A century atop Arcata’s western skyline
By Sean Kearns, August 2017
Two towers offer vantage points to view the horizon. Roughly 5,000 panes of glass refract and reflect light, shaping what can be seen inside and out. And, for a century now, a continually changing cast of innovative, entrepreneurial characters has courted commerce and creativity. No wonder Arcata’s Creamery Building has stories from countless perspectives and of variable veracity.
Strung together into a history, a theme of resilience recurs, one held together by a community’s connective tissue—ranging from conveyor belts to comedy to the craftsmanship of a mortise-and-tenon joint. Herein is an attempted grab at that tale.
War, dairies, and decades
In 1917, when the California Central Creamery Co. began construction on its landmark facility in Arcata, cows grazed the nearby bottomlands and the dairy business on the North Coast was booming. Meanwhile, America’s armed forces engaged in the raging “Great War” in Europe, and they needed to be fed. So local productive cows converged in the current of history with the hunger of those fighting a foreign war. And Humboldt County was about to become a world leader in the dairy industry.
In 1918, California Central Creamery’s three facilities in Humboldt County, including its new Arcata plant, filled an order from the U.S. Navy for 750,000 pounds of butter. By January 1919, the Arcata plant was producing 1,500 pounds of Swiss cheese a day.
Renamed Golden State Milk Products Co., and later known simply as “The Creamery,” the facility spent its first four decades processing milk into cheese, butter and milk safe for human consumption. Over the most recent four decades it has sheltered artists, dancers, actors, and other performers—along with a yoga center and a manufacturer of energy-efficient refrigerators. In between, during its middle two decades, it housed a roller rink and later, on the same floor, a Zen Buddhist “Temple Boxing School.”
Groundbreaking for the long haul
The site where it all started, roughly between 8th and 9th streets from L to N streets, was chosen for its proximity to the California Barrel Factory (which provided a steady supply of wood waste to power the Creamery’s boilers) and to railroad tracks and the Arcata depot (to ease access to distant markets). About a half-mile west, at Janes Road and 11th Street, the United Creamery was already operating. To clear space for California Central Creamery’s new plant, two newly built cottages and a two-story freight warehouse were moved, and a hostelry used by Indians (when they came to town for supplies) was demolished.
Anatomy of a Creamery
Ultimately the facility covered about 2.5 acres with an assemblage of six buildings, all of which remain intact. Their exteriors have generally, though not completely, retained their original looks while their interiors have been remade several times over.
The milk-factory building, which faces 9th Street, was the most prominent. Its 80-foot-high tower was crowned by an ornate octagonal cupola that, before it ceased punctuating the skyline long ago, enclosed a 25,000-gallon water tank. (A 35-foot-deep well on site provided water.)
A milk-receiving station was on the factory’s west side; and the boiler building, with its own cement 80-foot tower, was just south of it. (At the inaugural Creamery Festival, in 2013, the boiler tower’s western wall served as a movie screen for a gigantic and somewhat grainy outdoor showing of Buster Keaton’s classic silent movie, The General. A live band provided the sound effects and score.)
West of the boiler building, tucked together in the lot’s southwest corner, were two storage garages for hundreds of milk cans. East of the boiler and due south of the factory was the main warehouse. A courtyard between the warehouse and factory also remains.
Collectively, the facilities cover about 50,000 square feet.
The cost of the original plant’s construction? $100,000.
Inside, the factory was engineered to create a cool, well-lit and well-ventilated workplace; to harness and deliver steam for sterilization and other uses; and to turn milk into powder and other products, and then send them on their way. It was distinguished by hoses, pipes, valves, vats on wheeled carts, catwalks, 22-foot-high ceilings, the millworks of overhead line shafts with pulleys and taut drive belts, and drains on the floor.
Outside, the symmetry of the prodigious, towering building was accentuated by parapets and facades. According to a 1990 cultural report, “All of these elements—the windows, siding, stem wall and cornice—contribute to the horizontal design of the building, emphasizing its mass and volume.”
It was the neoclassical vision of architect Franklin Thompson Georgeson. Though not quite 29 years old, Georgeson had already designed the Minor Theater, Arcata Post Office and Eureka Women’s Club. Later he would design the Eureka Theater, the Eureka Municipal Auditorium, St. Joseph Hospital, at least five local schools and many more local buildings. (His father, Fred W. Georgeson, was president of Humboldt County First National Bank and mayor of Eureka.)
Recognizing the architectural uniqueness of the building, in 1990 the Arcata City Council amended its zoning to include LHP – Landmark Historic Preservation.
Down the timeline, and the road
During the Depression, the Creamery and the barrel factory, right across 8th Street, kept many Arcatans employed; and, during World War II, the Creamery provided tons of powdered milk to the military.
After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, Ben Spini, now 93 and living in McKinleyville, returned home and hired on with the Creamery, driving a milk truck from 1948 to 1952. Spini, who just might be the last living person to have worked at the facility, mostly drove the Bayside-Freshwater run, picking up full 10-gallon milk cans from the “milkhouses” and bringing them to the milk-receiving station.
“There were also two routes in the Arcata Bottom,” Spini said recently. “And one in McKinleyville/Dow’s Prairie/Crannell, and one out West End and Blue Lake, and one truck went clear to Orick….
“We could haul something like 80 to 90 cans. During the spring and early summer, when there was a lot of milk, the heavy milking season, I’d have three or four rows of cans on top of the other cans.”
Any spillage? “Not actually. Unless you hit a bump. Then the ones at the back of the truck would bounce up a little and lids would go up and you’d get a spray,” he said. “But we knew our routes and you knew where the bumps were.”
As the drivers picked up the milk every morning, Spini said, they also left the morning’s newspaper on the front porch or in the milkhouse for many of the dairy families who were off the main roads. And, because “the water wasn’t so good out on the Bottom,” every Monday the drivers would also deliver “four, five or six cans of hot, boiled water,” freshly sterilized by plant’s hoses streaming jets of steam into the cans just before the dawn’s departure.
Tower of powder, blocks of butter
They also dropped off orders of butter and cheese for the ranch families; but the drivers were there mainly to pick up milk and deliver it to the plant.
“It was unloaded on the west side,” Spini said. “It’d go on a conveyor belt, and go up the chain, make a right turn, and get dumped into a loading tank. They’d weigh it, take samples, flush it into holding tanks. Some of it would go to several huge butter churns—to make butter—and some of it was made into powdered milk…. Sometimes I’d finish off the day loading 60-pound blocks of butter into refrigerator trucks, and off they’d go to San Francisco.”
The offloading, Spini said, was overseen by Archie Bernardi, who started at the Creamery right out of high school, in 1933, worked there for 26 years, and later became Arcata’s fire chief. Archie’s brother, Emory, “more or less was in charge,” Spini said, and the milk had to pass muster.
“We called the inspector ‘The Mugman,’” he said. “If the milk didn’t pass the test, they’d put blue food coloring in it (to mark it unsuitable), and we’d take it back to the ranch, and it’d be given to the pigs and such so it wouldn’t be wasted.”
To power the powderization of milk, wood chips from the barrel factory were conveyed on a belt to the top of the boiler tower, where they were mixed with a diesel-like oil to create a fuel that was burned to turn water to steam—used for power, heating and sterilization. High up inside the factory’s tower, newly conveyed milk was released, left to gravity to fall past “evaporators” that lined the wall. Consisting largely of steam-blasting jets, they instantly transformed the milk cascade into a shower of fine white dust: milk powder. Outside the building, however, the power behind the process emitted a black, oily smoke that settled around town, along with ash from a smattering of teepee burners.
Meanwhile, the emptied milk cans, Spini said, “would go through a revolving can-washer, get hit with steam, and come out the other end clean, and we’d load them back on the truck, ready for the next day…. And we’d wash our trucks daily because all the milkhouses were next to the barns. At some of them, you had to drive right through the barnyard to get to the milk—and you know what that means.”
The last milk runs
By the end of the 1950s, Golden State Milk Products was bought by Foremost Dairies, Inc., and the Arcata plant became little more than a regional collecting site where milk was transferred from small trucks into tankers and sent on its way to the main plant in Loleta. By 1959, that reduced role had been milked for all it was worth; and the Creamery complex was sold to the Norris Brothers, a firm of two local lumbermen siblings, Bill and Dick Norris, and their father, Don Norris.
For about 14 years, through the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, the complex housed various entities, including a truck maintenance and repair shop, building painters, and—most notable to the youth of the era—a roller rink on the ground floor of the former factory building. As tenants shuffled in and mostly out, the structures became used increasingly for storage.
By 1969, Cal Barrel, the Arcata train station and the United Creamery had vanished from the landscape; and the Creamery was in serious decline. At some point, local realtor Jim Marvel and his son, Lee, bought the building.
Marvel – the story’s hero
In 1970, Son Hae, a Buddhist Zen master from Los Angeles in his early 30s, established The Internal School at the Creamery, converting about 7,000 square feet of space, including the roller rink, into the “Blue Dragon Zen Temple,” a Buddhist retreat and training center, where kung fu was taught.
In its heyday, The Internal School enrolled about 100 students and hosted teachers of various religions. It included 19 residential rooms and a commercial kitchen. The school moved out in 1977.
At the time, the Creamery’s current owners, husband and wife Brian and Lisa Finigan, were also tenants, making a go of their furniture-making business and getting discounts on rent for doing repairs. Then the elder Marvel approached them about buying the Creamery.
Jim Marvel, in his 80s at the time, was the unsung hero of the story, the linchpin to Creamery Building’s survival, according to the Finigans. The building, in its 50s at the time, was, according to Brian, in a “dangerous get-ready-for-whatever’s-next phase; and buildings don’t last too long in that phase. They get forgotten, neglected, used for storage. It was waiting for a dozer.”
“Jim saved it,” said Brian. “He was a sweet guy, really honest, spiritual… a little burned out on it, but smart, generous and caring… our fairy godfather. He told us to buy it.”
But the Finigans lacked credit, so Marvel accepted equity in a Blue Lake house they owned. As Brian tells it, “He laid out the (purchase) papers and said, ‘Sign. Sign. Sign. It’s yours. Bye.’”
“That’s the real story,” said Lisa. “There’ve been a lot of myths. Some folks thought my grandfather gave it to me—and he didn’t even live around here.”
From skates to mates
As children, Lisa and Brian had skated at the Creamery roller rink. They met each other at College Elementary School (now Gist Hall at Humboldt State) and hung out together at Arcata High School, where, according to Brian, “Lisa was a star in woodshop.”
The Finigans saw the facility’s potential as an incubator for artists, including some of their “broke and talented” friends. They included Stock Schlueter, Jim McVicker, John Wesa, Suk Choo Kim and George Van Hook. Sundance Leather moved in, as did Holly Yashi jewelry.
Meanwhile, every roof leaked and thousands of window panes needed repair.
The Finigans almost felt like they were in over their heads at times, Lisa said. “I remember the two of us with these little prybars removing three layers of old roofing tar, breaking off piece by piece of a 110- by 120-foot completely waterlogged roof. Roofing nails everywhere. We got it totally stripped, all prepped up—and then it rained.”
“But,” Brian said, “it’s great now.”
PAC takes the stage
Among the Finigans’ first tenants was the Pacific Art Center Theater (PAC). Guided by Gordon Townsend, it earned a reputation for producing Shakespeare and edgier fare. Its run lasted from 1977 to 1994.
Local actor Bob Wells (who portrays architect Franklin Georgeson in a current commercial for the Creamery Arts Festival) performed in several PAC productions—including “Twelfth Night,” “Hamlet” and “Waiting for Godot.”
“In ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ I was this old man who kissed this woman at a wedding, and we exchanged souls,” he said. In PAC’s last production—“Saturday, Sunday, Monday”—he played the next-door neighbor to a fun dysfunctional Italian family arguing all the time. “Really weird.”
Dance. Dance. Dance.
Since the non-profit cooperative Dancenter first moved in during the 1980s, various enterprises have drawn dancers of many styles onto the former roller rink. The Dancenter moved out in 2007.
Then came Shoshanna, who opened her Redwood Raks dance studio there in 2008, offering lessons ranging from tango to break-dancing to swing to Zumba.
“I’ve been in love with this building since 1994,” she said. “We have the best dance floor in the universe. When you’re barefoot, when you’re social dancing, it’s a dream. But it’s too slippery for ballerinas, and we won’t let tappers on our floor.”
The surface, she said, makes sound travel through the building more boldly and “samba’s the loudest.” Recently an African dance workshop reverberated through the walls.
Lights go up on the Playhouse
In 2007, the non-profit Playhouse Arts – more commonly known by its venue, the Arcata Playhouse – moved in with its mission to build community through the arts. That means casting a net for local talent in place-based theatrical productions, such as its “Women of the Northwest” historical plays and its annual holiday show—which, in the spirit of the Creamery, might have a cheesy number or two. In 2016, it began an annual partership-staging of a Ferndale Repertory Theatre production on the Playhouse stage. (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff” arrives in February 2018.)
The Playhouse also provides workshops for children (you try making and then walking in stilts), connects artists with local schools, and presents touring world-class performers, including for its annual “Family Fun Series.”
Defining, refining a ‘district’
David Ferney and Jackie Dandeneau, the Playhouse’s founders and leaders, have also guided recent efforts to create the Creamery District, a distinct arts-infused neighborhood of diverse endeavors. The first Creamery Arts Festival, a three-day eclectic public party in 2013, served as an open house with sideshows, showcasing the district’s potential. In 2015, the City of Arcata officially greased the tracks, changing the zoning to allow a broader mix of uses. Now, across 9th Street are spots to buy hard cider and hot coffee, and at least two new restaurants are well past the drawing board.
Ferney calls it a renaissance, one made possible by community support—such as a $60,000 from the Rotary Club and donated material and labor for major renovations to the Playhouse’s kitchen and stage lighting—and the Finigans’ quiet commitment over four decades to foster a community of artists.
“Brian and Lisa have made it possible for a diverse community of visual artists, dance, theater, woodworking, pottery, puppeteers,” Ferney said. “The key thing, the base, is its affordability. It’s kind of a gift from the gods.”
Maybe it’s the continuing legacy of Jim Marvel’s generosity.
The Finigans made it a haven, Ferney said, one imbued with history, tall ceilings, some funkiness. “Both towers are renovated,” he said. “There’s the yoga studio. A lot’s getting done to elevate the building as a whole, and the neighborhood’s getting fixed up.”
Dandeneau calls it a “confluence” where creative artists come together, “sponsored” by the Finigans’ offer of low rent. “There’s a lot of bleed-through,” she said. “Sometimes you hear what’s happening on the other side of the wall. We all work together to make things work…. It’s not a sterile building.”
History still hangs out
Indeed, non-spoiled vestiges of milk-product manufacturing remain. For example, Dandeneau and Ferney’s office a century ago was the heart of the factory building, so the floor slopes downward toward a drain. Thus, so rolled Dandenou’s office chair—until a repurposed floor from the set of a Dell’Arte production (of Moliere’s “Tartuffe”) was put down.
The current roster of more than 20 tenants runs heavy in the arts, and it includes a vacation rental with a rooftop terrace, a vintage clothing boutique, a martial-arts school and the office of a non-profit that promotes affordable housing.
One very-long-time tenant—Larry Schlussler’s Sun Frost company, known primarily for manufacturing highly energy-efficient refrigerators—recently moved out.
Schlussler set up shop there during the Marvel era and has been distributing his innovative technology to clients around the world since. Sun Frost expanded its product line to include energy- and water-saving showers and composters for the home, including a toilet called the “Human Humus Machine.” Moving in to its place is an art studio.
Next door, plans are in the works for the State of Jefferson Public House, a family-friendly restaurant where beer mugs and milk glasses can clink to toast a landmark.
“The Creamery’s going to come back to being an economic hub in Arcata,” said Dandeneau. “That’s exciting…. People feel the history.”
Sean Kearns serves on the board of Playhouse Arts (the Arcata Playhouse). From 1984 to 1987, he was on the staff of the Arcata Union. In between are decades of details.
A note on sources: Aside from the interviewees, information for this article came from a 1979 Historic Resources Inventory by Susie Van Kirk, the City of Arcata’s 1990 ordinance to amend the Creamery area’s zoning and an accompanying cultural report by Katie Stanton, the Humboldt Times, the Times-Standard, the Arcata Union, the North Coast Journal, the United Buddhist Church, the Arcata Zen Group, and the obituaries of Archie Bernardi and William Norris.
Do you have something to add? A story? A photo? A good idea for a source? A clarification for the timeline? If so, please send an email to [email protected], call (707) 822-1575, or write to or visit the Arcata Playhouse at 1251 9th St., Arcata, CA, 95521.