Many people in Dixon grew up with the Milk Farm restaurant, just a little ways north of town and across Freeway 80. The Milk Farm was in many ways a smaller version of Vacaville’s Nut Tree complex, and both were begun during the 1920s. Both of them even had adjacent airports.
There are also some comparisons with the Casa de Fruta operation east of Gilroy and Knott’s Berry Farm in southern California.
The Milk Farm story is another boom and bust tale, but the establishment did prevail for 62 years. The remaining gigantic sign with the cow jumping over the moon continues to remind locals of what was once there. Many drivers along the freeway today, seeing the sign and the Milk Farm Road exit, must wonder why there’s no “there” anymore – just some abandoned concrete pads, chain-link fences, and weeds. There was a chance for the property to be developed into something else within this decade, but it fell through.
What gave birth to the Milk Farm was the increasing use of cars and trucks in the early part of the 1900s, and the improvement of roads to handle the traffic. Highway 40 was the first long-distance highway passing through Dixon, coming down from Davis via Russell, Pedrick, Sievers, and Currey roads. The first incarnation of the Milk Farm, called Cypress Camp Grove (or Hess Station), was located along Sievers Road in 1924, west of today’s Pedrick Produce. Designed to tap into vehicle traffic (just as the Normandy Inn and gas stations were doing in Dixon), it was built by Karl Hess and had a gas station, refreshment center, store, and overnight cabins. It also offered pony rides, 50-cent chicken dinners, and during the Great Depression, all the milk or buttermilk you could drink for only 10 cents.
As vehicle traffic strove for greater speeds and more road safety, it was inevitable that Hwy. 40 was straightened into a path similar to that of the freeway today. When that was done, Hess wisely moved the operation one mile away to its final site in 1939. The business became known as the Milk Farm when a Saturday Evening Post magazine article mentioned the Karl Hess Milk Farm (also, Dixon called itself the Dairy City).
Hess sold the Milk Farm restaurant to Glynn and Homer Henderson in 1946, and they were primarily responsible for its growth and popularity. Due to Mrs. Henderson’s culinary prowess, the Milk Farm restaurant became renowned for apple dumplings, regular and chicken pot pies, roast beef, cornbread, Irish stew, cream puffs, strawberry shortcake, salads with homemade dressings, and veggies. Mrs. Henderson’s food philosophy was to let food flavors speak for themselves and avoid using herbs and spices.
During World War II in the 1940s, due to labor shortages, the restaurant converted from waiter service to a cafeteria, which of course held down the price of meals. At the height of its popularity, there were 10 women cooks and a staff of 45 women working in two shifts. The restaurant opened early and closed late, which was good for truckers. An astounding 1,200 to 3,000 people stopped daily and the restaurant could hold somewhere between 200 and 450 guests at a time.
The interior of the restaurant was homey and unpretentious, with wooden beams overhead. A 1940 interior photo accompanying this column shows simple tables with what appear to be checkered oilcloth tablecloths, which are easy to wipe off.
Like the light high on a post that informed travelers they were nearing the old Silveyville and its hotel, when the 100-foot-high Milk Farm sign (built in 1963 for $78,000) came into view, truckers and automobile drivers alike knew they could stop for inexpensive and good grub in air-conditioned comfort.
Besides the restaurant there was eventually an orange juice stand (similar to the George’s Orange stand still in Dixon), several gasoline stations, pony rides, a gift shop began by Mrs. Henderson in 1946, and possibly a fruit stand. I have heard that, like the Nut Tree complex, it also had a kiddie train ride.
Dixon denizen Larry Simmons was a supervisor at Milk Farm from 1950 to 1979 and said “It was the place to go.” It was known for great milk shakes. Dixonite Ardeth Sievers said, “You got gussied up when you went to the Nut Tree but you didn’t have to when you went to the Milk Farm.” The restaurant was a regular stop for Greyhound busses and chartered skiing busses.
The Gill Dairy next to the Milk Farm restaurant had 500 cows and was a probable milk supplier, but it closed after World War II. Much of the milk came from the Vacaville area.
What led to the demise of the Milk Farm in 1986? My guess is that it didn’t keep up with the times in terms of design and upkeep, cars began to have air conditioning, there was more competition from fast-food chains with drive-through service, and a cafeteria seemed institutional (like a college dorm).
The specific event that led to the closure in 1986 was damage to the restaurant’s roof during a windstorm, which led to a flooded basement. The county then closed the facility for health reasons and also found building code violations. There were also rainwater drainage problems in the area. When this happened the place was run by the Mrs. Henderson’s son, Boyd Webber.
So as not to feel too bad about the ending of an era, the Nut Tree complex also closed, later transforming itself into an outlet shopping area.
And now, for the rest of the story. In 1997, entrepreneur and inventor Paul Moller, a former UC Davis professor and department head, and long-time resident of Dixon, bought the Milk Farm property. The move appears to have been both an investment (he had successfully developed a commercial area in Davis) and a desire to locate some of his business and personal interests there – including his long-time involvement in building a commercially viable “skycar” which would allow ordinary citizens to fly to work instead of driving.
Moller, with a typical get-go attitude, demolished the buildings in 2000 and set out with a dream to transform the area. He invested a considerable amount of money in hiring consultants and planners, and in jumping through the environmental and permit hoops required by the county (the property was outside the Dixon city limits). Moller says today that after he expended millions, Dixon officials made it clear to him that the property had to be annexed into Dixon, which was done. This meant that he was now dealing with Dixon instead of the county, and he virtually had to go through all of the environmental reports and permitting again, costing considerably more money. Still, he remained optimistic.
His plan had been to find a partner with deep pockets to help develop the property, and one eventually appeared – the Salvation Army, which had received a tremendous donation (over one billion dollars) from the Kroc family of McDonald’s restaurants fame. The organization would buy most of the land, leaving seven acres for Moller’s purposes, and would build a large Salvation Army facility there.
To make a long story short, Moller appeared to have community support for his project (except some had opposed his demolition of the restaurant) but after a 2009 meeting with city staff, including new City Manager Nancy Huston, the Salvation Army walked away from any partnership, apparently feeling that Dixon was making unreasonable and unfriendly financial demands.
Moller feels that the city staff wasn’t thrilled about the Salvation Army coming in because as a non-profit, it wouldn’t contribute taxes to the city. But it would have generated jobs. In the , Dixon’s economic development director Mark Heckey said city staff were trying to give the Salvation Army realistic information about the costs they would incur in locating here.
From my experience in reporting on urban development projects, a lot of negotiation goes on between cities and the people who wish to build these projects. The builders hope to spend as little as possible, and in offering jobs and prestige to a city, try to extract concessions. Cities, on the other hand, typically want to get developers to contribute as much as possible to infrastructure and support costs (including sewer and water connections, roadbuilding, drainage, landscaping, and so on) – sometimes even more than is reasonable. It appears to me that the city staff misjudged the Salvation Army, if they did indeed want the organization to locate at the former Milk Farm.
As a side note, last January , spending $22 million for construction and granting a $22 million endowment to support it. Perhaps this is what Dixon missed out on.
Also, Paul Moller says that the withdrawal of the Salvation Army from his plans resulted in a personal bankruptcy, and that a bank now owns the property.
Meanwhile, the cow still jumps over the moon on the top of the ever-present Milk Farm sign, as the desirable location languishes in obscurity.