A Short History Of Tomales Bay Ranching

Centuries ago, before the first cattle made their way here, Coast Miwok Native Americans coexisted with grizzly bear, mountain lion, tule elk, whales, dolphins, countless birds and their innumerable prey species. By the time of the California Gold Rush in 1849, some of the hopeful miners searching for gold had decided to try another tack further west, and arrived on the Pt. Reyes Peninsula looking for suitable farming and grazing land. The cool, damp climate and the abundant grasses on the Pt. Reyes prairies, likely the result of centuries of Coast Miwok farming and harvesting, seemed ideal to these new dairy ranchers. Cattle were introduced to the area by Franciscan missionaries in 1817, and later land grants led to the establishment and expansion of cattle ranching. Eventually, the dairy business was cornered by two prominent families, the Shafters and the Howards. By 1867, between these two, and other, smaller dairies, the Tomales Bay area was providing the Point Reyes brand of butter to Bay Area hotels and restaurants to the tune of over 900,000 pounds a year. Much of this bounty was delivered by small schooners to the foot of Market Street, where the Ferry Building Plaza farm market now stands. The lack of ability to ship fresh milk, poor grazing management and the 1906 earthquake resulted in a slow decline in dairy production, until by 1933 all the ridgeline dairies were gone. Many ranchers struggled through the Depression, getting by with livestock production and leasing their land to Japanese and Italian immigrants. The Second World War meant the end of these labor pools, causing more land to go fallow. The opening of the Golden Gate Bridge and the end of the Second World War changed everything. An increasingly affluent population in Marin County, expanded electric and transportation grids and a booming economy meant greater competition and lower prices for dairy products and an influx of new residents. Concerned over their livelihoods and the end of their bucolic way of life, local ranchers eventually entered into lease agreements with the National Park Service to preserve the open space, with special permits for cattle grazing. In 1962 President Kennedy signed the legislation forming the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, with many of the original dairies still operating within its boundaries today.