Before our hills were crowded with houses, there were cows grazing on them. There were big dairy farms near Sunnyside, such as Rock Ranch and Smart’s New York Dairy, as well as many small producers. It was a rough and ready urban business then, serving the needs of a growing city–but subjected to little health regulation (read a good summary here).
Even into the 1920s Sunnyside residents on the north side were irked by the damage done to their gardens from cows that had wandered over the hill from a farm near Glen Canyon. But the surprising thing is that many early residents kept a cow or two of their own in the backyard, even breeding and selling them on.
I wish I had photographs for Sunnyside cows (the one above was taken in the Excelsior), but we have to make do mostly with classified ads, as far as evidence goes. There are a few other clues, as I mentioned in this post how Ruben Navas requested permission from the City in 1915 to build a barn, disclosing what animals he had in the process, a horse and two goats.
Cows for Sale
Here are a few tidbits from the newspapers: the resident at 217 Hearst Avenue—which the directory and census tells us was German immigrant Carl Paczoch and his large family—offers two fresh milch cows for sale in 1898. It looks as if the family were making a successful go of it, as they do so again in 1900.
The Wilson Dairy at 418 Gennessee offers four milch cows for sale in 1905:
In 1906, Mrs Bohne on Hearst Ave included a cow in her list of things one sale, and offered more cows for sale in later years.
This photo looking west from Detroit Street taken a few years later shows just how sparse the hills were. That dirt road is Monterey Blvd (Sunnyside Avenue until 1920). At the end of the street you can see Sutro’s forest, now Westwood.
Here an owner is renting his house at 327 Hearst (now 343, a newer building), which had a large barn in back, 25 x 21 feet—half the size of a house. You could keep a good many animals in that. And the water was free, perhaps from the Creek that ran by the front of the house (more on that creek here).
Some Room to Roam
Cows eat all day, and they eat a lot. Although they surely were fed purchased hay, Mr Paczoch’s cows at 217 Hearst Avenue weren’t likely to have been restricted to just the 25 x 112-foot lot he owned. That block was largely empty (see map below), and animals would likely have been allowed to roam at will during the day, with the housewife looking out for them periodically. Care and use of the animals may have been shared around, as surely the milk output was. The rectangle at the rear of the property at 217 Hearst (with an X on it) is likely to have been the barn, about 25 x 15 feet.
The Right to Roam
San Francisco established boundaries within which animals like cows were not allowed to roam at large, called the pound limits. These boundaries progressively moved further and further southward over time, excluding increasingly more potential grazing area in SF county. Dairy owners naturally complained and lobbied the Board of Supervisors for their interests. A two-cow limit was applied at a certain point in the 1890s effectively excluding profit-making dairies in some areas, though certainly this might be fine for a household.
Below is a map of where the pound limits had been pushed to by 1900. It looks a bit gerrymandered; George Smart was the keeper of a large dairy off San Jose Avenue just south of Sunnyside, and surely lobbied to have his area excluded from the limits, and so it was, as shown by these 1900 revisions to the city’s rules.
But it was likely that in Sunnyside there were a good many families keeping a few animals for their own use—even as late as the 1920s. Oral histories from longtime residents born in the 1910s and 1920s (available in the SF History Center) recount how goats and cows strayed on our still-bare hills in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. A photo on this post shows a goat nibbling weeds on Circular Avenue in 1911.
So, pound limits or not, a century ago animals were raised wherever there was some open space. And Sunnyside had plenty of that for many decades.