Cows, Racing, and Western Wonderland

Spread the love

The History of Alpenrose Dairy

By Robert Matsumura, Contributing Writer

Pony rides? Baseball? Go kart racing? A person unfamiliar with the history of Alpenrose Dairy might frown in confusion at the mention of such activities in relationship to a dairy, but for those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in the Portland area during the last half of the 20th century, the name Alpenrose conjures up so much more than just dairy products.

It all began in 1896 when Florian Cadonau, a Swiss immigrant, moved to Oregon with his wife Agnes. The couple purchased a dairy at 35th and Vermont (known then as Hoffman Road) and started delivering milk to customers via horse-drawn buggy. At the time, many Swiss immigrants were moving to Portland due to the state’s fertile land and temperate climate. So similar were Oregon and Switzerland in this respect that in 1912, Paul Ritter, the Swiss Ambassador to the United States, while touring the state called Oregon “a second, but a larger Switzerland.”

In 1916, Henry Cadonau, Florian’s son, along with his wife Rosina (daughter of the Swiss consul to Portland) took over the family business. Henry and Rosina established their own farm nearby at 45th and Vermont which they named Alpenrose Dairy. The next few decades saw Alpenrose expand its operations, thriving while other competing dairies fell prey to mergers and consolidations. However, in 1943 a fire destroyed a barn and other equipment, and the decision was made to relocate Alpenrose to its present location on Shattuck Road. For years the Alpenrose delivery truck was a common sight in Portland neighborhoods, delivering milk in glass bottles straight to the milk box at one’s front door. At its height, Alpenrose had 50 delivery trucks and 35,000 customers.

It was during the 1950s when Henry’s grandsons were playing baseball too near Rosina’s rose garden (and trampling some of her plants) that she tasked her husband with building a baseball field for the boys. It wasn’t long before the local Little League was playing there also, and dugouts, lights, and a scoreboard were subsequently added. In the following years two more fields were constructed, and Alpenrose became known for its excellent baseball facilities. For a number of years Alpenrose Field even hosted the Little League Softball World Series which was broadcast on ESPN.

As it turned out, the baseball fields were just the beginning of Alpenrose’s involvement in the community. A hundred Shetland ponies were purchased by the family shortly thereafter, and pony rides were offered to children visiting the dairy. The Cadonaus also brought the ponies to local events — making it possible for numerous children to experience their first horseback ride. Alpenrose trotted out their ponies to represent the dairy in many city parades as well.

Soon baseball and ponies were not the only attractions drawing people to Alpenrose. Uncle Ray, the father of Rod Birkland — a cousin of the Cadonau boys — being mechanically-minded, came up with the idea of a quarter-midget racing track. It wasn’t long before the idea became a reality, and child-sized race cars were zooming around a track a quarter-mile in length, set in a natural bowl shaped area with seating for up to 500 spectators. In addition to the midget racing track, a velodrome facility was added in 1967 for bicycle racing. Carl Cadonau Sr. was sold the idea by the owner of Kissler’s Cyclery, a longtime bicycle shop in Southwest Portland. At the time the Pan American games needed a location for cycling trials. The Alpenrose Velodrome was one of the first constructed in the U.S. for that purpose, and with the steepest bank of any outdoor velodrome in the world, it drew enthusiasts from around the globe.

With the popularity of the aforementioned facilities, the Cadonaus created a final addition to their burgeoning recreational wonderland — Dairyville. A dairy-themed village with Old West-style storefronts, the charming attraction featured a doll museum, a harness-maker’s shop, an ice cream parlor, a music shop, and a 600-seat opera house with a Skinner pipe organ (now located in Portland’s Keller Auditorium). For decades, Dairyland was the nexus of a plethora of community events, ranging from “Sunday Fundays” featuring kite flying and frog races to visits from Rusty Nails, a popular clown with a local television show for children. From trapeze acts to chariot racing, Alpenrose grew from just a local attraction to a major amusement venue for the entire region.

Rosina Cadonau became known simply as “Grandma” to generations of fourth-graders who field-tripped to Alpenrose to learn the operations of a dairy. “Swiss Miss” taught the children how to milk a cow and then escorted them across the street for ice cream and cookies baked by “Grandma.”

The winter holiday season saw Alpenrose transform into a magical place. Christmas in Dairyville featured Storybook Lane, an elaborate display with live animal displays and 300 Christmas trees set in a miniature town. Each year 400 volunteers gathered to set up and host this traditional event that drew thousands of families from around the area.

Today, Alpenrose Dairy remains in operation, but Dairyville is closed. The race tracks and sports fields, too, face an uncertain future. A dispute between family members that ended in litigation resulted in Alpenrose being sold to the Kent, Washington-based Smith Brothers Farms. Smith Brothers continue to operate the dairy under the Alpenrose name. In July of 2021, items from the former Storybook Lane and Dairyville were sold at auction, bringing to a close one of Portland’s most cherished cultural treasures.

For those of us who grew up in Portland with the good fortune to partake in the sporting events, pony rides, fireworks, and holiday fun that was Alpenrose, we will forever miss this magical place. But we should all thank the Cadonau family for their generosity, decades of hard work, and a community spirit that transformed a regular dairy into a place that will reside in our memories forever!