Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen

 

I

t would be difficult to find an old Visalia name more recognizable and respected than Hyde. Almost without fail, the name makes it to everyone’s short list of important families in Visalia history.

And it’s not surprising. Even though the family members often worked quietly, wanting no fanfare, the sheer number of business ventures, civic projects and acts of generosity in which they were involved made the Hyde name roll off the tongue of many. Despite their low-key nature, their name did make it onto a few Visalia landmarks, such as the Hyde Theatre and Hyde Park.

But probably the most remembered is the Hyde Ranch Dairy and its famous giant milk bottle … a landmark jutting high into the sky.

Since it began in 1852, Tulare County has been known as cattle country. They were everywhere, and it didn’t take long for dairy herds to become part of the bovine population. Even though the early dairy operations were limited by the lack of mechanization, in 1906, Tulare County dairy farmers were milking more than 9,500 dairy cows by hand and, by 1914, that number jumped to 35,000, all being done on 1,200 dairies.

In the early 20th century, the Hyde family of Visalia had extensive land holdings, including a large parcel just west of town. In 1921, Richard E. Hyde began a small-scale dairy operation there. His trial venture was successful, so two years later, he decided to get into the business in a big way, and Hyde Ranch Dairy began.

Hyde immediately brought in John G. Jones to be his ranch manager. Jones had 15 years of experience on dairies and was recognized as the most thorough and knowledgeable person around in handling dairy cows and running dairy operations.

 

The dairy officially opened for deliveries on May 1, 1923, with a full page story in the Visalia Morning Delta. It began, “In keeping with the rapid growth of the city comes the announcement that Visalia is to have, right at her door, one of the most modern of dairy ranches. On the south side of the highway west of the city limits, just beyond the first turn on the way to Goshen, R.E. Hyde has started a dairy small at present but equipped for enlargement as the demand for its products may require, to supply with dairy products a good portion of the more particular consumers.” The story continued, “The site upon which this dairy is situated is particularly suited for the dairy purposes inasmuch as a most picturesque stream, lined on both sides with willows, runs through the place, affording not only fresh clean drinking water for the cows, but also ample shade for the animals during the hot summer weather. The dairy proper is surrounded by a large acreage of alfalfa on the east and good pasture land on the west sufficient for grazing purposes for several times the number of cows which comprise the present herd.”

The operation opened with about 50 cows, with plans to expand to 75. The herd included Jerseys, but overall, the herd was mixed. All the milking was done by hand, but electric DeLaval machines were on the way. The dairy was state of the art with the latest refrigeration and sanitation equipment. Its slogan became “You can whip our cream, but you can’t beat our milk.” The grounds at the ranch were given special attention. Hyde was “addicted to making it a show place” with trees and flowers. He believed that “such improvement and beautifying helped … inspire a pride in the work … producing better workmanship and better milk.”

But the two men weren’t finished. They had something else planned — something big! In August 1926, the big deal arrived and it quickly overshadowed everything that came before it. It was a giant replica of a milk bottle that also served as a working water tank for the ranch. It was constructed by the Visalia Plumbing Co. out of 16-gauge galvan-ized steel. It stood 21 1/2 feet high and had a 5,800-gallon capacity. Empty, it weighed slightly more than 1 ton. The base was 8 feet 6 inches in diameter and had a 54-inch neck. It was built to the exact proportions of a regular quart-size milk bottle.


The big bottle is shown being hoisted up to the top of the tower in 1926.


But the giant needed something to sit on — something that could support the weight of the 1-ton bottle plus the water. For that, the two men went to T.T. Godsey, a well-respected Visalia building contractor. Godsey used heavy lumber to build the 40-foot tower. Not only did Godsey build the tower, he also was hired to mount the bottle on top. It was a big job, requiring eight workers using a block-and-tackle pulley system to raise the bottle. When mounted, the bottle perched on the tower stood more than 60 feet in the air. It soon became a tourist attraction and was called the “Greatest Milk Bottle in the World.”

The bottle stood at the Hyde Ranch Dairy property until February 1964, when it was removed. The dairy operation had left the site in about 1950, so it no longer served a purpose. In April 1964, the remaining abandoned dairy buildings were razed.

There’s an interesting story that has circulated about the dairy and its unique tower. Apparently, the airplane pilots who were in training at Sequoia Field north of Visalia during World War II often used the huge bottle as a visual landmark as they prepared to land at the field.

For 38 years, the bottle stood on its tower at the dairy site near what is now the intersection of Campus and County Center drives. But the question remains. When the bottle was removed, where was it taken? Was it saved and displayed somewhere, or was it dismantled and salvaged as scrap? No one seems to know.


The big bottle is shown being taken off the tower in 1964.

Aerial view of the Hyde Ranch Dairy. Circa 1950 (Courtesy Annie R. Mitchell History Room.)