When you cross Inverness Ridge toward the Point Reyes headlands, you leave the pine/fir forest behind and enter the stark beauty of the coastal grasslands, dotted with cattle and scattered ranches.
This open, working landscape is known as the Pastoral Zone. At first glance, open pastures and rolling fencelines are punctuated by windbreaks, stockponds, and feedlots arrayed around a ranch core. There, the mix of nineteenth century redwood homes and barns with twentieth century aluminum and steel utility buildings becomes evident, suggesting the evolution of the dairy industry. In fact, the National Seashore visitor has happened upon one of the earliest and largest examples of industrial-scale dairying in the state of California.
The Alchemy of Grass Turned to Gold
The early American settlers of the 1850s were impressed with the cool, moist climate of Point Reyes, providing near-ideal conditions for raising dairy cows. Abundant grass and forbs, a long growing season, and sufficient fresh water supplies promised productivity well in excess of domestic need. Unknown to the early ranchers, the expansive coastal prairie was most likely the byproduct of burning, weeding, pruning and harvesting for at least two millennia by Coast Miwok and their antecedents.
The Franciscan missionaries set the stage for the explosion of dairy in west Marin with the introduction of feral cattle in 1817. They established the San Rafael Asistencia, near San Francisco Bay, as an annex to Mission Dolores in San Francisco, serving as a recuperative center for ailing Coast Miwok and Ohlone natives. Secularization of the missions following Mexican independence from Spain led to land grant subdivision and the expansion of cattle ranching on the peninsula.
Creation of an Empire
Initially, the Shafters signed new leases with the existing dairy ranches. The singular exception was the sale of Tomales Point to an old friend from Vermont, Solomon Pierce. The Pierce family built a small town to support their isolated twin dairy ranches with the commanding views of the Pacific and Tomales Bay. In time, the Pierce Point Ranches out-competed the Shafter dairy collective in production and quality of finished product.
Oscar Shafter’s son-in-law C. W. Howard, and the Shafter brothers proceeded to divide the remainder of their real estate into a tenant dairy enterprise in 1866. The land was subdivided into 33 ranches. Three years later, the business partners partitioned the dairies into six tracts, leaving each to own and manage a collection of coastal plain and ridgeline ranches. Oscar Shafter and Howard utilized the letters of the alphabet to name their individual ranches. "A" Ranch was located closest to the headlands; "Z" Ranch was located at the summit of Mt. Wittenberg, while several letters were left unneeded. James Shafter bequeathed more poetic names like Drakes Head, Muddy Hollow, Oporto and Sunnyside. (Download the "Historic Alphabet Designations of Point Reyes Ranches, 1860–present" map. - 275 KB PDF)
The Shafters and Howard employed family members, local residents, or recruited European dairymen as superintendents to construct new dairies, refurbish existing ranches, recruit immigrant ranch hands, and aid selection of the tenant ranchers. The tenant ranches were rented by Irish, Swedish, Italian-speaking Swiss, and Azore Islands-Portuguese families. Surviving Coast Miwok families displaced by the Spanish missions also found work on the dairies situated above their Tomales Bay homes. The Shafters envisioned creating a more civil society for the nineteenth century Bay Area, refining bachelor ranch hands and educating ranch family children. Chinese, Canadian, Filipino, Mexican and German immigrants all found their chance to get started in America through dairying at Point Reyes.
The “Butter Rancho”
Record yields of butter and cheese came from the dairy farms at Point Reyes throughout the late 19th century. Herds of Devons, Jerseys, Guernseys, and later on Holsteins, numbering from 100 to 250 cows per ranch, catapulted the Point Reyes enterprise as perhaps the largest operation in the early years of the state. In 1867, Marin County produced 932,429 pounds of butter, the largest yield of butter in California. These huge amounts of butter were produced in an era when the finest restaurants served every good steak with a melting slab of butter on top.
The distance to San Francisco and east Marin communities precluded the ability to ship milk for domestic consumption. In the absence of refrigeration, the raw milk was briefly useable by the ranch families and employees. Collected by milkers either outdoors or inside large milking barns, raw milk sat in pans inside dairy houses to allow for cream separation. The surplus skim milk was dumped into a drain leading to an open trench, finding its way to penned, thirsty hogs. It was not unusual to see swine and casks of butter shipped off together on the decks of schooners headed for the city.
The estates of the three Shafter / Howard families declined shortly after the turn of the century. Following the 1906 earthquake, several dairies located on Inverness Ridge shuttered their doors. Although building damage contributed to their demise, these ranches failed due to the absence of Coast Miwok burning and the rapid expansion of native coyotebrush and poison oak thickets, leading to dramatic reductions in grazeable pastures for cows. By 1933, all ridgeline dairies were gone.
The demand for Shafter / Howard ranch produce waned, particularly as transportation throughout the Bay Area improved. Other regional dairies were improving their quality, quantity and distribution of produce, while the cumulative impacts of overgrazing on Point Reyes had caused a significant decline in pasture quality. The accumulation of massive debt, the 1929 stock market crash, and the close of the Depression ultimately brought an end to the three estates, and the “butter rancho”. Land speculators picked up the pieces, and in most instances resold the ranches to the contemporary tenants.
The Transitional Years
During the Depression, ranchers struggled to make ends meet. It was not uncommon for ranchers to augment their incomes with expanded livestock production, such as beef cattle, chickens, and eggs. Several ranches invited Japanese immigrants to raise peas, and Italian immigrants to cultivate artichokes on more remote parcels. These ventures were usually successful. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the subsequent internment of the Japanese-Americans and relocation of Italian-Americans, the fields went fallow for lack of labor, and mounting soil erosion problems. During Prohibition, whiskey and rum smuggling at Home Ranch on Limantour Estero replaced dairy operations as their sole source of income.
Others changes were coming. The Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, expediting movement of produce from the North Bay region into San Francisco. During World War II, the ranches became connected to the regional electric power grid, replacing gas-powered generators to run milking and refrigeration equipment. The cooperative creameries closed, allowing for ranchers to sell raw milk as commodity to regional creameries. After the war, some dairies ceased operation, converting to far less labor-intensive beef cattle operations. Probably most important, fresh war veterans who had transited through San Francisco enroute to the Pacific theatre decided to relocate their families to the Bay Area, swelling the tide of suburbanization into Marin County.
Advent of a New Landlord
In order to secure their place at Point Reyes, the dairy and cattle ranchers formed an uneasy alliance with the Sierra Club in hopes of preserving their ranches and west Marin open space. The National Park Service had actively sought to establish a literal beachhead on the California coast, and Point Reyes in particular, as early as 1936. Washington was approached to help solve the pressing needs of many local and national constituencies. The compromise hammered out by Congress and signed by President Kennedy in 1962 explicitly provided for the retention of the ranches in a designated pastoral zone, with ranchers signing 25-30 year reservations of use and occupancy leases, and special use permits for cattle grazing. Over the ensuing ten years, NPS acquired the 17 remaining operating ranches and the property of the abandoned ranches.
In 2002, six historic Shafter / Howard era dairies are operating in the park. An additional nine occupied historic ranches and former ranch sites run beef cattle. The Pierce Point Ranch on Tomales Point ceased operations in 1973. Three years later, Congress authorized creation of the wilderness area incorporating that ranch as habitat for the reintroduction of tule elk. Beginning in 1980, NPS invested in the rehabilitation of the ranch core, citing it as the best example of a nineteenth century west Marin dairy ranch. Pierce Point Ranch was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, and was subsequently opened to the public as an interpretive site.
The former “W” or Bear Valley Ranch was early on designated as the new National Seashore’s headquarters. Visitors to the Bear Valley Visitor Center pass through the former ranch core, adaptively reused for park administration and support services. The visitor center itself is a new addition, designed to echo the surrounding agricultural landscape and local history. Plans call for seventeen ranches on Point Reyes to be included on the National Register as a historic landscape district.
Imagine what this windswept, fog-enshrouded landscape may have looked like almost two hundred years ago, before the first cattle made their way here. Imagine Coast Miwok coexisting with tule elk, grizzly bear, mountain lion, whales, dolphins, countless birds and their innumerable prey species. Then imagine the early beginnings of these formerly remote ranches as you drive by enroute to the lighthouse or the tule elk preserve. Perhaps you can imagine in 1916 Pierce Ranch school teacher Helen Smith walking into the creamery to scoop a small cup of cream from the cooling pans to pour over her breakfast pancakes. Her experience is a far cry from our contemporary neatly wrapped packages of butter and milk purchased at the local supermarket. If, on your way home from Point Reyes, you should stop to treat yourself with ice cream, don’t be surprised if several days ago it started as grass and a cow you just passed.
For more information, refer to Ranching on the Point Reyes Peninsula: A History of the Dairy and Beef Ranches within Point Reyes National Seashore, 1834-1992. By D. S. (Dewey) Livingston, National Park Service, 1993, revised 1994. It is available at reference desks of local libraries, museums and university libraries. An automotive tour of the pastoral landscapes in west Marin on cassette tape, produced by Marin Agricultural Land Trust, is available at National Seashore visitor centers. Tours of selected West Marin ranches are offered periodically by Marin Agricultural Land Trust.
Point Reyes Record: Then & Now
Check out our Point Reyes Record: Then & Now: Point Reyes Ranches photo gallery to compare historic photos with photos taken in 2019 from the same locations.
Historic Resource Studies
Last updated: May 5, 2020