Petaluma Creamery Turns 100 and Still Keeps Churning

Written By: Tim Tesconi
Published: September 1, 2013

The venerable Petaluma Creamery, established in 1913 by a group of dairy farmers, has dutifully anchored the west side of downtown Petaluma for the last century, defining the town’s agricultural roots and serving as the economic engine for the Sonoma-Marin Dairy Belt.

Some towns have bell towers, classic courthouses or breweries as their identity. Petaluma has its creamery – and is proud of it. Since its founding 100 years ago, the creamery has been a story about cows, people, rollercoaster milk markets and the trucks that move milk from farm to table. But the Petaluma Creamery is mostly a story about the people – names like Benedetti, Dei and Dondero – who have helped it thrive and prosper so farmers have an outlet for their milk.

Today, the landmark creamery, owned by dairy rancher Larry Peter, remains a vital link in the survival of family dairy farmers in Sonoma and Marin counties.  Many in the dairy industry say that if it wasn’t for Peter, the creamery would not be around today celebrating its 100th anniversary and gearing up for a celebration party on Sept. 14. And without the creamery, there would be fewer dairies in the two counties.

In 2004, Peter put everything he had on the financial line to buy the Petaluma Creamery, which was likely to be dismantled for its valuable downtown real estate. Dairy Farmers of America had suspended operations at the creamery and had put the landmark facility up for sale. Prospects were razor slim it would continue as a creamery.

Peter, a crusader for Sonoma County agriculture, believed the creamery was too valuable to the dairy industry to see it sold to a developer so the stainless steel milk silos and miles of pipeline could make way for houses or a commercial development. He borrowed millions to buy the facility and has invested millions more to keep the plant going. The creamery serves as a kind of safety valve, offering an outlet for highly perishable milk by turning it into butter, cheese, powdered milk and other dairy products.

“I bought the creamery because I want milk produced in Sonoma County to stay in Sonoma County and not be shipped to Modesto or Humboldt County for processing,” said Peter. Every day, Peter continues his fight to keep the Petaluma Creamery going despite the challenges of operating an aging dairy processing facility that is only blocks from Petaluma’s City Hall.

Community and political leaders commend Peter for his entrepreneurial spirit and unfettered dedication to preserving the creamery and way-of-life in the Sonoma-Marin Dairy Belt.

“The Creamery not only has historic significance to our community but has been an essential component of our local economy as well.  It has served local dairy producers for one hundred years and played an integral role in ensuring the longevity and continuity of our family farms.  Larry Peter’s passion for his agricultural roots coupled with his entrepreneurial spirit is admirable and benefits the industry and above all, our community,” said Sonoma County supervisor David Rabbitt, a Petaluma resident and former member of the Petaluma City Council.

Ralph Sartori, who has deep roots in the Sonoma-Marin dairy industry and previously worked for Dairy Farmers of America, said the Petaluma Creamery is important to Petaluma and Sonoma and Marin counties.

“The creamery has been the center of Petaluma for a century, the foothold for the town’s economy and identity,” said Sartori. “Over the last 100 years it has supported a lot of families and has been the driving force in supporting other businesses like feed mills and banking institutions.”

Sartori said thanks to Larry Peter the creamery has survived to the century mark. And beyond.
Peter said he won’t give up and will keep going to build markets for the dairy products he produces at the Petaluma Creamery. He said he is strengthened by the support he gets from his life partner Diane Starkey, who works with him at the creamery.

“I want this creamery to be here for another 100 years,” said Peter, 55, “As long as I am alive it will be operating.”

Peter is planning a big public party on Sept. 14 to celebrate the creamery’s centennial. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Baker Street, which separates the creamery from the Petaluma Creamery Store, will be closed for a street fair and farmers’ market type of festival with booths and food including pasta and polenta from Art Ibleto, the Pasta King. The Petaluma Creamery Store will be open, offering an array of cheeses, ice cream, food and merchandise.

There will be tours of the creamery’s processing plant, a visit by Clo the Cow and dairy exhibits including a cow and calf from a Sonoma County dairy farm.  The North Bay Dairywomen and Dairy Princesses will be there to share information about the North Bay’s dairy industry.

The continuity of the dairy industry is amazing. Just consider that the current Dairy Princess is Francesca Gambonini, the great, great granddaughter of Silvio and Evelina Gambonini, the Petaluma dairy farmers who were among the 35 dairy farmers who founded the Petaluma Cooperative Creamery in 1913. The creamery started because a booming San Francisco needed butter. Meanwhile, Sonoma County dairy farmers, like the Gamboninis, needed a steady market for the milk and cream they produced.
The Gambonini family is still in the dairy business and this year is celebrating 100 years on theur Gamlake Dairy off Lakeville Highway.

“Today 100 years after its founding — with my grandparents as original stockholders and shippers — the Petaluma Creamery is still receiving milk from the Gamlake Dairy, which started the same year as the creamery,” said George Gambonini, a third generation member of the Gambonini family. When George and his wife Margaret retired, the dairy business was turned over to their son Frank and his wife Stacey Gambonini, who have three daughters, Francesca, Alexandria and Samantha, the sixth generation at Gamlake Dairy.

George’s parents were Earl and Esther Gambonini. The Gamboninis were among the early-day dairy farmers in the North Bay. But cows have been part of the culture in Sonoma and Marin counties since the late 1860’s when immigrants from Switzerland, Ireland, Italy and Portugal arrived to pick up milk pails and do what they knew best: tend and milk cows.

It’s this cow culture legacy and dairy farmers’ close link to the land that prompted Larry Peter to buy the Petaluma Creamery and give it his all to keep it going for future generations.

“What would the North Bay be without the farms and ranches and the people who work them?’ asks Peter, a first generation rancher. Peter is a man on the move, with a mind that is always racing and poised to pounce on the next deal or help someone who needs a favor. He said his work ethic was inspired by his father Virgil Peter, who worked for 40 years pulling green chain at lumber yards including Standard Structures.

Peter is edgy, curious and devoted to a way of life he worries could vanish from Sonoma County.

“My goal is to keep agriculture here for many more generations, that’s why I support Sonoma County Farm Bureau and the agriculture youth groups like the 4-H and FFA. These young people are our future,” said Peter, who grew up in Sebastopol.

Peter didn’t grow up on a ranch but is now one of the most familiar faces in agriculture. As a kid, he picked prunes for Warren Dutton and raspberries for Tony Kozlowski. When he was a teenager he worked at the old Miller Dairy on Mill Station Road in Sebastopol. That experience ignited his desire to one day have a dairy of his own. He washed milk bottles, fed milk to calves and forked hay to the milk cows. He later worked for 10 years at American Door Co., saving his money to buy a ranch.

Finally, in 1987 after years of work and saving he was able to buy a dairy ranch in Two Rock, the heart of the Sonoma-Marin Dairy Belt. He said his cows and crops are for the generations before him who wanted to be ranchers.

“It was always my Dad’s dream to have a dairy but he couldn’t afford it,” said Peter. “I did this for them as well as for myself.”

In addition to owning and operating the 100 year old Petaluma Creamery, Peter has a herd of Jersey cows on his Two Rock Dairy, which produces the Spring Hill Jersey Cheese that is sold at farmers markets and retail shops throughout California.

“We grow the feed, milk the cows, make the cheese and sell it,” said Peter.
Peter invites everyone to the Petaluma Creamery’s 100th anniversary party on Sept. 14, saying it will celebrate the legacy of an institution that has played a key role in the history and economy of Sonoma County.

“The Petaluma Creamery is very special to me, Petaluma and many families who have either worked at the creamery or shipped milk here,” said Peter.

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