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Islands of the Past : Suburbia Engulfs Last of Cerritos' Dairy Days

July 31, 1988|BETTINA BOXALL | Times Staff Writer

The Artesia Milling Co. is a hay-scented island of the past, a worn compound of corrugated-metal buildings that never could have been built in the meticulously planned community of Cerritos that now surrounds it.

Across town is the Barcelos dairy, a cowless, nine-acre rectangle of weedy fields, sagging fencing and weathered buildings.

Virtually the last vestiges of the agricultural era that dominated this area for two centuries, the feed mill and the former dairy are about to give way to the suburban trademarks that have been lapping at their doors for years. The city Redevelopment Agency is condemning the milling company for expansion of the auto mall on Studebaker Road, and a developer is buying the former dairy on South Street to build a 40-unit housing tract.

After they are cleared, there will be little left to indicate that Cerritos was part of one of the world's greatest milk-producing areas, that sugar beets, sweet corn and alfalfa once sprouted from its rich alluvial soil, that cattle and sheep grazed over its flat plain.

Past 'Erased Like a Blackboard'

In the span of 30 years of development, the past has been "erased like a blackboard," noted Marilyn Cenovich, a city librarian who is compiling a history of Cerritos.

It is a transformation relentlessly repeated in Southern California, where farms have been retreating in the face of development for more than 100 years.

John Zuidervaart isn't sure where he and his siblings will retreat when they leave the mill their father, Dirk, bought in 1950 in a bankruptcy auction. All 10 of Dirk's children own the property, and half of them operate the business with the help of six employees.

John says they would like to open another mill in the area, which puts them between their central California hay suppliers and their customers, many of whom are Orange County horse owners. If not, they'll turn to Riverside County.

Although neither side will disclose figures, the Zuidervaart family is asking more for the nearly 2-acre property than the Redevelopment Agency is willing to pay. The city has resorted to condemnation proceedings and a Superior Court judge has said the city can take possession of the mill in mid-September. The final price of the land is still being negotiated, but figures released by the agency indicate it expects to spend about $1 million per acre buying the entire 8.5 acres needed for the auto mall expansion.

In the meantime, John Zuidervaart and the three brothers and one sister who run the business continue to turn out tons of feed pellets for horses and rabbits in the shadow of the 605 Freeway. They make four different kinds of pellets according to their own formulas, mixing pulverized hay with grain, vitamins, minerals and molasses.

When Dirk Zuidervaart, a Dutch immigrant who moved to the Paramount area in the '20s, took over the mill, the company blended chopped hay with molasses and sold it to area dairies and farms for cow and horse feed. After the dairies were replaced by stucco housing developments, the mill stayed in business by changing its product to cater to the horse owners scattered around the region.

That is about all that changed. The mill's original name, Holland Dairy Feed, remains in faded letters on one of the buildings, which date from the '40s. In stark contrast to the landscaped auto mall, where 17 dealers sell cars in mansard-roofed showrooms with balconies, the mill's decor is basic, unadorned backwoods. The feed bags are burlap and their prices are scribbled on a chalkboard.

Long Looked at by Developers

It has been years since the Barcelos property at the corner of South Street and Shoemaker Avenue was an active dairy, and developers have long had their eye on the acreage. A spokesman for A-M Homes of Newport, which is buying the tract from Guillermina Barcelos for an undisclosed sum, says the company hopes to start construction of 40 single-family homes this winter.

Dairymen moved into the area in large numbers in the '30s. They represented the last of a wave of agricultural immigration that began with Spanish cattle ranchers in the late 1700s.

The sprawling ranches were split up in the next century, and by the late 1800s several crops were being raised in the fertile plain of the San Gabriel River. There was even a vineyard near what is now the intersection of Artesia and Pioneer boulevards, Cenovich discovered in her research.

With the exception of a few large ranch-style homes built by prosperous dairymen, no other remnants of the dairy era are left in Cerritos, according to Dennis Davis, the city's environmental affairs director.

One former dairy home has been converted into a recreation center at Heritage Park, but city officials say it never really occurred to them to preserve examples of the area's dairy heritage. "I can't recall that ever being an issue," said Assistant City Manager Art Gallucci.

"The cows and the flies and the smell were not the most popular thing," remarked former City Councilman Donald Knabe, who remembers a time when his nose would tell him he was nearing Cerritos. Even when they were gone, the cows left their mark in the soil. Owners of new tract houses often had difficulty starting their lawns in the wake of the thousands of cows that gave the city its first name, Dairy Valley.

"There's nothing romantic about a dairy farm. It just doesn't have the pizazz of a redwood forest," Knabe said.

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