Then & Now
By Judy Salamacha
In the early 1990s, American bestselling author, Christopher Moore, wrote his debut novel, “Practical Demonkeeping,” while working as a waiter at the Harmony Pasta Factory.
Cambria Tourism archived this excerpt from his biography: “I was supposed to be famous by the time I was thirty, right? Harmony, CA has the population of 18 unless you count the entire metropolitan Harmony Area, then it has a population of 18 and four cows. So, I thought I better write a book.”
Just as quirky as Moore’s 11 novels, is how Harmony got its name. With several dairy ranches in the surrounding area, the Excelsior Cheese Factory was built in 1869.
Bitter rivalries among the farmers caused constant chaos in the early days. Ultimately, someone was killed. The farmers called a “forevermore truce” and the name “Harmony” was to remind them of their pledge.
In 1901, M.H. Salmina established the Harmony Valley Co-operative Dairy and the town prospered. During its heyday, 6 tons of butter and 1,200 to 3,000 pounds of cheeses were made daily. The mini-town between Cambria and Cayucos contained a dairy management office, dormitories for 10 employees, a livery stable, blacksmith, school, feed store, a Post Office — giving Harmony official status — and later a gas station.
Tourists, including William Randolph Hearst and friends, often stopped by. But increased grazing land fees and dairy industry consolidation led to the closure of Harmony’s co-op creamery around 1955. The glass blowing artisan, an expansive pottery shop and Harmony Cellars Winery have kept visitors stopping by over the years.
In 2014, Harmony’s new owner, Alan Vander Horst, explained to various reporters how destiny determined his purchase. The third-generation dairyman grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, attended Cal Poly then made his industry mark developing a state-of-the-art dairy in Dublin, Texas.
While checking out ranch property in San Luis Obispo, “My realtor commented, ‘Oh and this owner also owns the town of Harmony.’
“The minute I knew that the old dairy town could be purchased, there was no hesitation in my mind. It was like when I met my wife [Rebecca]. I see this as an opportunity to be part of history, to be part of something fun and quirky.”
By the Mid-State Fair in 2015, Harmony Valley Creamery was developed and offering craft ice cream out of an adapted 1957 Divco milk truck, a mobile promise of future-plans for Harmony.
Managing partner, Tom Halen said, “Visitors are starting to depend on the ice cream truck being available at the creamery on weekends so we are building another to take to events.”
Their latest flavor is coffee in collaboration with Spearhead Coffee out of Paso Robles. Made in small batches, numerous varieties are also available in pints and sold at Cookie Crock, Soto True Earth Market and California Fresh markets.
Destiny intervened when Vander Horst and Halen teamed up. Friends conspired thinking they were a perfect match. Halen had a hospitably degree from Cal Poly Pomona, training from the California Culinary Academy, and 15-years in both financial services and the food industry. Both believe the town’s quirkiness should drive the repurposing of the creamery to a farm-to-table restaurant, artisan cheese shop and event venue.
Their first project was refurbishing the lush landscaping, including removing then reinstalling the historic brick pavers. Renovations were completed in August at the small, wedding chapel, the bride’s dressing room and a reception area.
The creamery’s interior is currently gutted awaiting construction, while permitting is in progress. Although unofficial since 2011, the Post Office remains open as a welcoming information center.
However, a quirky connection diverted Vander Horst’s and Halen’s attention in 2016-17.
“My cows are coming,” Vander Horst had predicted. He meant his dairy cows but a herd of 101 uniquely designed cows randomly popped up throughout the county after a chance meeting in Chicago with the international organizers of the Cow Parade, who were interested in a California venue.
Vander Horst enticed them to the historic dairy countryside of SLO County. Halen said, “Thirty cows are still out there around the county. We intended the project to give back major contributions to community charities and artists, but the bonus was visibility for Harmony. The launch attracted 10,000 visitors, the largest the Cow Parade has ever had.”
Van Horst and Halen relish Harmony’s quirky history. If you have a story to tell or pictures to share, email them at: email@example.com.
Freelance writer, columnist and author of “Colonel Baker’s Field: An American Pioneer Story,” Judy Salamacha’s Then & Now column is a regular feature of Simply Clear Marketing & Media. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org or (805) 801-1422 with story ideas.