Paganetti’s Creamery and California Park Dairy in San Rafael
By Dewey Livingston
Marin County’s history is largely one of agriculture — and dairy is the headliner. The county was famous in the nineteenth century for its large dairy ranches that sent premium butter and cheese to San Francisco and beyond, and was still admired into the 1950s for its rolling, grassy pastures that turned into fresh milk and provided the county’s famously picturesque landscape and present-day open space. Often forgotten are the small neighborhood dairies with a handful of cows and very local clientele.
The big ones included Manuel Freitas’s spread at Terra Linda; the Greenbrae Ranch; the Grossi and Corda families of Novato and the Dolcini clan of north Marin; Mailliard’s ranches at San Geronimo Valley; and most noted in the annals, the Shafters & Howard tenant dairies at Point Reyes. These ranches, milking hundreds of cows each and making butter until the 1930s, overshadowed the little fresh-milk dairies in Fairfax, San Anselmo, Sun Valley, Phoenix Gulch, Point Reyes Station, Bolinas Lagoon, Mill Valley — one or two on the outskirts of almost every town.
Last year the Anne T. Kent California Room accepted a generous donation of photographs, memorabilia and information about one of those small, family-run dairies, this one at California Park on the east end of Woodland Avenue in San Rafael. Joe and Matilda Paganetti raised a family as they milked cows, made ice cream and other milk products, and served a generation of locals at a popular creamery and diner in downtown San Rafael.
Florindo Paganetti — known as Joseph or Joe in America — arrived from San Nazzaro, Switzerland in 1909, in a later wave of immigrants from that country that had started half a century earlier. He might have followed a cousin, Tranquillo Paganetti, who settled in northwest Marin early in the century. In 1916 Joe married Matilda Bergue, a San Rafael girl of French heritage whose father had a small ranch in southeastern San Rafael. The couple settled nearby and had three children, Florence, Walter and Evelyn.
The new Paganetti dairy was located on Auburn Street at the edge of the San Rafael Bay marsh. It was opposite Simms Island, home of Scheutzen Park (later and more permanently called California Park), which was a resort on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad favored by city people. Their land was comprised of a section of a grassy ridge that met Greenbrae Ranch at the top, and bounded by the Bret Harte neighborhood to the west. They called it California Park Dairy.
The Paganetti’s residency at California Park overlapped with the development of Lomita Park, a subdivision of part of the old James L. Flood property. Flood, the wealthy son of silver baron James C. Flood, sold off and rented property until his death in 1926. Lomita Park grew only slowly in the 1920s and 1930s, and the flat part of it was a reclaimed marsh that proved mostly unsuitable for building. Instead it provided pastureland to supplement the grassy hills of the California Park Dairy.
The Paganettis built a house, barns, and eventually a fine brick creamery building where they packaged their fresh raw milk and cream into bottles and made ice cream. The dairy delivered fresh milk to households in the area. Recently, California Room staff sat down with Joe Paganetti’s granddaughter Jacqueline Grossi and recorded her memories of her family and their dairy business.
“I remember there was this circular carousel with bottles in it, and they would be filled with milk, then they would pull this lever and the bottle caps would go on,” recalled Mrs. Grossi. “And in those days, they had to wash all the equipment by hand, and my grandmother always said her hands and her arms were always so well-used, because she had to wash all those milk bottles.”
In 1940 Joe Paganetti bought a lot at the northwest corner of Second and B and built a concrete commercial building at 809 B Street. Here he opened Paganetti’s Creamery, which soon became a favorite of locals. The café served hamburgers and typical diner fare, but specialty was the fresh ice cream and milk straight from the nearby farm. Milk shakes, banana splits, cones, scoops heaped with chocolate sauce and sprinkled with nuts — a sweet tooth’s paradise. “I remember eating the ice cream out of the paper cup, and there were no wooden spoons,” Mrs. Grossi remembered. “You had to take the lid off and fold it up and use that for your spoon.”
“You could get meat and mashed potatoes and gravy at lunchtime,” Mrs. Grossi continued. “There was a counter and booths, and each booth had the old fashioned juke box. You put your money in there and you flip the pages and you press the button, whatever song you wanted.”
Joe Paganetti served for many years as the fire chief of the Lomita Park Volunteer Fire department. His wife Matilda was a poll inspector at election time; the ballots were cast in the fire department building.
Life at California Park in those days was still largely rural, and the former marsh below the dairy — where Mrs. Grossi’s family home stood — sometimes flooded. “It came into our house, and I remember having to go into a little rowboat,” Mrs. Grossi recalled of a 1950s flood. “They packed us out the front step with hip waders, put us in the rowboat and just pulled us up to the road. Then we got out, and we went to my grandmother’s house.”
Growing up in San Rafael in the 1940s and 1950s left Mrs. Grossi with many fond memories. Her father ran the concessions at McNears Beach for a couple of years in the early 1950s. Nearby China Camp was a draw to the children. “We would go there quite often and visit, and you could buy shrimp,” she said. “They had a screened-in platform that when they caught the shrimp, they put them on there…you’d get a little brown paper sack for a quarter, and they would fill the sack with shrimp, and then we would go down to the water and take the shells off and just throw them on the beach and eat the shrimp.”
The family went to Camp Taylor for some family get-togethers. “We used to be able to go down and play in the creek that ran through there until polio came,” she recalled. “Then we weren’t allowed in the creek anymore, because they thought you could get polio from the water. So, we were never allowed in the creek anymore after that.
The family sold Paganetti’s Creamery in 1955 to Rose and Dick Fisher, owners of the Lark Café in Larkspur, who reopened as the Paris Café. The restaurant building eventually housed Gonzales Hacienda, a favorite Mexican restaurant remembered by hundreds of locals today. It was recently torn down and replaced with a new commercial building.
The Paganettis had also closed the dairy ranch earlier, as the hills became covered with new houses. Their milking barn and fine brick creamery were torn down and replaced by homes. Joe Paganetti died in 1962, Matilda in 1980. The Paganetti home still stands on Auburn Street, the only old house surrounded by new development.
For more information on Marin County dairies, including a detailed map of locations, use this link.