technological skill and equipment. Beginning in the 1850s experienced New York cheesemakers made their way to northern California – particularly to Marin, Sonoma, and Santa Clara counties. Not surprisingly, New York models were adopted in California when the first factories were built in the early 1870s.
Cheesemaking was both a science and an art and involved myriad well-timed steps requiring judgment and experience in order to produce a safe, palatable, and marketable product. Commercial cheesemaking in San Luis Obispo County got under way in the late 1860s and had the advantage of technological advances developed on the east coast, including the use of stationary vats with built-in boilers instead of kettles, tubs and open fires. Steel multi-bladed curd knives replaced wooden knives, and mechanical presses, including both lever and screw types, replaced clumsier contraptions that often used heavy stones to supply the needed pressure.iii The Excelsior Cheese Factory, established in 1871, was well equipped to take full advantage of a burgeoning industry.
Excelsior Cheese Factory
A commercial cheese factory had initially been projected for San Luis Obispo County by Charles H. Ivens and Edward A. Everett in 1869. In January of that year Ivens and Everett had purchased a 267-acre parcel north of Harmony from George W. Armstrong, one of the first settlers to obtain a portion of the former Rancho Santa Rosa. The Armstrongs had arrived in the area in 1867 and established a dairy on Santa Rosa Creek. It is likely that Ivens and Everett also established a dairy on their newly acquired land. In November of that year the Tribune reported that “Messrs. Ivans [sic] and Everett contemplate establishing a cheese factory on their rancho. It is about time, as we consider it a disgrace to the best dairy land in the state or county that cheese should be imported into Cambria from New York and eagerly bought up at 25 cents per pound.”iv The proposed factory does not appear to have been built, however, or at least not in the immediate vicinity of Harmony.
The credit for establishing the first cheese factory in San Luis Obispo County – and one of the first in the entire state -may belong to Thomas Bowen and John C. Baker. Bowen acquired a 3-acre parcel just east of the present town of Harmony from Robert Perry, an Irish immigrant who operated a dairy ranch on some 850 acres that stretched from what is known today as the Harmony Valley westward to the coast. Bowen’s 3-acre parcel was level, adjacent to a creek, and advantageously located in the midst of a rapidly expanding dairy region. Bowen and Baker had certainly erected their cheese factory by late February 1871, as its location is clearly delineated on a map dated February 24, 1871.v County assessment rolls for 1870-1871 reveal that Thomas Bowen “of San Simeon” was assessed for “3 acres situated on Santa Rosa Rancho whereon is erected the Excelsior Cheese Factory and out Houses.” His (delinquent) taxes were computed based on an evaluation of $25 for land value, $400 for improvements, and $25 for a horse.vi
The site of the Excelsior Cheese Factory, approximately one-sixth mile east of the present townsite of Harmony, represented the prototype of “industrial” cheesemaking operations in the Harmony Valley. This first effort was only moderately successful, but it established a local, factory-based economy that persisted until the mid twentieth century. No photographs of the original Excelsior Cheese Factory, a two-story frame structure that measured forty by fifty feet, are known to exist, but comparative photographs and illustrations of contemporary cheese factories in New York State and in other parts of California make it possible to surmise what the Harmony factory probably looked like (Figure 1).
An overview of the operations of the Excelsior Cheese Factory provides insight into the organizational structure of cooperative cheese factories and exemplifies the evolution of cheese factory buildings from the original two-story New York models to “modern” twentieth-century plants.
The enduring contribution of the Excelsior Cheese Factory was its role as a prototype for commercial cheese manufacture in the Harmony Valley. After an interval of thirty years, Harmony Valley again launched a new enterprise that would continue to drive economic activity in the region for half a century.The interval between the demise of the Excelsior Cheese Factory and the advent of the Harmony Valley Creamery Association continued to be years of active dairy production along the North Coast. During this time, both federal and state agencies were organized to regulate the dairy industry. Such regulation was another step in the transition from farm-processed to commercially processed dairy products. At least two new cooperative creameries were organized on the North Coast in the 1890s. The Home Creamery, established in the San Simeon area, produced both butter and cheese and served dairy farmers from Cambria as far north as San Carpoforo Creek, near the Monterey County line. The Cambria Creamery served 38 dairy farmers from Cambria south to Cayucos, and presumably included the dairy farmers of the Harmony Valley at that time. Both creameries did a lackluster business for about 10 years. Many of the members, disenchanted with the idea of cooperative creameries since they either lost money or made negligible profits, were reportedly not sorry when both plants “burned to the g
round within a few months of each other.”vii C. L. Mitchel, the butter inspector for the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Dairy Division from 1907 to 1909, believed that the two cooperatives had ultimately failed because of “poor plant methods which produced inferior butter [which], as a result, received the lowest market prices.” viii
The dismal condition of North Coast commercial creameries was revolutionized through the efforts of M. G. Salmina (1874-1960), a Swiss-Italian immigrant who settled in the Cambria area in 1891 with his brother. Like so many other Swiss- Italians who arrived in California in the 1870s-1890s, Salmina turned to dairying to make a living in his new homeland. In 1903 he took a bold step by enrolling in a short course in creamery manufacturing offered at the University of California, Berkeley. After completing the course, Salmina was put in charge of the J. P. Sargent Estate Company’s 200-cow dairy south of Gilroy, in the southern Santa Clara Valley. After two years, the dairy herd was moved to San Jose and sold to a business specializing in market milk. Salmina worked for that business for six months and then took charge of one of several cheese factories operating at that time in the San Felipe region, a major dairying district near Hollister in San Benito County, where he won gold medals for his products.
In 1907 Salmina returned to Switzerland for a six-month visit with his family before settling permanently in San Luis Obispo County. At the age of 33, Salmina had amassed considerable practical experience in buttermaking, cheesemaking, and liquid milk marketing. He was both a seasoned dairyman and businessman, and he was ready to embark on an enterprise of his own. ix
Salmina’s opportunity came in October 1907 when his brother, Paul, who owned a small dairy in Harmony Valley, invited him to establish a small cheesemaking plant on the dairy property. Salmina accordingly set up a “makeshift establishment … using steam to operate the machinery.”x The results were encouraging, and Salmina attracted the attention of Harmony Valley dairy farmers. The following year one of the local dairymen (presumably one of the Perrys) offered to provide a site for a new and larger factory on land near the junction of Perry (Harmony) Creek and the county road, which provided easy access to the creamery. Salmina accepted the offer after carefully considering the prospects for success and after consulting with his friend and adviser, C. L. Mitchel. The site provided for Salmina’s new creamery and cheese factory is the present-day location of the unincorporated community of Harmony, and Salmina’s factory became the nucleus of a new “rural industrial” complex (Figure 2).
Construction on Salmina’s new plant began in September 1908. Within a month of digging the well, the factory was ready to open.xi Operating under the name Diamond Creamery, the plant advertised itself as a manufacturer of “fancy creamery butter & full cream cheese.” The new creamery building was a small, onestory frame building.xii Though less elaborate than the Excelsior Cheese Factory had been, Salmina’s factory was nonetheless consistent with a type of cheese factory built since at least the 1890s in dairy regions across the United States, including San Benito County, where Salmina had previously worked. Although specific information about the equipment installed at the Diamond Creamery does not survive, trade catalogs of the period suggest that, at the minimum, the factory would have been equipped with “Separators, Vats, Churns, Cheese Presses, Curd Mills, Weigh Can, Scales, Boiler and Engine, Shafting, Hangars [and] Pulleys (Figure 3-4).”xiii
With his new enterprise launched, Salmina still had his work cut out for him in garnering support for a cooperative creamery venture. The earlier failures of the Home and Cambria creameries made local dairymen hesitant about joining another cooperative. Salmina, perhaps hedging his bets, also managed another small creamery in Cayucos for a short time, but the growing success of the fledgling Diamond Creamery soon required all his time and energy.xiv Salmina worked tirelessly to restore confidence in the idea of a cooperative and to improve the poor market reputation of San Luis Obispo County butter. Discouraged by the continually low quality of cream delivered to his plant, Salmina began offering a premium for sweet cream. His plans were greatly assisted by timely advice from Mitchel, who in 1910 became the first manager of the newly organized Challenge Creamery and Butter Association, an influential position which he held for 36 years.xv
During the Diamond Creamery’s first years of operation, other creameries – perhaps inspired by its success – also organized, including the Central Creamery in Cayucos and the Maple Grove Creamery in San Luis Obispo.
Salmina’s efforts at overcoming lingering doubts about the potential for success in cooperative dairying reached fruition in September 1913 when a small group of Swiss-Italian dairymen met at the Harmony School and signed the first cooperative marketing agreement, thereby establishing the Harmony Valley Creamery Association. Salmina’s Diamond Creamery was absorbed into the Association’s operations, although the familiar and respected “Diamond” brand name was retained.
The first Association subscribers were: Peter Donati, John Filipponi, Peter Basetti, Vincent Bassi, James Barlogio, Victor Riccioli, Silvio Maggioli, Galetti Brothers, Constantino Brughelli, Ulisse Filipponi, Allessio Bassi, Martin Barlogio, Lino Molinari, Constantino Lesnini, Paul Salmina, Valenti Brughelli, Peter Brughelli, and Dante Donati.
To revitalize their operations, new equipment was installed in the creamery building, including a butter churn, refrigeration machinery, and pasteurizers. Salmina retained ownership of the plant but leased it to the Association for $100 a month, with an option to renew the lease at the end of each September. Salmina was employed as general manager of the plant for an additional $100 a month. His responsibilities also included those of “bookkeeper, tester, receiver, grader, butter cutter and packer, and cheese maker, duties he performed for at least five years.” A second employee, who was apparently retained as buttermaker, also acted as fireman and engineer. The newly organized plant went into production on November 1, 1913. A third employee was hired after three months, and a temporary employee came on board during the busy season.
In response to local demand, a post office opened at the creamery building in 1915; not surprisingly, Salmina served as postmaster.xx A new cork- and sawdust-insulated warehouse was also completed sometime in the mid-1910s to provide additional cold storage for the manufactured butter, since the existing cooler in the creamery building was “large enough to hold no more than three days’ make.xxi Construction of this new building was financed by Salmina, and he received increased rent from the Association as a result. A new engine room was completed in 1917, and the following year a 30 x 48-foot garage was built, also financed by Salmina.xxii
By 1918 the Association’s Board of Directors began working toward purchasing the burgeoning plant from Salmina. In 1919 the Association petitioned the county Board of Supervisors for permission to install a public scale on the Cambria-San Luis Obispo Road, which ran directly in front of the creamery building.
Two watershed events occurred in the 19191920 season. In November, M.G. Salmina and his wife, Ida, deeded the Harmony plant buildings to the Harmony Valley Creamery Association for $16,000, retaining their residence for their own use, and the Association decided to purchase membership in the Challenge Creamery and Butter Association, a cooperative marketing organization founded in Los Angeles in 1910.xxiv The decision to affiliate with Challenge made the Harmony plant part of a much larger network of dairymen and assured them a stable market for all their dairy produce, eliminating the over-supply and undersupply cycles that often drove small, independent creameries out of business. Considering the close involvement of C. L. Mitchel in both organizations, the decision to join Challenge was perhaps inevitable.
After joining Challenge, the Harmony Valley Creamery Association again upgraded its plant facility. It is likely that the cheese factory building was built at this time, and the creamery building was essentially reconstructed. A history of the Association, written in 1936, states that “the front portion of the creamery was rebuilt in concrete,” but the new construction was actually more extensive.xxv The one-story frame Diamond Creamery was eclipsed by the addition of a new and larger creamery building, constructed of boardformed concrete. This new structure was sited directly in front of the older creamery building. A photograph of the rear of the creamery building, taken in 1970 after the creamery had been abandoned for twelve years and before renovation projects were underway, shows the smaller Diamond Creamery building, with its original wood shingle roof, hemmed in by the concrete additions (Figure 5). Although the roof has been re-clad in corrugated metal, Salmina’s Diamond Creamery building could still be distinguished by its distinctive roof pitch and narrow clapboard siding.
A photograph taken in about 1921 shows the cluster of creamery and cheese factory buildings located on the east side of the narrow, unpaved county road – the former alignment of Highway 1 known today as Old Creamery Road (Figure 6). M. G. and Ida Salmina’s frame, hipped-roof residence with a shed-roof extension and prominent dormer window is located on the extreme left, at what was the edge of Harmony Creek. At the rear of the dwelling and slightly to the south is located a water tower and tank house. A few feet to the south, the new concrete creamery building is visible, although the Diamond Creamery portion is obscured from view. A shed-roof extension of the creamery building is located on the south, with two projecting stacks. The concrete cheese factory building is visible to the southeast of the creamery building, but the cold storage warehouse is also obscured from view. In the middle distance, the south elevation of the Harmony Schoolhouse can be seen. In the far distance, a cluster of other buildings are visible, but they do not seem to relate to the supposed location of the Excelsior Cheese Factory; it is more likely that they are the ranch buildings that still stand at the head of the pasture area east of Harmony. Another small frame dwelling, which was also present by 1921, lies just out of view to the south.
Electricity was installed in the early 1920s, and an additional residence, a Craftsman style bungalow, was built in 1922 on the west side of the old highway, directly across from the creamery. This residence was probably built to house the new general superintendent, Carl Hansen, who had moved to Cambria after working in the Hanford area. Hansen, who became the chief cheese- and buttermaker at Harmony, had been trained in Europe and his skills were highly regarded. A Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map dated April 1926 shows a plan view of the Harmony Valley Creamery Association complex at its height. In addition to the creamery building, cheese factory, cold storage warehouse, garage, three residences and water tower, the Sanborn map identifies the locations of a bunkhouse, two sheds for vehicle storage, a shed for storing box shook, and a small concrete storage reservoir for buttermilk. A photograph taken at roughly the same time period shows the concrete creamery and post office building and the small frame residence to the south. At the rear of the creamery building, wooden boxes are stacked up, and the 28-foot-high evaporative cooler looms above the roof. The Association’s truck and fourteen employees or members are lined up for the camera at the edge of the still unpaved county road (Figure 7).
Having solidified their operations in Harmony, the Harmony Valley Creamery Association attempted to expand its operations to include the San Luis Obispo area. To accomplish this, they signed an agreement to lease the old creamery on the California Polytechnic campus, which had been idle for a number of years.
After a two-year trial period, they abandoned this venture as impractical and costly, but the desire to obtain a foothold in San Luis Obispo persisted. By late 1928, the members had decided to investigate building a plant of their own in San Luis Obispo, primarily to have the opportunity of selling liquid milk to city residents, which was not otherwise possible given the distance from Harmony. Problems with the Harmony facility itself were also a factor in the decision. Water supplies were inadequate, and sewage disposal was a growing problem. In particular, it was feared that disease might spread to the hogs penned nearby during the spring months, when factory production was at its peak and hogs were fattened on the discarded whey. Salmina and the Association’s Board of Directors found themselves facing the perplexing problem of moving into San Luis Obispo without abandoning their loyal membership base in the Harmony area. Part of the members’ loyalty was due, no doubt, to the fact that they received a good rate of return on their butterfat despite Harmony’s isolated location, “30 miles by gravel road from San Luis Obispo, its railroad shipping point. The Harmony factory was an integral part of the economic vitality of the Central Coast region.
The move to San Luis Obispo was finally accomplished in 1930, when the modern Harmony Valley Creamery Association processing plant at the corner of Nipomo and Dana streets became operational. The new plant, which manufactured “locally produced and processed Challenge products,” served dairy farmers countywide and provided a more central and economical location for the Association’s expanding membership, which peaked at 400 subscribers in 1936.
Despite its drawbacks, however, the original plant in Harmony Valley was not abandoned. The 1931 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows the facility virtually unchanged, except that the Seaside Oil Company was operating a gasoline pump at the Harmony Garage. Seaside’s additions to the complex included three steel aboveground oil tanks, an oil drum platform, a pump house, and a gasoline loading rack, as well as the single gasoline-dispensing pump. Division of Highways photographs show that the pump was still in place as late as 1935, although it had been removed by 1938. In 1934, The Cambrian described the Harmony Valley plant as still manufacturing butter. The San Luis Obispo plant was also producing butter, along with casein and at least seven varieties of cheese.
Local historian Geneva Hamilton reported that cheese also continued to be manufactured at Harmony.
During the last years of plant operation at Harmony, 20 men were employed within the plant. Two mechanics, two truck drivers, [Carl] Hansen and a bookkeeper completed the roster. Cream was processed from dairies located at San Carpoforo Creek in the north to Lompoc in the south. During the green feed months of spring, 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of butter were shipped each day as well as 3,000 pounds of cheese. In the late summer production dropped off sharply, the heavy part of the season lasting about five months. Mild cheddar, usually made in large molds, was the major cheese processed. A small amount of sharp cheddar was made, but in a family size of three pounds.
In 1956, the Harmony Valley Creamery Association left the Challenge Association and became an independent producer once again. Most of the cheese and butter manufactured at the two plants was marketed through Foremost. The Harmony plant ceased cheesemaking and buttermaking in 1958, marking the end of an era, and switched their operations to handling bulk liquid milk for pasteurization. Harmony served as the collection depot for milk from the North Coast area, which was transported to the San Luis Obispo plant for processing. The Harmony plant also maintained a small co-op store “where dairymen could buy clothing, dairy equipment, canned goods, and products manufactured by the Creamery.” The garage continued to be used to service the Association’s trucks and other equipment, and was “occasionally patronized by Association members.
By the early 1960s, the Association’s creamery plant in Harmony had closed down, although the post office remained open to serve the local residents. In the 1970s, new owners began promoting the small town as an artists’ colony and tourist destination, and the buildings began to be partially renovated for new uses.
The adaptive re-use of the Harmony Valley Creamery Association buildings as artists’ studios, galleries, and shops continues through the present day. Despite such re-use, the exterior alterations have been relatively minor and reversible and have neither obscured the historic fabric of the buildings nor detracted appreciably from the original setting; the essential and character-defining aspects of the creamery and cheese factory complex persist.
Paula Juelke Carr is a Caltrans architectural historian, with an independent inter-disciplinary MA. degree in history, art history, anthropology, and folklore. She has carried out postgraduate work in history in the Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona.
Sally McMurry, Transforming Rural Life: Dairying Families and Agricultural Change, 1820-1885, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1995, pp. 237-238, n.6.
iiMcMurry, pp. 123-124.
iiiMcMurry, pp. 88-90.
ivSan Luis Obispo Tribune, November 27, 1869, p. 2, col. 4. Ivens’s surname was variously spelled Ivins and Ivans in other documentation.
vMap of Change of San Luis-Cambria Road, Road No. 3, surveyed by Thomas Croke, D. P. Crawford, and C. Mathers, viewers, February 24, 1871; Map No. 327, on file at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Society Museum. The cheese factory is depicted near station 23 of the highway. A later map, surveyed by R. R. Harris in 1872, also shows the location of the cheese factory: Survey of tract belonging to Robert Perry, part of the Rancho Santa Rosa, San Luis Obispo County Surveys Book 1, p. 3. Petitions to the County Board of Supervisors, on file at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Society Museum, Road file No. 13, provide accurate measurements for locating the original cheese factory inland from the present Harmony Valley Creamery Association location.
viSan Luis Obispo County Assessor records, Delinquent taxes, 1870-1871, p. 126.
viiHamilton, Where the Highway Ends, p. 108.
viiiHamilton, Where the Highway Ends, p. 108.
ixChris N. Jesperson, History of San Luis Obispo County, State of California, Its People and Resources, H. M. Meier, pub. San Luis Obispo, 1939, p. 296.
xGeneva Hamilton, “300 Former Members of Harmony Valley at 50th Anniversary,” Cambrian, October 3, 1963, p. 8.
xiHarmony Valley Creamery Association, “History of Cooperation in San Luis Obispo County,” San Luis Obispo, 1936, p. 5.
xiiThe Diamond Creamery building survives today.
xiiiCornish, Curtis & Greene Mfg. Co., Trade Catalogue, 1895, Romaine Trade Catalog Collection, Special Collections, University of California, Santa Barbara.
xivHamilton, “300 Former Members,” p. 1.
xvHamilton, Where the Highway Ends, p. 111.
xviHarmony Valley Creamery Association, p. 6.
xviiThe Association’s letterhead in 1919 described the Harmony Valley Creamery Association as “Manufacturers of Harmony Valley Creamery Butter and ‘Diamond’ Cheese” (Figure 12); letter from M. G. Salmina, on Association letterhead, to San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, February 28, 1919, on file at San Luis Obispo County Historical Society Museum, Road files, Road No. 3.
xviiiHarmony Valley Creamery Association, p. 7.
xixHarmony Valley Creamery Association, p. 8.
xxHarmony Valley Creamery Association, p. 12. The post office is still in operation.
xxiHarmony Valley Creamery Association, p. 12.
xxiiCambria Courier, September 21, 1917; Harmony Valley Creamery Association, p. 12.
xxiiiLetter from M. G. Salmina to San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, February 28, 1919, San Luis Obispo County Historical Society Museum, Road files, Road No. 3.
xxivSan Luis Obispo County Deeds Book 134, pp. 265-267; Harmony Valley Creamery Association, pp. 10-11.
xxvHarmony Valley Creamery Association, p. 6.
xxviHarmony Valley Creamery Association, pp. 15, 17.
xxviiAs dairying operations consolidated into larger and larger units, became year-round, and relocated or developed in the Central Valley, membership in the Association declined; Hamilton, p. 112.
xxviii”New Type of Cheese Is Produced by The Harmony Valley Creamery Company,” The Cambrian, February 15, 1934, p. 1.
xxixHamilton, Where the Highway Ends, pp. 111-112.
xxxHamilton, Where the Highway Ends, p. 112.
xxxi”Nice to own it, for just so long,” Telegram-Tribune, August 9, 1976, p. 1; “Saws & Hammers Strike Right Chord,” Central Coast Times, July 7-14, 1978, p. 1.