Oakdale, California

March 1, 2005
Filed under Travel

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“Cowboy Capital of the World,” they call it. I’m thinking, if this were Texas or Wyoming, maybe, but this is California — and not far from San Francisco. They also call it a gateway to Yosemite and the gold-rush country, which it is. But this claim of world cowboy capital, that’s all-encompassing, like world dominance. It doesn’t leave much territory for anybody else. I’ll bet that parochial partisans from other “cowboy capitals” all over the West are sparring constantly with the folks of Oakdale. Still, they must have their reasons. So I’m headed up J-14, the county road to Oakdale. I see plenty of cows along the way, but they aren’t the kind that cowboys like John Wayne and Ward Bond would herd.

These cows are butter- and cheese-producers. I know this, because I just stopped for lunch at the Hilmar Cheese Company. A sign at Hilmar says it’s the “World’s largest cheese plant in the heart of America’s leading dairy region.” So I asked Rusty, my canine companion, “Have the Hilmar folks not heard of Wisconsin?” But it turns out they’re right. As our population has moved west — just in the past 20 years — it took with it Wisconsin’s dominance in cheese production. California now out-produces Wisconsin. What’s more, Hilmar annually produces more cheese from this one site than any other manufacturer in the world. I got all this with lunch from two Hilmar employees at the next table. They are recent transplants from New Zealand.

This Hilmar plant takes in 9 million pounds of milk every day from more than 150,000 local cows — 20 percent of them Jerseys, they said. And it produces 1 million pounds of cheese, and 350,000 pounds of whey protein and lactose powder daily. The New Zealanders could tell me nothing about nearby Oakdale’s world eminence in cowboy circles. They confirmed my suspicions, however, that dairy cows and cowboys don’t normally go together. Beef cattle are cowboy’s stock in trade. Since that is not what I’m seeing here, they agreed that the “cowboy capital” claim may need some careful study. They told me that they had visited Oakdale last year and toured the Hershey Chocolate Plant there — home of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and the giant size Mr. Goodbar. A machine that wraps 4,000 pounds of chocolate kisses an hour made a big impression and was worth seeing, they said. Arriving in Oakdale on South Yosemite Avenue, a Visitors Center sign lured me to stop and park.

It turned out to be Hershey’s Visitors Center, gift and snack shop. I went in. It had a pleasant scent of frosting and sugar candy — a welcoming fragrance that rates up there with freshly brewed coffee. Dawn, the manager, shook her head when I asked about touring the plant. She said that the public tours are no more, a causality of the terrorism threat. Disappointed, I sat down at a table. “But we still take school kids on tours,” she said, “and we give them each a white chocolate chip cookie and a carton of milk. I can offer you that.” Great! We sat and talked over cookies and milk. Dawn knew a lot about Hershey — it’s the biggest employer in town. She begged off on my question about the cowboy capital,
but referred me to the museum next door. It was once the depot of the Southern Pacific Railroad. A sign across the top proclaims it now as the Oakdale Cowboy Museum.

The hours posted were 10 am – 2 pm. It was after closing time, but Christie Camarillo was still in the office. The museum — the waiting room and the SP ticket office — had no place as comfortable as the sunny bench in front. So, we sat there and I asked her the burning question. She did not seem surprised. “Well, we do get a lot of questions about that. There is a town in Texas, two of them really, Bandera and Stephenville. They claim to be cowboy capitals. Every so often our newspaper here will spar with their newspapers down there.” Christie paused. I could see that she was eager to get this question behind her. “It’s a self-proclaimed, unofficial title. It’s because we have so many world-class rodeo champions living here. That’s the real reason for it. We probably ought to call it rodeo-cowboy capital.” We talked on, and she kept referring the “H bar B” as if it were the ultimate resource of local cowboy lore.

“Where is it?” I asked. Chris stood and turned around. “Right there,” she said. The building across the street had Bachi’s Family Dining on the window. In neon, a sign over the door said H-B. “Susan and Mike Bacigalupi run it — they’re third-generation owners,” Christie said. I met Jim Charles in the H-B. Coming here to live in 1956, he was a professional bull rider for 20 years. “If you work the rodeo circuit, you quickly get to know Oakdale. It’s convenient to all the rodeos in the west, and it’s a cowboy-friendly town. Guys would come here from all over, and a lot of them stayed. I’m one of them. I gave up rodeoing to be with my family. I figured that I was spending my life at something, and that when it would all be over, I’d get nothing to show for it but a gold belt buckle. It wasn’t fair to them. “And if because we cowboys make our homes here, the town wants to call this place the Cowboy Capital of the World, I think that’s pretty neat.”

Bill’s e-mail address: roadscribe@aol.com.

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