From family farm to community education asset
In 1890, John Henry Nicolaus, a German immigrant, purchased 500 acres of land in the fertile Sacramento Valley. His next-door neighbor was the Joseph Sims Ranch. John Henry and his wife Lena established a dairy on their property. The young couple raised eight children there (their ninth child died while an infant). The children attended the nearby East Union School, which later became known as the Prairie School.
Like most farm families of the time, the family was self-sufficient, growing enough food for themselves and their livestock. Milking was done by hand, one cow at a time. On Sundays, the family traveled by wagon to the closest town, Franklin, to attend church and do errands. Because the local one-room schoolhouse only accommodated students through the 8th grade, when the children reached their teens, they moved with their grandmother to a house in downtown Sacramento in order to attend high school.
By 1914, the expanding family needed a larger house. This spurred the construction of the large farmhouse seen on the property today. The children delighted in using the staircase closet as a playroom and storing toys in the built-in chests. The large kitchen, smaller scullery for food prep, and formal dining room provided ample space for preparing and eating meals.
Soon after, additional outbuildings were added. A large henhouse and workshop were built in the 1920s along with a tank house to store the water pumped from the well by a windmill. Foot-pump surge milking machines were used to milk one or two cows at a time. With orchards, gardens, farm plots, chickens, fresh eggs, dairy cows, and other livestock, food was plentiful.
Following John Henry’s death in 1937, three bachelor sons - Earl, George, and Lester.- continued to work the dairy. John Henry's youngest son, Lawrence (Larry), moved back to the farm with his wife, Mary, to manage business operations. Larry, Mary, and their two daughters, Diane and Joan. shared the farmhouse with Larry's older brothers. The second generation continued to make improvements to the property and business and would later navigate the dairy through the tumultuous era of World War II. As was common, the family learned to repurpose, reuse, repair, and recycle tools, equipment, household items, and even clothes. Nothing was wasted or casually discarded.
Like their dairy neighbors in south Sacramento County, the Nicolaus family continued to operate a Grade B dairy, producing milk used by Crystal Creamery to produce cheese, butter, and ice cream. With about 200 cows, milking at Nicolaus Dairy was an all-day event.
During World War II, the demand for milk declined, and most of the able-bodied male workforce served overseas. In fact, Larry's nephew, 21-year-old James D. Pascoe (his sister Helena's son), was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps. After his plane was shot down over France, James became a German prisoner of war. Upon his eventual release, James recovered from his physical and emotional ordeal in the serene surroundings of the Nicolaus dairy farm.
During the war, many local farms and dairies found it difficult to remain operational. The Nicolaus family expanded their henhouse and sold eggs to supplement their income. Mary also ran a beauty salon from her dining room to make ends meet. However, the baby boom following the war proved to be good for business. An increase in the baby population meant an increase in liquid milk demand. This inspired Larry to make a risky change to the dairy. In 1949, he completely renovated his milk barn, turning it into an innovative, stainless steel facility with a sophisticated, automated walk-through milking system. Increasing efficiency and greatly reducing the chance of milk contamination, the Nicolaus Dairy earned the upgrade to a Grade “A” dairy. Grade “A” milk becomes drinking milk, commanding more money per gallon than milk used in dairy products. This state-of-the-art milking system is on display in the milk barn today and is responsible for the property’s eligibility as a state- and federally-recognized historic site.
In the early 1950s, with more profitable operations, the family enjoyed an increase of cash flow and recreational time. Having patiently lived alongside four dairymen for many years, Mary requested an enclosed porch be added onto the front of the house. She filled the porch with plants, art, music, and other finer things, declaring the space to be for “Ladies Only,” This became a retreat for Mary, her daughters, and female friends. During the 2019 farmhouse renovations, the porch was returned to its original open design.
After Larry’s death in 1966, daughter Joan and her husband, Gil Faulkner, became the third generation to run the dairy and raise a family in the farmhouse. Their two daughters, Taroyn and Jenifer, would be the last Nicolaus family members to grow up on the property. During this time, the dairy expanded operations from about 1,000 gallons of milk produced each week to more than 3,000 gallons. Since the bachelor uncles continued to live in the house and work on the dairy, the new generation decided to build a separate wing at the rear of the house to house the uncles, allowing more privacy and space for all. The 1967 addition remains on the house today.
Joan and Gil also were responsible for another interesting property addition. For many generations, the Nicolaus children trekked to the far western edge of their property to swim in the slough. Once Interstate 5 opened, access to the slough was cut off, leaving the kids without a wet way to spend long, hot summers. To appease the children, the family installed a concrete swimming pool to the south of the house. Filled with cousins and friends, the pool was a welcome addition to family gatherings at the farm. Though the pool no longer remains, an indentation in the front lawn is still visible today.
The family continued to own and work the dairy until 1980 at which time the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District (Regional San) purchased the property as part of its 2600 acres of Bufferlands, which are designed to buffer the surrounding community from the wastewater treatment plant. For the past few decades, much like the Joseph Sims Ranch that also sits within the Bufferlands boundaries, the Nicolaus Dairy buildings have sat vacant and deteriorating.
Following the recent determination of eligibility for both state and national historic registries, the Regional San Board of Directors recognized the communal and educational value of the property. The Board then approved a vision and initial funding to renovate the property to its post-WWII appearance and develop a multi-themed education program. A partnership with the Elk Grove Unified School District provided the educational expertise to collaborate with the Regional San renovation team in developing a site conducive to preserving local history while educating youth about agriculture, the environment, and sustainability.
Today, the collaboration, known as Project AWE, includes additional community partners. Nicolaus Dairy is now a community venue complete with interpretive and hands-on exhibits, animals, museums, interactive field trips, and other educational experiences.
The Nicolaus family continues to be an active presence in the process. Through their generous contributions of time, memories, and family heirlooms, we have been able to recreate their family's legacy.