Visalia Creamery — Forced to Leave Town at Gunpoint
Tulare County has been cattle country since it began in 1852. As settlers arrived, they brought with them thousands of cattle, hoping that the new land would provide the necessary feed to fatten their herds. Their hunch paid off, and it didn’t take long for the number of bovines to outnumber the human population.
With all the cattle came an abundance of beef for food and plenty of milk to drink. And there was also plenty of the white liquid left over for other dairy products. By 1906, for example, Tulare County had nearly 10,000 dairy cows that produced enough milk and cream to make more than 1 1/2 million pounds of butter, a huge amount considering the dairy industry was still in its infancy.
At that time, there were a few milk-processing centers or creameries spread around the county, and in early 1910, Visalia was slated to become one of them. About 85 dairymen, most with ranches within 10 miles of Visalia, formed an association and, through that, the Visalia Co-operative Creamery was born. It officially incorporated on April 12, 1910, and the company moved quickly to find a building site. It found an available lot next to the Tulare County Jail in the 200 block of East Oak Street owned by the Cross Hardware Company.
The cooperative purchased it and in June 1910, the construction job was put out to bid. A month later, the winning contractors, F. C. Hunt & A. B. Shippey, were announced. Soon, construction began on the building that would have a tank house in back. The builders estimated that it would take about 60 days to complete.
Construction moved along smoothly and by Oct. 1, 1910, the facility was done. At noon that day, the creamery company had a big barbecue at the new building for stockholders and guests. It was a festive affair with good food, lots of cigars, many congratulatory handshakes, several speakers and building tours. The company was obviously proud of its modern plant.
Visalia creamery officials had reason to be proud. The handsome brick structure was 40 by 80 feet and cost about $18,000 to build, which included equipment. Rigid sanitation standards were followed, with employees required to change into white uniforms from their street clothes when reporting for work. A special milk-testing room was part of the operation, with a UC Davis-trained technician named W. Paulson in charge. Nels J. Beck, a well-known and experienced creamery man from the Laton creamery, was hired to run the Visalia operation.
Production at the plant began at 6 a.m. Oct. 2 and with that, the Visalia Co-Operative Creamery was born. The company was anxious to fit into the community, so the public was encouraged to visit. Everyone who did was given a free glass of fresh buttermilk.
The company liked its buttermilk, but the new business was especially proud of its butter. It was labeled Golden Crown. In 1912, the company entered the butter into a statewide competition held at the “university farm at Davis.” When the butter scoring was finished, Golden Crown came out on top of the 30 best-known creameries in California. Golden Crown would go on to become a well-respected Visalia creamery name.
The following year, ice cream was introduced, but not just a normal ice cream. A super rich product with no less than 18 percent butterfat was offered, an unheard of level by any standard. For orders of 1 gallon or more, the company would deliver to the customer in a company-owned wagon.
In 1914, the company had another banner year and it also made a $2,000 plant upgrade, adding pasteurizing tanks. From that point, all cream entering the plant was pasteurized.
Success continued into the 1920s, but changes were in the works. For several years, the Visalia Co-operative Creamery and Tulare Co-Operative Creamery had worked together in some business dealings. In 1924, stockholders of the Visalia company agreed to merge with the Tulare creamery under the name of Dairyman’s Co-Operative. After the merger, the Visalia operation made cottage cheese and the Tulare plant made the company’s butter, continuing to use the Golden Crown name.
But all was not well with the Visalia facility. Robert Johnston, a local businessman who owned the granite and cemetery headstone business in town, was not happy with the operation. He owned a house on the southeast corner of Church and School streets and claimed that the machinery was too loud. Apparently, Johnston did not get any help from creamery personnel in solving the problem, so he took matters into his own hands. The evening of Saturday, April 19, 1924, according to the criminal complaint, he took his shotgun, went into the alley behind the creamery and the Tulare County Jail, and confronted the driver of a company milk truck. Johnston refused to let the driver pass. No one was hurt in the confrontation, but Johnston was arrested on April 21 for assault with a deadly weapon. It is not clear what happened with the criminal charge, but during the same period, Johnston won a civil lawsuit that he had filed against the creamery alleging a noise nuisance.
About a week after Johnston’s arrest, Joseph Barboni, Visalia’s mayor, wrote an open letter in the newspaper calling the noise complaint against the creamery baseless. The mayor expressed outrage that anyone would want to force this economically valuable creamery out of Visalia.
But Johnston’s actions and perhaps complaints from others did just that. It appears that the Visalia plant of Dairyman’s left town in about 1925. Accounts at the time reported that the noise complaint had “brought about the removal of the [Visalia] creamery to Tulare.”
Arts Visalia is now located in this historic 109-year-old building, but clearly this old-timer’s glory days were the 15 years or so that Golden Crown products were made there – a product recognized throughout California.