Towns That Milk Made -- Hundreds Of Small Family Dairies Thrived For Decades In The Snoqualmie Valley And Brought National Renown To The Remote Little Town Of Carnation

At first they came with a few cows each, hard-working dairy families whose small barns popped up all along the Snoqualmie River valley, their modest pastures emerging as they cleared the tree-studded land to make way for hay.

They milked by hand into buckets, poured it into cans and hauled the cans to horse-drawn carts or onto barges that were tugged down the river to the creameries and condenseries.

Soon there were dozens of farms, followed by bustling towns built largely on the dairy economy. One city even took its name from a big dairy just outside its boundaries.

"We had fresh milk all the time - and cream," recalls Isabel Jones, a lifelong Carnation resident and local historian. "Dairying was really our deal. Just about every place between Fall City and Carnation and Carnation and Duvall were all farms."

Those days are long gone, and so are most of the hundreds of small family dairies that once dotted the valley - victims of changing landscapes, changing economics, changing times.

"Now I think we have two dairies between Fall City and the Snohomish County line," Jones laments. "It's changed a lot."

But a century of dairy farming in East King County has left an indelible stamp on practically everything here - the history, the landscape, the people. Indeed, the history of the valley is, to a large degree, the history of dairy farming.

Pioneers found rich valley for growing

At the beginning of the 1900s, dairying was mostly a small, local affair, but pioneers found a rich valley for growing their enterprises.

"This is an ideal dairy area because of the climate," said Dave Owens, a lifelong dairyman and now general manager of the Nestle Regional Training Center, which used to be Carnation Milk Farms. "It's mild in the summer and mild in the winter. It never gets too hot; it never gets too cold."

With transportation and access to a large market difficult, farmers milked their cows for their own families or to supplement the incomes they made from raising other livestock and crops.

But advances in technology would soon change that.

A major contributor was Elbridge Amos Stuart and his new evaporated-milk company, Carnation, founded in 1899 and celebrating its centennial this fall. For the Snoqualmie Valley, the company's large processing plant, built in Monroe in 1908, would be most important.

"All the dairies would take their cans down to the river, and the little boat would come and pick it up," Owens said.

Stuart bought a small dairy in the Snoqualmie Valley, a few miles outside of present-day Carnation and began building his soon-to-be-renowned breeding farm, home to the "Contented Cows" made famous by decades of advertising campaigns.

"He shipped offspring all over the world," Owen said. "This farm became famous worldwide for its breeding stock, and the Carnation name became famous worldwide."

At its peak, the farm had 1,500 acres, nearly 1,000 head of dairy cattle and 129 employees - most of whom bunked on site. Before Nestle bought out Carnation in 1985 and scaled back the operations, the farm also was a development center for pet and livestock food - and home to 350 dogs and 500 cats.

Nestle still maintains a herd of about 150 prize Holsteins.

Tolt becomes Carnation - for a bit

Stuart's influence would help put a little town on the map.

It started in 1912 as Tolt, an enclave on the river with the same name, a hub for all kinds of business of the day, from dairying to logging to hops growing. When the railroad came through a few years later, things really took off.

"We were a booming town," said Jones, who was born in town in 1923. Her father, William Larson, was the town's first fire chief. "We had lots more businesses than we do now. There were two barbershops, three grocery stores, a bakery, a Ford car agency, hotels."

Come 1917, though, Stuart, a master of marketing and advertising, persuaded city leaders to change the name from Tolt to Carnation.

"He said if it was Carnation it would put us on the map," Jones said. "It put him on the map, anyway."

Carnation loyalty lasted until 1928, when nostalgia for the old Tolt name and some resentment about being manipulated by the now-huge company set in. Locals voted to go back to Tolt.

Still, locals reveled in the farm's national notoriety. Dignitaries came to the farm from all over in 1928 to unveil the statue of holstein Segis Pietertje Prospect, whom everyone called "Possum Sweetheart," which set the record for producing the most milk of any cow ever. The statue still stands. Movie star Jackie Cooper once came all the way to Carnation just to crown a cow called Daisy after she set a world's record.

Even without the glitz, the company infused the town with support.

"It was great," said Jones, who was Tolt High School student-body president in 1941. "The Stuarts did a lot for us here in Carnation. Carnation Farms really worked a lot with our kids. We had all kinds of school activities, all our 4-H activities."

Eventually the tide shifted back in 1951, and the town became Carnation again.

Meanwhile, the dairy industry was to change forever.

In 1950, there were 12,000 farms and 240,000 dairy cows in Washington, according to government figures. In 1989, the number of farms had dropped to 1,300. As of June, there were 739.

But on those fewer farms, there still are a total of 260,000 cows, producing more milk than ever. In fact, dairy farming challenges apple production as the largest agricultural producer in the state.

But in King County, urbanization has meant a decline in dairying in the Snoqualmie valley and other regions. From 21,600 dairy cows in the county in 1991, only 15,100 remain today.

Beyond urbanization, there are a host of other reasons for the change in dairy farming: It's more efficient to run big farms. Environmental restrictions make it hard for small farms to operate. And while the price of feed, machinery, manpower and other dairy expenses keeps going up, the price of milk has not risen enough to offset those costs.

"The direction of the whole dairy industry is just going to get bigger and get more efficient," Owens said. "You've got to milk more cows, but you have to limit your acreage. Dairies have a hard time keeping up."

It's not just a local problem. Nationally, between 1992 and 1996, 38,500 dairy farms shut down. Wisconsin lost 13,000 farms in the past decade - 2,000 just last year.

And Carnation is changing along with the times. It's not a hub for dairy farmers anymore. Carnation, like its neighbors north and south, is fast becoming a bedroom community.

"The days of the family farm are over," said Holly Thompson, another Nestle spokeswoman. "Especially when I can work for Microsoft and make three times as much."

Sources for this report include "The Carnation Milk Farms: Home of Contented Cows," edited by Robert D. Moore, and "Carnation, The First 75 Years: 1899-1974" by John D. Weaver.