The Coastal Post - July, 1996

A Fascinating, "Not For Sale" Book


I've just read a fascinating book, but it's not for sale. It was written as a research project for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area by Dewey Livingston, who is listed as historian for both the Point Reyes National Seashore and the GGNRA. I wish it were for sale, as it's a good read, but Dewey and his wife, who is the Stinson Beach and Bolinas librarian (it's in all the West Marin libraries as a reference book) assure me that it's not. And when you tamper with an historic resource study, look out!

Having gotten that out of the way, the book is called A Good Life: Dairy Farming in the Olema Valley, and is amply illustrated, of course, which makes it even more interesting.

It starts out with an early history of Olema Valley: "The Olema Valley is unique in that, due to the activities of the underlying San Andreas Fault over the past thousands of years, the valley is virtually a straight line for ten miles, continued by the a similar line of the narrow 14-mile-long Tomales Bay to the north. In fact, Tomales Bay is merely a submerged section of the Olema Valley as is Bolinas Lagoon to the south."

The brief history goes on to mention the role of Coast Miwoks played in the development of Olema Valley, followed by profiles of the "powerful lawyers named Shafter, and the Rancho Tomales y Baulinas owned by the aging veteran Mexican soldier Rafael Garcia," the early years of the Mexican grantees, and finally gets to the ranchers themselves.

The effect the Gold Rush (1849-50) had in developing the Olema Valley was profound, and among other things there was a call from San Francisco for butter and other dairy products. By 1857, a number of dairies had been established in Bolinas, Point Reyes Peninsula, and Olema Valley, and from that moment the race to produce butter was on.

It is important to realize how important butter was both to the early settlers and the farming families. By 1870 it was extremely lucrative—70 cents a pound. This was the price given to the farmer, at the height of the season in late November. Through March to May the price dropped as low as 30-35 cents. In those months, Livingston tells us that "a great deal of butter was exported by steamer to the East Coast and as far away as China and Japan." By this time Olema butter was well-known. The only problem was the means to transport it.

The easier solution was by water, as the dirt roads were so horrible, especially in winter. That was one reason Bolinas developed so quickly. It had a docking wharf on what is still called Wharf Road, next to the lagoon entrance. This is why ranches near Bolinas were the first to develop. The history of the Wilkins Ranch, which can still be seen at the north end of the Bolinas Lagoon, is tied up at first with Dogtown, the lumbering community, for which the wharfs were first built.

William Wilkins was born in Massachusetts in 1824, and came out for the Gold Rush around the Horn. The ship he came on had a boat that needed to be reassembled for steamer use on the Sacramento River. It is interesting to learn that the steamer, christened Commodore Jones, made the first voyage of any steamer from Benicia to Sacramento. "Wilkins worked in various mines until late 1852, when he came to the Bolinas area and met Captain Isaac Morgan" from whom he leased a ranch.

Wilkins built his large barn, after purchasing an interest in the ranch in 1866. But it was not until 1875, when he built a fine ranch house, that he prepared to get married and start a family. In 1876 he married Mary B. Morse, sister of a neighbor down on Bolinas Lagoon, Benjamin Morse.

Which brings me to the subject of farming families. Most of them are very large. The Wilkins had five children, two of them twins. Most of the farm families had seven or eight separate births. Farmer always had large families because the children were expected to work on the farm. If one wife died (usually in childbirth), the farmer remarried and had more children. We can only imagine now what the wives endured. They had large families without medical help, but the worst part was the loneliness of being on a farm with no other women in miles. Very often the farmers married a woman from a neighboring farm. They had no other choice. We can imagine that there were very few love matches in those days.

Another farming family near Bolinas was the Strain-Teixeira ranch. The ranch is on the left side of the road if you are going up 13 Curves, and four miles north of Bolinas.

Henry Strain was born in Ireland in 1826. He came to California via the Isthmus of Panama, and unfortunately caught yellow fever there. Strain came to Bolinas in March of 1853 and ran a team for the mill company at Dogtown and operated the steamboat Union. After some lawyer difficulties with the Shafters, he lost his land. But he repurchased it from the Shafters, and to mark the northern boundary of his land, he planted an eucalyptus tree which still stands on Highway One.

Strain and his Irish-born wife had eight children. Not until 1880 did he build his family a two-story Victorian residence on a knoll overlooking the dairy. The 1880 History of Marin County called it "the finest in Bolinas." His son Everett married a girl from the McCurdy Ranch across the road.

After Henry Strain's death in 1901, his widow deeded the ranch to her children. Everett Strain took over the ranch selling not only butter, but extensive crops as well. He also planted an orchard to supplement his father's fruit trees. Although located within yards of the San Andreas Fault, the Strain Ranch survived the 1906 earthquake with little damage.

In 1920 they leased the ranch to the Teixeira family who had recently immigrated to the United States from the Azores Islands, off the coast of Portugal. All told, the Teixeiras had six children, but lived in the same house with Henry Strain's widow and her daughter. No wonder they needed big houses! The dairy ceased operation only after 1972 when the National Park Service purchased the property.

Along the way, the book goes on to list past properties in Olema Valley, including the famous horse ranch belonging to Boyd Stewart, formerly belonging to Nelson Olds; the Bear Valley Ranch, which has been there since the 1860s and which now functions as the Point Reyes National Seashore headquarters; that a Swiss family whose name translates to "flower" took the name of Bloom as the nearest equivalent; that Jewell, now a town on Sir Francis Drake Road, originally was named after Omar Jewell, owner of the Jewell Ranch; that the Jewell Ranch was formerly on the North Pacific Coast Railway, built in 1874; that the Cordoni Ranch (no longer there) was across the road from the approximate site of the four-story hotel in the now forgotten town of Tocaloma, which was once a hunting and fishing resort—on and on. It takes quite a time to cover 22 ranches.

The book took Livingston four years to complete, after he consulted numerous books, libraries (including the Bancroft at U.C.) manuscripts, articles, newspapers, and conducted personal interviews. It is truly an amazing work, and a great reference book.