Historic Harmony, California
The first modern cheese factory in the United States was built in Oneida County in 1851 by Jesse Williams. 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. 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.
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. The Excelsior Cheese Factory, established in 1871, was well equipped to take full advantage of a burgeoning industry.
Excelsior Cheese Factory
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 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. 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.
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.
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.
Harmony Valley Creamery Association
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. 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 ground within a few months of each other."
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.
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." 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.
Construction on Salmina's new plant began in September 1908. Within a month of digging the well, the factory was ready to open. 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. 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.
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 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.
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 newly organized plant went into production on November 1, 1913.
In response to local demand, a post office opened at the creamery building in 1915. Not surprisingly, Salmina served as postmaster. 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.
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. 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.
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. The one-story frame Diamond Creamery was eclipsed by the addition of a new and larger creamery building. 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.
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.
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. 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".
The End of One Era, and the Start of Another
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 ofArizona.