Dairy days

Descendants of a pioneer Juneau dairy family say development, not competition, shut them down

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2000

Anecdotes are history unexamined and, as such, are apt to be dismissed as insufficient reflections of a time.

But family stories and recollections are also the beginnings of history and can tell a lot about what happened that the official record hasn't gotten around to, yet.

There is some written record of Juneau's dairy industry. A federally funded study published by the city in 1991 takes some long strides through a half-century of events, as does the personal memoir of Mathilde Kendler, the one-time matriarch of one of Juneau's principal dairy families.

But both are collections of anecdotes, really, and though they offer their own reflections, they're likely to overextend themselves into generalization when the tale doesn't do the job.


Dairy family: Frances Smith in 1920, surrounded by her children Lee Jr. (left), baby Dolores and Joe.

The sentiments expressed in both works are these: From about 1910 to about 1960 or so, pioneering men and women wrested dairy farms from Juneau's wilds. They struggled through adversity while raising families, and succeeded, for the most part. Eventually the dairies shut down because of market forces - you could get cheaper milk shipped in from Washington.

The Smith family's collective memory doesn't exactly jibe with all of that. That's probably because any two sets of eyes that have witnessed the same 50 years of events will retell about 100 years of history.

But the Smith stories do add a lot.

Lee Smith Jr., the 83-year-old son of Juneau Dairy founder Lee Sr., and now retired in Oregon, was there when the Smith Dairy - the last of the city's big milk producers - locked its doors in 1965.

Juneau's dairies didn't fail, exactly, he says. And the price of imported milk was the least of anybody's worries.


The business that milk built: Dairy cocs end their cruise to Juneau in the earlt 1950's. Some Washington farmers, having discovered their stock had contracted tuberculosis, sold them to Alaskans rather than destroy them.

``By the time that milk got to Juneau, first from Canada and then from Washington state, beginning in the late '50s, a lot of it was already a week old,'' Smith said. Sure, the Smith boys' milk cost more, but it was a lot better, too.

In addition, some of the operations - especially the Smiths' - were technically on the cutting edge. Lee Jr. is hesitant to credit himself for that, but wants it on the record that Juneau dairying was not, so to speak, a hayseed operation.

Lee had left the farm in 1952 and plied his profession as artificial insemination specialist to Oregon farmers for 10 years. Along the way he studied a lot on the big, burgeoning dairy farms in the Northwest. And when he returned to Juneau to help run the Smith Dairy in 1961, he installed state-of-the-art stuff such as self-locking stanchions that kept a cow where she was supposed to be without a lot of fussing, a liquid manure system that took care of that age-old problem, and free-stall housing for each of the 117 cows on the Smith stead.

``In 1961, the dairy was still going strong,'' Lee Jr. said.

But something had to be wrong. The farms shut down, after all.


Juneau Dairy's truck is all dressed up for the Fourth of July parade in 1921; note the street made of planks.

``Well, you know, the younger people just didn't want to be dairy farmers, and hiring help was difficult,'' Lee says.

Some say the farmers simply decided the money was in selling their land to developers or in becoming developers themselves. But that wasn't the case with the Smith boys, Lee Jr. says. ``It wasn't in our minds to quit the dairy business.''

The Smith operation did buy another farm with the intention of selling off some of that land, he said. But Smith Dairy's land was not to be part of the transaction.

Still, other factors moved in, in the form of government's pressure to develop what it saw as nonproductive land.

Lee recalled being told by a city councilman that his property was bound for rezoning, that the ``dairy was through,'' and that he ``would never be able to drive another nail'' on the place.

``We sold what we could - 95 cows in the summer and fall of '65. We shipped heifers to the Matanuska Valley and cows to Fairbanks. The rest we slaughtered,'' Lee Jr. said.

He repeats himself: ``It wasn't in our minds to quit the dairy business.''

Leephonse Hober Smith stepped off a lumber schooner and onto a Juneau dock in February 1907 without the vaguest suspicion that he would someday be a solid pillar of Juneau's dairy community. True, he had watched his master mechanic father install the first dairy pasteurization and refrigeration equipment back in Virginia. But Lee Smith didn't know from cows.

And, besides, there was no dairy community in Juneau - except for a couple of small operations, one with 20 cows grazing along Gold Creek below what is now Calhoun Avenue, the other a smaller effort with cows set out to graze in Evergreen Bowl - now Cope Park - and in the ever-useful cemetery. This small but intrepid herd also grazed Last Chance Basin, where mining blasts occasionally sent the beasts gallumphing in panic.

``And a lot of people had a cow or two, for their own use,'' says Lee's 77-year-old son Ted, one of four brothers still living in Juneau.

Smith family lore has it that the 19-year-old Lee likely had had it with San Francisco and that nasty quake in '06, and in addition had contracted a touch of gold fever. There were probably other reasons for coming here that a lot of Alaskans understand but don't spend a lot of time analyzing.

Fate did flash one hint about what his future would be: Lee liked milk.

``In fact, he really loved milk,'' says Ted's 71-year-old brother Francis. ``But the first thing he did was go look for a job at the Perseverance Mine, up in Silver Bow Basin,'' he said.

Wearing his Sunday best, a derby and double-breasted suit, and not knowing any better, Lee Smith negotiated Gold Canyon Trail - today's Perseverance Trail - face-first into a bitter Taku wind.

The mine manager was impressed. He told Lee anybody who wanted a job that bad could have it, and set him to work in the assay office, where the young man stayed for three years, analyzing ore.

A conjunction of two events made Lee Smith a dairyman. A certain Nick Wagner is said to have bought out William Casey - the man with the dynamite-wary cows - in 1903, and Smith had befriended Wagner in about 1910. Also about that time, Smith was laid off his assaying job and Wagner's wife was severely burned in a home-canning mishap. Mrs. Wagner was taken to Seattle for treatment and, the story goes, Nick Wagner wired Lee Smith the message in 1911, ``You can have the damned place.''

Smith and a partner he was soon to buy out purchased the property for $10 in gold coin. Smith now owned some cows and property in the cemetery area along with a barn and farmhouse where Harborview School now stands.

Smith advertised for a partner and got a response from Juneau barber William Altmueller who, for reasons of discretion, changed his name to Altmiller during World War I. Altmiller left the partnership about nine years later, according to the Smith brothers, but not before introducing Lee to his visiting sister Frances - the Smith boys' future mother.

The stories from then until Lee's death in 1949 and Frances' own death from a broken heart two years later revolve as much around the disasters that shadow the pioneering life as around the good that comes of it.

Though the Smiths' farm grew, the work was endless and the debt unceasing.

Lee Smith acquired a homestead in the Mendenhall Valley, where he would summer his herd and, along with Altmiller and his sons, built a large barn in 1916. But the heavy snows of the winter of 1917-18 crushed the building and 24 of the 36 animals inside. ``It was a design from Missouri,'' Ted says. ``It couldn't hold the snow.''

Lee Smith and the Altmillers built another barn.

The flu pandemic of 1918 hit the Smith family and its hired men hard. ``Everybody got sick, and Dad took care of everybody, and ran the entire farm too,'' says Ted Smith. ``People said he was never the same after that, never as strong.''

But Lee persisted. As often as the stone rolled down the hill, he pushed it back up again, and a bit beyond.

In 1928 he introduced commercially produced ice cream to Juneau.

The size of the Smiths' herd grew. But then it would nearly collapse and the cycle repeat itself as unscrupulous Washington farmers opted not to destroy their tuberculosis-afflicted cattle and sold them instead to Juneau dairymen.

``We had to destroy them, but you could still sell the meat,'' Lee Jr. says. ``Though nobody would buy. People were scared of it.''

In 1936, the Juneau Dairy, along with the Mendenhall Dairy, Alaska Dairy - the Kendlers' place - and Glacier Dairy formed a co-op and built a big bottling plant downtown, the current Juneau School District office building.

But even a large, forward-looking organization such as the co-op was not immune to the plagues that routinely visited smaller operators. One of those was isolated Juneau's vulnerability to longshoremen's union strikes.

The hay rotted on Puget Sound docks as Juneau cattle starved.

``That (union boss) Harry Bridges,'' says Ted Smith, a note of revulsion in his voice even after 50 years.

Lee Smith died of a kidney ailment in July 1949, at the age of 61.

``It was a nasty day at the funeral at Evergreen Cemetery,'' recalls Lee Jr. ``Rain and very dark clouds, as if it would thunder at any moment. There were a great many people there. Then, one ray of light broke through the clouds and settled on Dad's coffin. Suddenly there were a lot of nervous-looking people standing around, including the priest.''

The following year, the Juneau School District condemned the Smith's town property to build Harborview Elementary School.

``There was the house, a concrete building, a barn, a slaughterhouse, buildings for machinery repair. In all, 33 lots. They paid us $66,000,'' Ted Smith says.

Frances Smith's heart was in that home and she said she could never leave it. She died there in February 1951, at the age of 59.

Earlier, Lee Jr. allowed as how a labor shortage might have contributed to the end of farming in Juneau. And young people weren't enthusiastic about becoming dairy farmers.

But those conditions did not arise in the 1960s. They in fact prevailed throughout the dairy industry's half-century in Juneau.

In ``Kendlers': The Story of a Pioneer Alaska Juneau Dairy,'' Mathilde Kendler writes of her (now hilarious) efforts to get a hired hand to turn a crank on an ice cream machine. The scene involves prodding and cajoling, temporary success, bribes of bourbon and an utterly disoriented hireling - not to mention ice cream that winds up tasting like bourbon.

Among farmers, the incident would not have been considered unusual.

Lee Jr. remembers that professional hand milkers were hard to come by. They worked seven days a week, sometimes for a year, until it occurred to them that they were way behind in their binge drinking. The problem was difficult enough that Lee Sr. once hired three Finnish milking maids fresh off the boat.

And though those first ``young people,'' the second generation, did stick to dairying for quite a long time, their ``enthusiasm'' for the business might have been forced upon them by the fact that there wasn't much else for them to do around here, especially during the Great Depression.

They would also have been loyal to the founder.

The women's work must have become a deterrent to recruitment as well. Frances Smith commonly prepared and fed three squares a day to her family of eight and as many as five hired hands. And then began her real work as mother, farmer's wife, major domo, gardener and doer of Whatever Needs to be Done.

And Lee Jr. asks wryly what kind of hue and cry would arise today if anybody tried to graze cows on the rich, pristine sedges of the Mendenhall flats, the way the Smiths used to.

``Those sedges,'' he says with a note of admiration in his voice, ``produced more milk than the best alfalfa from the Yakima Valley.''

That the Smiths and other dairymen and their families left a considerable mark on the life and development of Juneau is not to stretch a point at all.

But the farming legacy is less visible: What there is to see now of 50 years of work, growth, struggle and retreat is a short street in a small subdivision off Jordan Avenue, near the Nugget Mall, a little way from where the Smith's house was.

It's called Lee Smith Drive.

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