By Constanza Perry
Roberts Dairy, located in Happy Valley, which is now the Montecito neighborhood in San Rafael, was a prominent Marin County dairy. It was founded by pioneer resident Rachel Armstrong Roberts, who started her business with two Jersey cows in 1898. Through her energetic work, the dairy grew to over a thousand cows in 1943.
An article on dairying, “Dairy Products of Marin County” (Bliss Brown, March 13, 1936), noted one particular expansion: “A new fireproof concrete and iron building is now being erected at 40 Mary Street, San Rafael, with all the latest equipment for handling and manufacturing milk products. Milk, cream and butter are the chief articles handled. All of the milk used is produced by their own herd of 200 cows. These are kept on two ranches, one at Santa Venetia and the other at Tocoloma [western Marin].”1
The Dairymen photo has a Letter on the back by Jack Mason. He is a famous west Marin historian. This picture is historic and has a hand written note on the back by Jack Mason.
Photo #1 Caption:
Roberts Dairy Delivery trucks in front of the Roberts Dairy Creamery building circa 1938. The woman in the front is Rachel Armstrong Roberts. The other people from left to right are: Jim Luchency, Joseph Bush, Sumner Orr, Chet Angier, Frenchie Adelan, Charlie Gocher, Joe Bowman, Art Wedemeyer, Rachel Armstrong Roberts (2nd wife), Sayles Turney, John Roberts, Ruth Roberts Lundgren, Rita Sterling Hanson, and James Edwald Lundgren ( Jim Lundgren) on the far right. Photo taken circa 1938. This historic picture has a hand written note on the back.
Dear Jim, (Lundgren)
A great picture-- take care of it! Thanks for trusting me with it.
Jack Mason, Inverness, CA ( 1981)
By 1945, according to the U.S. Casuality Company (Comprehensive Liability Policy, September 1, 1945), Roberts Dairy owned six ranches:
1) The Stetson Ranch in Santa Venetia, 9-1/2 miles northeast of San Rafael on San Pedro Road
2) Tocoloma Ranch in western Marin, about 15 miles west of of San Rafael on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard
3) The “K” Ranch on Pierce Point, about 7 miles west of Inverness bordering Tomales Bay
4) New Albion Ranch, on Drakes Bay, 8 miles west of Inverness
5) Glenbrook Ranch, on Limantour Bay, about 6 miles southwest of Inverness
6) Fourth and Mary Streets, Creamery, including the manufacture of butter and cheese.2
The family home was always at the same location, but its address has changed three times. The Marin County Directories for San Rafael listed it at 32 and 40 Mary Street; today the number of the house on the corner says it's at 50 Mary Street. That house still stands in its original location and is in quite good condition. According to Montecito neighbor Kurt Schmidt (whose father Lorenz Schmidt attended Coleman School and San Rafael High with Rachel’s grandsons Jimmy and Bobby Lundgren), Rachel Armstrong Roberts lived in the farmhouse at the corner of Mary Street and Mission Avenue, across the street from the Aldersly Danish Home. Legend has it that John Paul Chase, who rode with gangster Baby Face Nelson (who was then living in Sausalito), lived in that very house before he began his life of crime.8
Photo: Dairy trucks in San Rafael circa 1930s.
Roberts Dairy passed through five generations of dairymen and women. Rachel Armstrong Roberts, who was born in 1858 of a Scottish father and an American mother, married John L. Roberts in 1889 when she was 32; he was ten years her senior. She died at the age of 85 in 1943, by which time production had grown and there were over 1,000 cows in the Roberts Dairy ranches.9 Rachel Roberts’s son-in-law, Niles Lundgren, was also a partner in the dairy. He and his wife, Ruth Lundgren, lived nearby at 196 Union Street. Niles and Ruth had two sons, Jimmy “Slats” Lundgren and Bobby “Hang Drawers” Lundgren, who were very close in age. Both boys went to Coleman Elementary School and were graduated from San Rafael High.
The Marin County Directories for San Rafael showed Roberts Dairy in business until 1958. After Rachel Roberts died in 1943, her son Niles continued to run the business with his son Jim, a lifelong rancher and partner of the dairy. Niles’s other son, Bob, became an engineer and did not work in the family dairy business.10
After the dairy closed in 1958, Jim Lundgren ran Green Pine Nursery at the creamery location on Mary and 4th streets. He moved from Dellwood Court (off Knight Drive near Point San Pedro Road) to 40 Mary Street in 1962. His father, Niles, still lived at 196 Union Street. By 1982 the old dairy was slated to be torn down for a Salvation Army thrift store and community center to be built in its place. At that time the creamery building was being used as an antique-furniture store and a real estate office.
By 1982, the family was involved in a dispute over the last will of their father, Niles Lundgren. Jim Lundgren challenged the court-ordered sale of the property. He and his wife, Ann, tried to seek landmark status for the old dairy and wanted to convert the creamery building back to its original use and begin production of cheese. They tried to block the sale of the property to the Salvation Army, which had tentatively bought the land and planned to bulldoze the creamery and build a two-story 20,000-square-foot community center, a thrift shop, and six apartments on the second story in its location at the corner of Fourth and Mary streets. Jim Lundgren protested: “The dairy has been in my family since 1889 and it is going into its fifth generation. We would like the creamery to be put into some kind of category because it is the last of the dairies in San Rafael.”11
The City gave permission to tear down the old landmark. Jim’s stepson, Jim Niles, was there to protect Jim and his wife Ann Lundgren as the wrecking ball from Mid State Construction swung down on the old building. Jim Niles said, “I remember seeing pictures of the place when this was still a dirt road with cows on it,” pointing to the pavement on 4th Street. Roy Butts, the code-enforcement officer for San Rafael, said, “This guy is still living back in the old days.” Jim Lundgren told Roy he wanted to start a creamery again and put people back to work.12
Today, few people would guess that a leading dairy plant once operated right in the middle of their neighborhood.
(For more information on this topic, contact the author at email@example.com.)
1Courtesy of the Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library.
2Courtesy of the Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library.
3Courtesy of the Marin History Museum. Historian Jack Mason, The Making of Marin, and the Jack Mason Museum in Inverness, California.
4Courtesy of the Marin History Museum.
5Courtesy of the Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library.
6Courtesy of MarinNostalgia.org (photo from The William French Collection).
7Courtesy of MarinNostalgia.org (photo from Paper Pile, San Anselmo).
8Courtesy of Marin History Museum, from a Marin Independent Journal article (January 6, 1983).
9U.S. Census from ancestry.com; microfilm courtesy of Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library.
10From ancestry.com; microfilm courtesy of the Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library.
11“Machine bites down dairy building,” Marin Independent Journal (January 6, 1983).
12“Landmark status sought for old dairy,” Newspointer (September 29, 1982). Courtesy of the Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library.