History: Dairy industry In Truckee
TRUCKEE, Calif. — Truckee was a mecca for lumbering and ice. We also had a bustling dairy and butter industry. This specific region in the Sierra Nevada had the perfect climate and plentiful grass for the dairymen’s cows. There were numerous dairies in the region which yielded 60,000 pounds of premium butter a year. By the 1880s many families on the West Coast would serve Truckee butter at their dining table.
Joseph Joerger, 1856
The milk industry started as early as 1856 in Truckee with Joseph Joerger, a farm boy from Germany who had deep roots in making milk, cheese and butter. The increasing wars in Europe forced his dad to send him and his brother to New York in 1848. After his brother died in a freak accident on Lake Erie, Joseph made it to Truckee (lured by the thoughts of finding gold) by 1851.
Being practical, frugal and tired of the search for gold, Joseph searched for another life. He found it and was able to buy many milking cows which he would drive to the high mountain meadows in the Sierra. The cows were milked on the spot and the milk was placed in 1.5 gallon pans. Cream was skimmed off the top and butter was made in the camp. When snow began to fall in late October, the cows were rounded up and put on wagons where the operation was moved to the California foothills until spring. It was hard work since the cows had to be milked on a regular basis. He continued hauling the cows to and from the mountain meadows to the foothills until 1875.
The dairy industry was and is hard work. The pay was low and the hours long. Work started before daylight and continued until dark. The cows had to be milked early in the morning, led out to pasture to graze and then brought back in the afternoon to be milked again. Then the milk house and all the equipment had to be scrubbed clean. After all that you had to deal with the fresh, unpasteurized milk, cream and butter.
McIver Dairy, 1891
Located just off Interstate 80, across from the Villager Nursery and next to the Truckee Forest Hospital is what is left of the McIver Dairy. The McIver Dairy was the largest dairy in Truckee. James McIver Sr. and his wife, Sara Elliot McIver, were originally immigrants from Ireland. Together they moved to Truckee in 1891 and founded the McIver Dairy which was owned and operated with the assistance of their son, James McIver, Jr. James Jr. was born in Floriston, California in 1894 but lived most of his life in Truckee. He would deliver milk in the early morning to local residents and then worked for his dad as a teamster. He was also a blacksmith and at the introduction of automobiles opened the McIver Garage. James Sr. was busy building a freight business. Needless to say, it was Sara who managed and ran the Dairy for 45 years (until 1944). When she became ill farm operations ceased.
Three of the original buildings still stand including the original milking barn. All are one story, wood framed structures. The buildings are no longer accessible but you can only imagine what life must have been like.
The McIver family generously donated their land to the Truckee Forest Hospital and the meadow for public use.
Restoring the McIver Dairy Meadow
Work began on September 9, 2019 to restore the four acres of the McIver Dairy meadow. The restoration project had several goals:
- Improve the habitat for wildlife and birds
- Improve water quality
- Re-water dry portions of the meadow
- Protect the foundation of the historic dairy barn
- Prevent continued erosion
The first step in the restoration was the relocation of the sledding hills (that were located behind and to the right of the barns) to the far east corner of the property.
The watershed improvement resulted in decreasing excess sedimentation to the Truckee River. The restored floodplain and wetlands will decrease high water flows and filter runoff before it drains to the Truckee River.
The project site receives stormwater runoff from adjacent roads and commercial developments. Local storm improvements included natural treatments for those runoffs before reaching the Truckee River.
The restoration project was funded by generous support of the Truckee community, neighboring businesses and the Town of Truckee.
Work has been completed and the McIver Dairy meadow now needs several years to settle and manage the water, sedimentation and for the animals to come back. All of Truckee and its visitors can now enjoy and embrace a very important part of our town’s history.
Side Note: Logging Flumes and Butter
Early on loggers used lard to grease the skids and slide the logs down the logging flumes to the staging areas. In the Sierra, butter was much more plentiful and significantly cheaper than lard. They used Truckee butter to grease the logging flumes. At the time loggers would say “pass the skid grease” when they wanted to butter their toast.
About the author: Judy DePuy is a volunteer with the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, Donner Summit Historical Society and a Board member for the Museum of Truckee History and the Truckee Donner Railroad Society. She resides in Tahoe Donner with her husband, Dave, and their dog, Morticia.
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