Who is James Brown?

As a music historian of American performers very broadly defined, I think of the “Godfather of Soul” when I hear the name “James Brown.” This founding father of funk produced huge international hit singles, including “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” As part of the Santa Cruz Heritage Food Project research team, I have learned about another widely successful and remarkably inventive local entrepreneur named “James Brown.” Like the singer, the local James Brown created and sold internationally distributed products, including bulbs, begonias, creams, and ice creams. In fact, Brown’s “Moo Cow Ice Cream” may be the beginning of our region’s love affair with premium ice cream.

In 1911, James Brown purchased a five-acre barren parcel of land along Forty-First Avenue in Capitola (known as the Brown Bulb Ranch), and became the first local grower of bulbs for the wholesale market. In ten years, Brown had earned the reputation as a “worldwide producer” of bulbs. Wanting to expand his production as well as perfect the quality of his bulbs, Brown purchased fourteen registered Guernsey heifers and one bull with the sole purpose of making fertilizer. But why only sell fertilizer when your cows also produce a large amount of very high quality cream? He built a dairy, fed the cattle only weed-free feeds, and what resulted was an abundance of weed-free, composted fertilizer and Moo Cow Ice Cream. His dairy business flourished: he bottled and delivered milk throughout Santa Cruz, sold his Guernsey fertilizer to farmers throughout the United States, opened eleven ice cream shops in our region.

From the milk bottle collection at the Agricultural History Project
From the milk bottle collection at the Agricultural History Project

Brown loved to share his ice cream with his community, and held an annual ice cream social at the Brown Bulb Ranch. The social was a huge party with ranch tours, music, dancing, and, of course, free ice cream. Thus, our love of delicious, unique, premium ice cream flavors in Santa Cruz certainly traces back to James Brown and his Bulb Ranch!

-Jenni Veitch-Olson


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