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August 10, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Only a memory Only a memory (August 10, 2005)

Few other institutions other than Stanford University itself have left as enduring a mark on the Palo Alto area as Piers Dairy and Piers Ranch

The Piers family operation that shaped or marked much of the 20th century in Palo Alto began with the immigration of Manuel Ignatius Piers -- known as "M.I." -- from his native town of Pico, Azores, to the Palo Alto area in 1912.

In 1914 Piers bought a small dairy, the Home Dairy, and 20 acres along Willow Road in "north Palo Alto," now Menlo Park. He began selling milk from a roadside stand, along with ice cream and butter -- expanding his business to horse-and-buggy deliveries to nearby homes. For many years, Piers and later his growing family lived in a home on the property.

By World War I Piers was delivering milk in bulk -- reportedly initially by horse and buggy -- to Stanford University's student union and dormitories, while the U.S. government built the Veterans Hospital across Willow Road. By the 1920s, the Home Dairy was garnering statewide prizes for its rich, "certified" milk, which it delivered to Palo Alto schools -- one of the first certified dairies in the state based on stringent inspections and health tests of the cows.

Piers developed a reputation as a leader in breeding techniques to improve his dairy herd, located on an 8-acre milking farm on Louis Road in what is now south Palo Alto. He and his wife, Eleanor, raised three sons and a daughter in their home on the Willow Road property and later on Center Avenue in Palo Alto: Byron, Roger, Edson and Elinor -- all of whom, plus years later Edson's son, Gregory, were involved in the dairy operation at some point.

Somewhere between World War I and the early 1920s, Piers leased a reported 1,750 acres of Stanford University foothill lands for grazing and breeding of his dairy herds -- a leasehold that reportedly grew to a maximum of about 2,500 acres for the "Piers Ranch" before Interstate 280 and other encroachments trimmed it back to less than half that.

No one seems to know the precise dates or details -- many of Stanford's early land records were destroyed by an arson fire in the early 1970s in the administration area of the main quad -- a period of riots and demonstrations at Stanford and in Palo Alto.

The following timeline pieces together highlights of the Piers operation that left its mark on the communities the dairy served -- from a street name (Piers Lane) in south Palo Alto to a remembrance of days when a daily delivery of fresh "certified" milk (at 13 cents a quart) and other dairy products would arrive at people's homes and Palo Alto schools.

* 1914 -- M.I. Piers buys Home Dairy and 20 acres on Willow Road from a William Charles Wilbur.

* 1916-18 World War I years -- Delivers milk to Stanford, beginning a nearly century-long relationship. At some point, Piers studies dairying at the University of California, Davis, campus for two years.

* 1922 -- Home Dairy wins second and third in Grade A milk and cream divisions at state fair, out of about 100 entries statewide, the first of numerous awards. Dairy expands on Willow Road.

* 1924 -- In January, Home Dairy is certified for cleanliness and healthy cows by the state, the first dairy in the region to be certified. The Cardinal Hotel in Palo Alto signs an exclusive contract, becoming "one of the few hotels in the country to make exclusive use of certified milk."

* 1925 -- Home Dairy supplies certified milk to Palo Alto schools under supervision of the Palo Alto Health Department, a city department, as well as to undernourished children in San Jose schools. "No other city schools in the state serve certified milk," an advertisement in the Palo Alto Times declared.

* 1927 or 1929 -- Golden State Company, Ltd., buys Home Dairy and retains M.I. Piers as manager.

* 1933 -- The Palo Alto Elks Lodge conducts services for W.C. Wilbur, who founded the Home Dairy in 1900 and owned the Stanford Dairy on Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park until his death at age 64.

* 1936 -- Golden State opens its "magnificent new Peninsula plant on the Willow Road site with a Sunday open house featuring "all the ice cream and milk one could eat or drink, free." News articles noted the annual dinner for up to 180 employees at the Los Altos Golf and Country Club, with Piers as host. (Golden State years later was purchased by Foremost, which ultimately shut down the operation there.)

* 1937 -- Piers resigns as district manager of Golden State following a heretofore unpublished dispute with higher management -- he refused to fire three division managers out of loyalty and because they were his friends, according to Roger Piers.

* That same year, Piers enlarged the dairy herd at the milking barn at 3070 Louis Road and founded Piers Dairy, drawing in virtually all his immediate family members. The new dairy opened an office and creamery, including fountain service, at 338 University Ave. on Sept. 1. At some point, the family moved from Willow Road to a new family home at 560 Center Ave., Palo Alto.

* Roger Piers at 14 gets a driver's license and begins delivering milk early in the mornings (before school), along with Edson later, to Palo Alto and Menlo Park area homes, while Byron worked in production.

* 1941 -- On the brink of World War II, prices were 13 cents for a quart of Grade A milk and 19 cents for unpasturized or "raw" milk. During the war, a Piers Dairy ad promotes saving gasoline and money by switching from everyday to every-other-day deliveries and getting three or more quarts per delivery. Byron joins the Navy, but years later returns to the business as plant manager.

* 1944 -- Downtown Palo Alto creamery moves to 524 Bryant St. and discontinues the fountain service.

* 1945 -- A Piers cow produces more butterfat in one month than any other of the 6,832 cows in Santa Clara County -- 106 pounds of butterfat, enough to make 128 pounds of butter. Piers is recognized as "among the county dairymen who have begun dairy herd improvement work on their purebred herds."

* 1976 -- Elinor Piers, who was office manager of the dairy for more than 20 years, died. Two years later Manuel's wife, Eleanor, died at 85. Piers himself died in 1981 at 91 -- willing the dairy to Edson and the ranch business to Roger.

* 1984 -- After nearly three decades of housing construction around it in south Palo Alto, Piers Dairy relocates to an industrial area, 3611 Haven Ave., in the Belle Haven area of Menlo Park -- at the end of a 15-year amortization period for phasing out its Louis Road operation, the land sold housing development. Faced with stiff competition from large grocery chains that provided their own milk and dairy products, the dairy had retired all its cows as uneconomic and purchased its milk from other dairies in the area and as far away as Petaluma.

But in the mid-1980s Piers trucks were still delivering about 8,000 gallons of milk daily, including to the Stanford campus and to restaurants, hotels, hospitals and factories from San Jose to San Francisco. The dairy closed some time after Edson's death in 1988.

Piers Ranch shifted first to beef cattle it owned, then about 1990 only rented pasture to other ranches due to fluctuating beef prices, according to Roger Piers. The last pastured cattle were pulled out last month, and the last steer -- a pet Texas longhorn Roger raised from a calf -- will leave Stanford lands before the end of August, ending an era.

-- Jay Thorwaldson


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