by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The commercial economy of greater Los Angeles was initially built in the Spanish and Mexican periods through the raising of cattle on some two dozen ranchos, such as La Puente, where the Homestead is now, with the hides and tallow (fat) traded for other goods as detailed in Richard Henry Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast. A descendant of sorts of this enterprise came with the rise of dairying in the region as well as the industry’s regular relocations as relentless development carried on, and one of the most prominent firms in the field during the first three decades of the 20th century was the Los Angeles Creamery Company.
Tonight’s highlighted artifacts are a trio of circa 1925 photographs showing employees and vehicles at the “Valley Ranch” owned by the company, which operated at several locations throughout the region, at or about the intersection of Roscoe and Van Nuys boulevards in what was then called Van Nuys (or two miles north of it, to be exact) and which, after World War II, was developed by Kaiser Industries and developer Fritz Burns as Panorama City.
The origins of the firm date to the arrival in Los Angeles in August 1882 of the brothers Burton and George Platt, natives of Waterbury, Connecticut, where their father Sylvester was a brass moulder. It was while living at Suffield, on the border with Massachusetts, that the brothers learned the dairy business, but, after a brief stay at Sonoma County working as butter makers, the two migrated to this area and settled briefly at Sierra Madre at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. George worked for a short time with a commission merchant, I.C. Goff and Company, managing their stock before the brothers formed a dairy business in Los Angeles in 1884.
The two pastured their animals at what became 3rd Street and Beaudry Avenue, just west of downtown and near what would soon become the Crown Hill section of the growing city, though they kept an office on Aliso Street, named after a landmark sycamore tree, sacred to the indigenous people of the village of Yang-na, which headed northeast across the Los Angeles River.
For a short time, the Platt brothers were partners of journalist William A. Spalding and the business was located at the corner of Fifth and Olive streets across from Central (or Sixth Street) Park, later Pershing Square, and that lot was the Temple Baptist Church and the Philharmonic Auditorium for many years, but that enterprise dissolved in February 1885 and Burton went on to practice as a physician and lived in San Bernardino County for many years.
As for George, he continued on with dairying, first, by 1886, at Fruitland under the moniker of the Jersey Mead Dairy, named, of course, for the breed of milk cow, which is now where Vernon and adjoining parts of Los Angeles are now south of downtown. Under the name of the Enterprise Dairy, Platt then operated, by 1890, just east of city limits at First and Ditman in what was later denominated as East Los Angeles and lived at the corner of First and Indiana, which latter is the eastern boundary of the Angel City. Before the end of the decade, Platt moved his business to the south on what was Stephenson Avenue (the extension of 6th Street through Boyle Heights), later renamed Whittier Boulevard.
By the first years of the 20th century, Platt and Charles H. Sessions, who was involved in the Los Angeles Creamery Company in the Eighties and then owned the Lynwood Dairy, formed Belle Vernon Farms and owned or leased nearly 900 acres with $16,000 in buildings, including those to cool the milk with a two-ton refrigerating machine and substantial acreage, including 500 irrigated from the river, for pasturing the cows and cattle (two-thirds comprised the former) as well as growing alfalfa and corn for feed.
He had four wagons and teams and some thirty horses in his stable, while the clientele numbered 1,200 by 1902. Among his milk cows were 125 registered Jerseys and there were also five registered Jersey bulls, Platt having been interested in purebred stock for some time. In 1919, Platt purchased 112 acres on the nearby Laguna Rancho, formerly owned by Arcadia Bandini Stearns Baker and which was in sections of today’s City of Commerce, Los Angeles and Vernon, with his section along Telegraph Road where Interstate 5 runs now near its junction with Interstate 710.
The 1902 biographical sketch stated that “in this ideal dairy retreat the utmost cleanliness prevails, and a fine system lightens labor and produces even and therefore expected results.” It also noted that he was a leader in the growing local dairying industry, serving as treasurer of the Southern California Dairyman’s Association and Southern California Jersey Breeders’ Association.
Three years later, a short article/advertisement in the Los Angels Herald of 3 September 1905 about Belle Vernon Farms claimed that the business only handled “clarified, pasteurized and refrigerated milk and cream has given them a wide prestige over other dealers who pursue the old-fashioned methods.” Their office and depot was located at Maple and Eighth streets and used 17 wagons for delivery and, not only were their products processed as noted abbove, but, the piece concluded, the proprietors “own the fine dairy farms from which a large share of their products come and they have every modern device and equipment for the high class dairy work.”
By mid-decade or so, Platt founded the Los Angeles Creamery Company, though whether it was the same firm that existed from the late 1880s through parts of that decade or was a newly launched business later is not clear. The era of pure food and drug and anti-trust legislation had impacts on the business and Platt and his company occasionally found themselves suggested to investigations over both.
In one instance, he was fined for adding cream to the milk produced by the business in violation of a city ordinance that regulated how many other materials were permitted to be added, while, in another, Platt and his company were able to avoid a conviction for selling “short weighted” butter, in which what was stated on the package was just slightly above what was in it.
In winter 1907, Platt had to appear before the Los Angeles Board of Health, which was on a “crusade” to enforce a new dairy ordinance, about reported unsanitary conditions with the firm’s operations and, two months afterward, received a surprise inspection and was again cited to appear and show cause as to why his license should not be revoked.
The inspectors found that all Platt had done was whitewash the buildings to make them look cleaner from the outside, while inside “filthy surroundings were found” including “swarms of flies” in the milking house, the aerating and loading of milk done in one place, and drains in a terrible condition. Purportedly, when asked about why such a state was allowed to continue, the foreman replied, “we are too busy here to attend to such things.” This was the year after the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by Congress.
In the biggest incidents, he and his compatriots had to fend off accusations in 1907 of being a trust, while there was an accusation of working with other dairy companies to manipulate prices, leading to a major 1921 suit filed by the county’s district attorney. It does appear, however, that Los Angeles Creamery and other dairy operators were able to avoid convictions in that case.
In 1909-1910, Los Angeles Creamery established a downtown headquarters at Towne and 12th Street in what is now the Fashion District and expanded its enterprise there a couple of times in succeeding years. It also found its burgeoning business needing more extensive pasture and farm lands, so there were acquisitions of large holdings in the San Fernando Valley, where these photos were taken, in what is now Chino Hills State Park and sections of the residential suburb of that name, and, in 1912, on the Rancho La Puente directly west of the Homestead.
Some of these purchases came because Platt took on partners with their own well-established dairies including Frank F. Pellissier, who had large landholdings near the Workman Mill at the southwest corner of Rancho La Puente and who arranged the Chino Hills acquisition (which became some 11,000 acres of the former Rancho Santa Ana del Chino at its peak), and August V. Handorf, who was a major dairy operator in Los Angeles and Burbank and who spearheaded both a 1,000-acre deal at the mouth of Carbon Canyon in Chino Hills and the acquisition of two La Puente purchases, in 1908 and 1912.
The pair, both on lands long owned by William Workman and lost, in 1879, to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin due to foreclosure of his loan to the ill-fated Temple and Workman bank, totaled some 440 acres. The second transaction was through the Cross Land Company and its special agent, Samuel P. Rowland, scion of the family that received the 1840s land grant and who was married to Margarita A. Temple, sister of future Homestead owner Walter.
The Handorf dairy operation later stretched from Turnbull Canyon Road to Seventh Avenue and a home built by the family still stands just a block west of the museum at the corner of the former and Don Julian Road. In 1920, another 160 acres from the Cross Land Company was added for $96,000 with an expectation of the expenditure of $50,000 in improvements, while most of that land was intended for growing alfalfa.
Branch plants for the Los Angeles Creamery Company were built or acquired at South Pasadena (the former Raab family enterprise) and Hollywood (on Santa Monica Boulevard near Highland Avenue), while other farms were operated at El Monte (on the Rio Hondo not far north of where the Temple family long resided), Tulare, and Palo Verde (a community on the Colorado River and Arizona border south of Blythe.)
Notably, in June 1914, Platt was in an automobile discussing a real estate deal with agent Clifford Deyoe (who arranged the 1908 La Puente acqusition), when an argument erupted and Deyoe pulled out a gun and shot Platt and then turned the weapon on himself. Though it was first feared that the wounds were fatal, Platt rallied while Deyoe died at the scene.
By the early 1920s, the aim of the firm was to be able to be completely self-sufficient, in terms of supplying all of its products from its own farms and processed through its own plants. Because the Laguna/Belvedere Gardens/East Los Angeles dairy farm was on leased land, Platt decided to purchase new farm land in the San Fernando Valley.
In 1912, Platt purchased for $180,000 the Rancho El Escorpion of just over 1,100 acres at the extreme west end of the valley where West Hills is now and long owned by Miguel Leonis, acquiring the tract from the son of the Basque rancher’s common-law-wife. Her long suit to claim the ranch after Leonis’ death was finally resolved in her favor just prior to her death and Platt operated a ranch house, raised cattle and operated a dairy, known under the names of Escorpion, Ferndale and Cloverdale. The rancho became part of the City of Los Angeles in 1958.
In early 1919, he bought 640 acres from Charles Grogan and 410 acres comprising the Orchardale Ranch, recently owned by Tobias Miller, with the initial use slated to be growing alfalfa with irrigation from the Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed six years prior. It was stated that Platt was looking to buy land in that area from the time that subdivisions commenced at the start of the Teens.
Whereas the Van Nuys/Panorama City ranch was originally strictly for pasturage and farming, the growing suburban movement east of Los Angeles led to the clousre of the plant and sale in 1921 of 250 acres of the Stephenson/Whittier Boulevard holdings to the Janss Investment Company for the development of Belvedere Gardens, later part of East Los Angeles.
This, in turn, led Platt to establish, that year, the new plant at the Valley Ranch location and this is where the trio of photos was taken not long after its completion and opening. This included a pair of large milking sheds, a bottling facility, and bunk houses (with a large kitchen and mess hall) for employees with improvements of some $100,000 at the start.
The photos include one with about thirty men and a boy posed in front of a single-story hollow-tile building with a milk can, a crate of twenty milk bottles, and an advertising piece for the company posed in front; the second showing seven men and little child posed in, on and next to a company truck with an attached trailer, both of which are lettered with the company name, that of “Valley Ranch”, and other information, with the vehicle parked by what may be the same structure or one of the same construction; and the third showing a gent, likely the same man at the wheel in the preceding image, standing next to the combo.
As a bonus, we’re including a snapshot, perhaps from the 1910s, of a driver in a company truck and three youngsters, presumably his children posed standing next to the vehicle, or, in the case of a baby (looking back towards him as if thinking “Even I know this is not safe—at all!”), perhed precariously on a fender over a front tire, with the image taken in front of some modest houses.
As is too often the case, none of the trio are inscribed as to who these workers were and the namelessness is also common when it comes to the untold numnbers of men and women who labored for businesses like this. Within about a few years, in 1928, Platt decided to merge with the Golden State Creamery Company, which had humble beginnings in Humboldt County in the state’s far northwestern coast, though he retained an executive position, serving as vice-president, until his death in 1936 at age 75.
With respect to the dairy industry, it continued to react to that unstoppable momentum of rapid suburban development, including in the Artesia/Cerritos/Paramount area, where dairies were prominent until after World War II, and in Chino and Ontario, where many of the producers relocated from the others and have recently and are now moving to other parts of California, as well as Idaho, Oregon, Washington and other areas.
Like with the oil industry, it will not be long until dairies in greater Los Angeles will be a thing of the past (and the environmental cleanup will also continue to be significant as with the other) and the history of the industry will be recollected through artifacts like these.