A smiling cow jumping over a yellow crescent moon gazes down at drivers on I-80 north of Dixon. Many a traveler speeds by without a second thought - this story is for those who pause and wonder, “What is a Milk Farm? Where did that sign come from? What’s that cow’s story?”
This neon cow and her moon once shone brightly over a bustling business complex. During the Depression hungry travelers stopped to munch on 50-cent chicken dinners and gulp all-they-could-drink buttermilk for ten cents. Dixon teens participated in milk drinking competitions, hoping to see their name on the milk-drinking wall of fame.
In its heyday the Milk Farm featured a restaurant, a fruit stand, overnight cottages, several gas stations, pony rides and a gift shop. This was when Larry Simmons worked as a busboy and dishwasher for the restaurant. He started working at the Milk Farm in the spring of 1950 when he was 20 years old. He says it was a cafeteria-style restaurant, serving bus loads of travelers going from San Francisco to Sacramento or on to Tahoe.
“It was as busy as it could be at peak times,” says Simmons. “As much as three of us washing dishes and two cart pushers picking ‘em up.”
Now all that’s left is the giant sign, concrete slabs and a chain link fence.
The restaurant was opened by Karl Hess and the first incarnation of the business was on old Highway 40 that ran through the town. Ardeth Riedel with the Dixon Historical Society says she remembers riding ponies at the original Milk Farm location, but she was too young to participate in any milk drinking competitions.
“Buttermilk and milk were big things,” says Riedel. “I didn’t like buttermilk. It was quite the drink for some people.”
In 1939 Hess moved the restaurant to its current spot when Highway 40 was realigned to bypass the town. The cafeteria style allowed them to serve lots of people quickly and keep prices low; which was very popular during World War II.
Hess sold the Milk Farm to Glynn and Homer Henderson in 1949. Simmons described the Milk Farm of the ‘50s as a homey country environment with “lipsmack’n good food.” But toward the late ‘60s the quality of the food began to deteriorate, according to Simmons.
And she says, “As more restaurants got built between here and the mountains it affected the trade some.”
Business continued to decline until around 1986 when a windstorm damaged the roof of the building and flooded the basement. At this point the county discovered several code violations and shut down the Milk Farm.
The property sat abandoned until the late ‘90s when it attracted the attention of engineer and entrepreneur Paul Moller.
“I thought it was a wonderful piece of property,” says Moller, who acquired the Milk Farm in 1998. “You’ve got your own [freeway] exit and your own entrance.”
At the time he was looking for a home for his own business. He develops flying cars. Moller says the city of Dixon was cooperative at first, until there was a change of leadership. The Great Recession didn’t help his development plans.
“We lost it about ten years later after spending millions of dollars and producing environmental reports and studies,” says Moller.
Had the project gone through Moller says the Milk Farm would be the site of his skycar research facility, complete with a lake to fly the vehicles over. He says there were also plans for the Salvation Army to build a base of operations with retail spaces along the freeway.
“I was going to put in a museum. I was going to put a virtual reality center,” says Moller. “It was very heartbreaking really - not just from a monetary point of view, but from a personally satisfying project.”
When Moller defaulted on his loans the property went to the group who financed the private loan, a group now called the Milk Farm Partners. Josh Fischer is Managing Director of the financial company overseeing the partnership. He says they’ve been looking for someone to develop the land but a lot of work on infrastructure would need to take place before anything could be built.
“Ultimately the idea is this property needs to be developed into its highest and best use - that’s the subjective question,” says Fischer. “Developers aren’t taking that level of risk to develop large new projects out-of-the-ground.”
Someday the smiling cow might once again mark a bustling business center, but for now, it keeps watch over the freeway, as motorists speed by.