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Milk Made These Communities of Southeast L.A. County

We’ve gotten used to L.A.’s “littles” and “towns” – among them Little Ethiopia, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Filipinotown – the places where immigrant aspiration gets a foothold, nostalgia is served, and Jonathan Gold finds the joints he loves. Official recognition of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods is fairly recent, but Los Angeles has always been culturally diverse, even as far back as the end of the Mexican colonial period and the start of the city’s Americanization.

French and Italian communities clustered around the old plaza in the mid-19th century, as did Basques and German Jews, creating some of the city’s earliest civic institutions. Sonoratown, north of the plaza, and old Chinatown to the east kept those ethnic communities at a distance. At the edge of San Pedro, a Japanese fishing villageFurusato – flourished on Terminal Island from the turn of the century until World War II and internment.

South and east of downtown, along the Orange County border and straddling it, are lesser-known ethnic communities that continue to hybridize with suburban Los Angeles. Milk made two of them: Bellflower and Artesia, where Holland and the Azores met.

Southeast Los Angeles County is a landscape bounded by the San Gabriel River to the east and the Los Angeles River to the west. It’s roughly where the former ranchos Los Cerritos, Los Alamitos, and Los Coyotes share the floodplains of the two rivers. Their annual wandering kept the land open pasture until the last decades of the 19th century, when sheep raising gave way to more intensified agriculture.

By the turn of the century, the southeast was parceled out as fields, orchards, hog farms, and feed lots along a few country roads. Where they crossed, the communities of Bellflower and Artesia grew up around a general store, a hay broker, a post office, a church, and a stop on the Pacific Electric (PE) line that connected Los Angeles to Santa Ana.

By 1900, Artesia (named for its artesian wells) had, according to the city’s boosters, “a hotel, general store, agricultural implement house, blacksmith shop, and a ‘handsome’ schoolhouse built in 1875.” German immigrants, like those who founded Anaheim, were among the orchardists and stock raisers, but turban-wearing “Hindus” were some of the laborers in the groves. The Little India of Artesia’s Pioneer Boulevard was 70 years away.

Bellflower was begun by Los Angeles real estate promoter F. E. Woodruff in 1906 (and named Somerset in 1909). Claire S. Thompson built the general store in 1910. The town had a population of 100. By 1912, it was 1,200.

The first general store in Bellflower, 1910. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library
The first general store in Bellflower, 1910. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

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Bellflower celebrates Independence Day, 1915. The street is Bellflower Boulevard now. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library
Bellflower celebrates Independence Day, 1915. The street is Bellflower Boulevard now. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library
Bellflower Boulevard at Flower Street, 1956. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library
Bellflower Boulevard at Flower Street, 1956. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library

The PE stops in both towns, still unincorporated then, produced an unusual kind of agricultural community. Town lots in Bellflower were big enough for small-scale farming and chicken ranching. Larger parcels in Artesia allowed for fruit cultivation, plant nurseries, and vegetable plots. But the PE also gave residents access to jobs in Los Angeles. (Bellflower Boulevard to Spring Street took just 40 minutes.) The farmer/commuter of 1912 rode the PE to work weekdays and farmed on weekends.

Suburban farmers were fewer by the mid-1920s, as orchards and fields in Bellflower and Artesia were subdivided for house lots, but eight or ten acres along the San Gabriel River was enough for a dairying operation, if it was run right. Instead of on open pasture, dairymen kept their cows penned in lots. Good genetics and good feed produced 400 pounds of milk per year per cow, double the national average.

Pete Van Leeuwen, who had come to Bellflower in 1926, told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times in 1987, “I would climb on top of a haystack, and I could count 20 little dairies along Woodruff, Palo Verde and South Street.” There were eventually more than 400 dairies and more than 100,000 cows in the riverside towns. Southeast Los Angeles County was the largest milk-producing region in the state.

Like Van Leeuwen, many of the dairymen were from the Netherlands, many of them rural immigrants from crowded Friesland, who had arrived before World War II, as well as Hollanders who came as refugees from post-war devastation and famine. (1944-45 had been the Hongerwinter – Hunger Winter in Dutch.) They were followed in the early 1950s by Dutch-speaking families – some of mixed race – that had fled newly independent Indonesia (the former Dutch East Indies) only to face hardship and discrimination in the Netherlands.

Dairying on the drylot model spread up the banks of the San Gabriel River to Downey, Paramount, La Mirada, Cerritos, La Palma, Cypress, and Norwalk, as well as to Bellflower and Artesia. Most dairies were small, but some combined adjacent properties into a larger operation. Nearly all were family owned.

Bellflower and Artesia welcomed the Dutch-speaking immigrants. There were jobs for experienced dairymen and opportunities to buy land. Banks founded during the first wave of immigration in the 1920s financed the purchases. Congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church and the Christian Reformed Church attended Sunday services whose sermons were in Dutch. A church-affiliated elementary school (and, later, a high school) educated the immigrants’ children. Dutch social clubs and even a church-affiliated retirement home gave immigrants a sense of stability. Bakeries and specialty markets satisfied their nostalgic longings.

A 27-acre, Dutch-themed shopping center opened in nearby Lakewood, along with a bowling alley. Other new businesses banded themselves as Dutch, trading on the image of industrious, tulip-loving Hollanders.

The Dutch Village shopping center was on Woodruff Avenue at South Street. Photo courtesy of the City of Lakewood Historical Collection
The Dutch Village shopping center was on Woodruff Avenue at South Street. Photo courtesy of the City of Lakewood Historical Collection
Rockview Milk Farms in Downey, 1957. Photo courtesy of the Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs – Los Angeles Public Library
Rockview Milk Farms in Downey, 1957. Photo courtesy of the Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs – Los Angeles Public Library
Dairy cows watch as cars drive through flooded Artesia Boulevard in Bellflower, 1952. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Dairy cows watch as cars drive through flooded Artesia Boulevard in Bellflower, 1952. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

 

When I attended St. Bernard’s grammar school in Bellflower in the mid-1950s, some of my classmates were the sons and daughters of Catholic Dutch immigrants with last names like ten Berge, Van Strein, and Van Deudekom. There was one boy, still unfamiliar with English, whose last name seemed to be Outhouse. Another was a small, dark Dutch Indonesian named Schmidt.

Within the expanding Dutch community of the southeast was a second immigrant community with significantly different cultural traditions. Portuguese-speaking farm workers from the Azores – an archipelago a thousand miles west of Lisbon in the North Atlantic – were already in the San Joaquin Valley. Poverty, little available land, and political instability in Portugal had brought them there. Better jobs in the dairies of Bellflower and Artesia brought some of them to work in the milking parlors of Dutch dairy owners.

The Azoreans were Catholic and, like the Calvinist Frisians, they centered their lives on the churches they founded: Our Lady of the Rosary Church, begun in 1923 in Paramount, and Holy Family Church, begun in 1928 in Artesia.

The Azorean dairy workers founded social clubs that each year assembled a traditional Portuguese fiesta. Three days of celebration in honor of Divino Espirito Santo (the Holy Spirit) included processions, religious observances, the serving of Sopas do Espirito Santo (festival soups), and the naming of a fiesta queen to represent sainted Queen Isabel who, it is said, fed soup to starving Portuguese after a famine. In another Portuguese tradition, the fiesta would end with a bullfight, although not one ending with the death of the bull.

The fiestas were held at the local Divino Espirito Santo Hall, always called the “Portuguese hall” by their American neighbors. George Pratt, a jeweler in Bellflower for whom my mother worked, annually cleaned and repaired an elaborate crown for a statue of Our Lady of Fatima kept at the Portuguese hall in Artesia. My mother sold tiny gold studs to be put in the newly pierced ears of 10-month-old Azorean girls, something she thought was both exotic and shocking.

Milk gave the Azoreans work and gave the Dutch Frisians a measure of American-style prosperity as the post-war population of Los Angeles County boomed. Some Azoreans became dairy owners themselves. Dairy lots, stinking in the March rain and August sun, would be fronted by a big, rambling dairy owner house, sometimes accompanied by newer and somewhat smaller houses for the owner’s married sons and daughters, if they stayed in the dairying business. You can still spot dairy houses from 1950s and early 1960s in Artesia, Cypress, La Palma, Bellflower, Downey and La Mirada, They’re always surrounded by a dense grid of tract houses.

The dairymen of the southeast tried to hold back the tide of suburbanization in the 1950s. They incorporated Dairyland (1955, later renamed La Palma), Dairy Valley (1956, now Cerritos), and Dairy City (1956, now Cypress) to shield their businesses behind agriculture-only zoning. The incantation of dairy names didn’t mean much when developers began offering to buy out the dairymen in the 1960s. The dairymen, if they were young enough and motivated enough, relocated their herds to Corona and Chino. They moved to the San Joaquin Valley when the suburbs again came to them in the late 1990s.

(In 2014, Robert Vandenheuvel, the general manager of the California Milk Producers Council, reported that fewer than 200 dairies were left in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. In 1995, there had been almost 400.)

All but one or two of the dairies in Bellflower and Artesia had become houses by then. Their lawns flourished on soil that had gotten the benefit of 70 years of dairying, although occasionally the past was less benign. A house in Lakewood partially collapsed into a pit where, decades before, the bodies of sickened cows and hogs had been buried under a thin layer of soil.

Dairy and owner's house surrounded by tract homes in Downey in 1957. Photo Courtesy of Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs​, ​Los Angeles Public Library
Dairy and owner's house surrounded by tract homes in Downey in 1957. Photo Courtesy of Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs​, ​Los Angeles Public Library, by nmasters
Artesia fiesta Queen Florine Gonsalves crowns Our Lady of Fatima, 1948. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive – Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA
Artesia fiesta Queen Florine Gonsalves crowns Our Lady of Fatima, 1948. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive – Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA
Mrs. Arthur Atsma of Dairy Valley (now Cerritos) in Frisian costume with her daughter, Alicia. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives – Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA
Mrs. Arthur Atsma of Dairy Valley (now Cerritos) in Frisian costume with her daughter, Alicia. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives – Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA
Portuguese matador and bull in a so-called “bloodless bullfight” in Pico Rivera in 1980. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library
Portuguese matador and bull in a so-called “bloodless bullfight” in Pico Rivera in 1980. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library

The cultural distinctiveness of the Frisians and Azoreans was only partly suburbanized into Southern Californian ordinariness, although that includes a mixture of Latino, Korean, Laotian, Khmer, Vietnamese, Punjabi, Kolkatan, Filipino, and Chinese cultural influences (among others) in the county’s southeast region. Ethnic enclaves where I live are obliged to be more fluid and permeable. Their persistence, even with cultural institutions intact, is constantly being negotiated.

The Dutch Village shopping center and the adjacent Dutch Bowl were replaced by a contemporary strip mall in 1987. The Dutch bakeries in Bellflower and Artesia closed. But the 71-year-old Holland American Market, which closed in mid-2014, reopened that December as the Holland International Market in Bellflower. It still sells wooden shoes and speculaas cookies. Portugal Imports in Artesia still sells bolinhos de bacalhau (salt cod fritters) and Castlinhos cheese from the Azores.

The D. E. S. halls in Paramount and Artesia still put on their annual round of fiestas. Matadores, a mounted fighter (cavaleiro), and a team of wranglers (forçados) still face the bulls in the Artesia Praça de Toiros, despite complaints of animal cruelty. The Filarmónica do Artesia DES still plays traditional band tunes to entertain the crowd.

Holy Family Church in Artesia offers mass on Sunday in Portuguese, but only one. Twice a month, a mass is celebrated in Mandarin; just once a month in Tagalog. None of the churches begun by Netherlands immigrants in Bellflower worships in Dutch anymore.

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