Cotoni-Coast Dairies: Through the Eyes of an Archaeologist

July 6, 2022
We recently had the chance to sit down with Rebecca Spitzer, staff archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management, and discuss her work at Cotoni-Coast Dairies. Archaeological studies are a key component to good land management, as they ensure that trail building and human interaction will not disturb sites of cultural significance at the property. Not only that, we learned that Cotoni-Coast Dairies is an even more fascinating place when seen through the eyes of an archaeologist! Check out our full interview with Rebecca below.

SCMTS: Hi, Rebecca! We’d like to kick things off by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get your start in archaeology, and what brought you to the Cotoni-Coast Dairies project?

Rebecca: So, I started in archaeology back in undergraduate school at West Valley College in Saratoga. My professor there, Andrew Kindon, taught anthropology and archaeology courses. My first semester there, I was very intrigued by the description of the archaeology class and I actually planned my whole semester around that class and I fell in love with it.

I loved the material immediately: I loved learning about the past and past culture and people, and what made it even better was that I got to do field work out at Wilder Ranch State Park. On weekends throughout the semester, we got to do archaeology and practice excavation and field methods out in Wilder, and I thought it was a really great way to learn about what archaeology is, including the tough work it entails. My love of archaeology is really connected to the Santa Cruz area and I feel that it is so wonderful that I have a job that lets me stay in the area, pursue archaeology, and give back to this community because it’s where I fell in love with it.

SCMTS: That’s such a great story! You mentioned that one of the things you loved is learning about the past. In your opinion, what’s the link between history and archaeology?

Rebecca: Archaeology is learning about past cultures. In archaeology, it’s hard to define what history is. Is it pure culture? Is it a period of time that’s passed? In the federal government and in the public sense we look at resources that are over 50 years old. But for anyone who’s over 50, a lot of archaeologists end up looking at their own childhood. It can be kind of a weird period to study!

But, you know, history can be anything from just a minute ago to thousands of years in the past. It’s that arbitrary 50-year mark that we tend to focus on as what denotes the start of “history” in federal work.

Historic periods can vary as well. For example, Native Americans have long histories, so their historic period is thousands of years long. Historical archaeology is only a few hundred years old, but then transitions to what we consider pre-contact or prehistoric period.

History is a very interesting concept of time–it’s cultural.

Sorry for my theoretical answer to your very plain question, haha.

SCMTS: We love it! Okay, so diving into the archaeological process. What were the steps you took out at Cotoni-Coast Dairies? Was there anything that set this project apart?

Rebecca: So, you know, our work is still ongoing. Even today I was doing research about the history and archaeology of Cotoni-Coast Dairies.

When we learned about the plans for trail development, we conducted what we call Class 1 and Class 2 cultural inventories. Class 1 inventories surround the basic character or history of a place. So we do literature research, we look at maps, diaries, census records, and help characterize a location so we can better understand what we could be finding there.

Then there are Class 2 inventories for cultural resources. That includes sampling, which we did some of out at Cotoni-Coast Dairies. We also completed many BLM Class 3 inventories, which are called pedestrian surveys in the archaeology world. We go out there and walk transects of where the trail will be. While walking these straight lines, we look in the APE (areas of potential disturbance), and look around to see if there are any archaeological materials. That could be anything from projectile points to over-50-year-old bottles. It’s the whole gamut between that.

Then after that I have report writing to do. If there’s anything notable found, we do actual records for that item and location.

SCMTS: So once it was decided where the trails would go, then you drew transect lines through those areas where there might be a disturbance and walked it to understand if there is anything that we need to be aware of archaeologically.

Rebecca: Exactly. Some of it was done by the previous archaeologist, and when I joined in July of 2018, it was pretty much all me! I had support from a few other field office archaeologists, but it’s been mostly me out there.

SCMTS: Wow, lots of time and effort on your part.

Rebecca: Yes, so I got sent out there during COVID with special permission to do surveys, and so it’s been a lot of special protocol so I could complete all the surveys on time.

SCMTS: When does archaeology usually occur on a project like this? Did that effort begin as soon as the property started being managed by the BLM?

Rebecca: So, the acquisition wouldn’t have kicked off archaeology, but planning efforts would. The proposed development at the property determines what level of archaeological input is required. If it’s just acquiring a piece of land, that doesn’t require archaeology. But if there’s going to be ground disturbance or if there’s a planning effort, that would kick off more intense archaeology work.

In every case, we have to know exactly where the disturbance might be, and then there are intensive surveys conducted there. Archaeology usually happens very early on, especially if there will be outside contributors like yourselves getting involved in the project.

SCMTS: In your surveys, did you find sites of significance?

Rebecca: So, there’s an important distinction we need to make. In government work, the word “significance” has a legal definition. If we find something we look at it to see if it has the criteria to be considered “significant”. All archaeological resources we find we’d have to record it and look at the resource to see if it falls under criteria that would make it eligible for the national register or not. And if it does fall under that criteria, then that’s what applies the “significance” label. I’ll do the eligibility evaluation if I believe I have the expertise to do the research and properly make an evaluation, or I’ll reach out to other experts to pursue items of potential significance. We all work together to protect the cultural resources that archaeologists find.

So now that we’ve defined the term: are you asking if I found anything interesting or cool, or if I found something “significant”?

SCMTS: Oh! We just mean interesting or cool. Anything neat that you found out there?

Rebecca: Okay. Cool stuff–one of my big projects right now is working on the cheese house down at the bottom of the property. We have not gone through any eligibility determination yet, so I can’t call it “significant”, but I think it’s pretty cool.

Right now we’re in the process of getting a feasibility study for it so that we can see if the building could be stabilized to withstand time and host interpretive materials. It is an archaeological site, so it is protected by law, and I hope we can find the funds and expert input on how to keep it standing for a long time. As part of the project, appropriate research by an architectural historian will be completed to help us understand the site and building. If we have a little funding, ideally we could stabilize it so the public can enjoy the structure. I’m very excited about that potential outcome.

SCMTS: Can you tell us a little bit more about the cheese house?

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m doing some research on it now. We were originally calling it the Moccetini Cheese Barn, but based on some research it looks like it actually predates the Moccetini family. It shows up on early maps in the late 1880s, and was originally owned by the Lairds. G.P. Laird, the owner, originally came from Point Reyes, then came down to Santa Cruz to start his dairy business up again here. Then, what is really cool about the building is that the top portion of the structure is actually the oldest part. The bottom part was actually newer, so it was raised after it was built.

Based on pictures I’ve seen from the 1960s, there used to be a porch on the top. I’m really excited about this structure and hope that we can restore a little bit of it.

SCMTS: Wow, that’s so cool! Do you know when it was operational?

Rebecca: Yeah, so the dairy started up right when the Lairds bought it in 1880-1890. Then the building was still functional in the 1950s. It makes sense that the dairy shut down at that time, because in the mid 1900s, dairy laws changed. Sanitation laws were updated, and advances in technology such as refrigeration occurred. A lot of the local smaller dairies, including the cheese house, went out of business.

But before the 1950s, these smaller dairies were very important for the livelihood of the local community. You’d have the dairy cattle out on the hills, they’d get milked, and then the cheese house was used in processing. It’s important to process this milk into cheese and butters because the transportation time was significant. A lot of times, these products were shipped by rail or shipped up to places like San Francisco, which required a fairly stable dairy product to make it all the way to market.

So because of how far these dairy products traveled, smaller dairies like the cheese house had a huge impact on the economy beyond just Santa Cruz County. The cheese house at Cotoni-Coast Dairies was supposedly used for making soft cheeses, specifically Jack cheese.

SCMTS: Was there anything else surprising while you were out on the property?

Rebecca: You’ve got notched trees from logging days, on the property, which were really exciting for me to see. But one thing that’s really cool is to see how throughout time, people kept using the area over and over again for different reasons.

We went from the area transforming from Native Americans using the land, to early explorers, and then land grants. Then industry kicked off, starting with dairy and timber along the coast, and then the cement or lime industry which was also a major export, and you can see the cement plant from the new trails. Each time one industry would take over, it would overlap with the last and the resources would be reused. For example, roads that were built for one industry would then be used in the next that emerged.

Demographics and natural disasters also really impacted which industry would emerge next. For example, following the 1906 earthquake, the lime industry boomed because there was a need for building materials. San Francisco was destroyed, and the Davenport cement plant was needed for the communities to be rebuilt.

Overall, I hope visitors get to really experience the various time periods that the land’s gone through, and see how humans worked with the property over time. I hope people get joy out of that.

SCMTS: That’s so interesting! So in all these human uses of the property, how do you find that it fits into the Santa Cruz Mountains? Is it unique, or generally representative?

Rebecca: So Cotoni-Coast Dairies is generally representative but there are a few unique features. I had opportunities to be a student volunteer on an archaeological project at Wilder Ranch State Park through school, and had a role as a Crew Chief at a later field school located in Nisene Marks State Park as well. Wilder Ranch had cement and dairy industries, while Nisene had timber. Cotoni-Coast Dairies is a combination of the two–it had all three industries, but at slightly different scales and stages in the production process. Cotoni-Coast Dairies had more technologically advanced cement and dairy operations than were present in Wilder, but had less timber harvesting operations than Nisene Marks.

Cotoni-Coast Dairies had different industries all combined into one small piece of property. While the operations at Cotoni-Coast Dairies were maybe not the most glamorous parts of the industry, it’s a very important representation of the economic activities that kept Santa Cruz County running.

SCMTS: Based on your research, what’s the one thing you hope trail users appreciate about the property?

Rebecca: I hope they appreciate the many parts of human inhabitation that shaped the area. There are signs of human ingenuity across the land, but also different aspects of stewardship as well. Cotoni-Coast Dairies has truly experienced the ebbs and flows of hundreds and thousands of years of human inhabitation over time.

The cultural resources on the land are important for understanding who we are and where we come from, and hopefully they’ll impact how we see ourselves for the future.

It’s important that we can appreciate land like Cotoni-Coast Dairies and protect it for future generations to enjoy and appreciate. If you see something that looks archaeological, practice that old saying, “look but don’t touch”– to keep this area and resources for future people to enjoy.

Learn More:

- 1905 Weekly Sentinel Paper Clipping: Coast Dairies Sell 100 acres to S. Pacific


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