A Tale of Displacement
The Spanish “missionized” and displaced the native people living in California and Santa Cruz (link to MR articles on this) beginning in the late 1700s. Spain was then removed from power and influence when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 and seized power of California. The Mexicans were displaced themselves by a second wave of European born immigrants following the end of Mexican-American War in 1848.
The US government said it would honor all of the existing Mexican land grants. However, the owners of the Mexican ranchos were forced to file claims with the federal Public Land Commission for patents to their properties. The arduous, expensive process resulted in numerous patent disputes, rejected claims, and an opportunity for savvy salesmen who understood the property laws to turn a quick profit in real estate in the Golden State. By the 1870s, much of the Mexican rancho land in Santa Cruz County had been divided into parcels and sold to American homesteaders, gold miners, and immigrants.
The result was that the coastal ecosystems of California and Santa Cruz, and much of its grassland, underwent huge change in a 100 year period, from wild land with only native species of plants and animals managed by native peoples, to land management by settlers of European descent, immense ranchos dominated by non-native grasses and animals, and ultimately division into small farms or mines.
The Early Dairy Business
One of the most widely recognized dairies in the area is Wilder Ranch, now a California State Park. In 1871, Wilder and his business partner, L. K. Baldwin purchased 4,030 acres, established a dairy, and quickly acquired a reputation for making the finest butter in the region. Despite the dissolution of the partnership and the splitting of the ranch into two properties in 1885, Wilder continued to expand his dairy and revolutionize the industry. Wilder harnessed the power of water on his ranch, and replaced a steam wheel, the conventional method for generating power at the time, with a Pelton water wheel. This Pelton wheel powered everything on the ranch, from the two cream separators to the incandescent lights that illuminated the entire property. The ranch did not produce any cheese but sold milk, cream, and butter in large quantities throughout the county.
Wilder Ranch was but one of numerous family-owned dairies on the North Coast, many of the families having Swiss and Italian heritage. Wilder’s neighbor, Pio Scaroni, came to the United States from Gordola, Switzerland in 1868 and was known for his Fancy Flat cheddar cheese rounds, each weighing 24 pounds. At the height of production, Scaroni Ranch produced 300 pounds of cheese per day. Slightly further north along Highway One was the Winterhalder family ranch at Yellow Bank, known today as Panther Beach.
The region produced a wide variety of cheese including aged cheddars, a catch-all “American cheese,” Swiss cheese, and the newly-invented Monterey Jack. Monterey Jack originated in Monterey County, most likely developed by Franciscan Missionaries, and was made famous by businessman come dairyman David Jacks. Local food historian and cookbook author Nikki Silva estimates that from 1860 to 1960 there were more than 100 dairies in the greater Santa Cruz region.