Today, thrill seekers flock to the Santa Barbara County Fair in Santa Maria for attractions such as the carnival rides and destruction derby. But when dairy was queen in the rural S.B. county town, fairgoers got their kicks the old-fashioned way: at the fair’s Dairy Day cow-milking and milk-can-rolling contests.
“One of the dairymen would demonstrate how to milk a cow and how to roll a milk can,” recounts Laura Lee Tognazzini Dias in her book, The Purple Cow: A Dairy Daughter’s Heritage. “There was always a lot of laughter watching people attempt to milk a cow. Everyone would find that it was more difficult than they thought it would be.”
Published in 2015 by Janaway Publishing Inc. for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, The Purple Cow chronicles the once-booming dairy industry in the Santa Maria Valley from the late 1800s to the late 1900s, when the region was filled with family-owned dairy farms, all with unique histories. Tognazzini Dias, now a retired schoolteacher, is the titular “Dairy Daughter” of one of those families. One of three children, she grew up on Sunset Laguna Dairy Farm, which was owned by her parents, Arthur and Mary Tognazzini, and located on land purchased in 1876 by Arthur’s grandfather Antonio Pietro Tognazzini.
The book came about when Cindy Ransick, curator of the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society Museum, started asking old dairy families for someone to write about dairies in the Santa Maria Valley. The families pointed to Tognazzini Dias. “I hunted her down,” said Ransick.
Tognazzini Dias went on to write The Purple Cow with help from the historical society and approximately 70 dairy families. The book is filled with their stories and the history of Santa Maria Valley’s now-defunct dairy industry, along with myriad photos, maps, and newspaper articles.
“We looked for someone who experienced it all, more or less,” said Ransick of the book’s author. “She grew up on a dairy farm … this is her heritage, so this was her life.”