Agricultural cooperatives -- farmer-owned businesses that process and distribute their members' goods and return the profits to the farmers -- originated in Northern Europe. Many of the immigrants who settled Wahkiakum County in the 1870s emigrated from Scandinavian countries where the cooperative movement was strong and brought the tradition with them to southwest Washington. Besides working at logging or fishing, homesteaders along Skamokawa Creek and other valleys in Wahkiakum County often built up small dairy farms (Wahkiakum's cool, rainy climate grew dairy pastures better than most other crops).
The introduction in the 1890s of mechanical cream separators to separate cream from whole milk promoted the growth of creameries around the country. Nationwide, one third of the 6,000 creameries established by 1900 were cooperative, often in more remote areas where processing milk into butter near the farms reduced the high cost of transporting whole milk. Wahkiakum County, which until the 1930s was accessible only by boats traversing the Columbia River, was such an area.
The Proebstal brothers first established a creamery at Skamokawa, located about midway along Wahkiakum's river shore near the mouth of Skamokawa Creek, in 1895. An 1896 article in the Skamokawa Eagle described the creamery's state-of-the-art equipment:
"First and foremost is a Russian Imperial cream separator of the largest size, made by P. M. Sharples of West Chester, Penn. The capacity of this intricate machine is 2,700 pounds of milk per hour. The bowl of this machine is driven by steam from the boiler in the Engine room, and runs at a terrific rate, making 7,500 revolutions a minute ... the cream [runs] into two 200 gallon cream vats ... Just below these cream vats hangs an Improved Curtis trunk-covered churn, with a capacity of 150 gallons of cream and butter is made in the churn in thirty minutes" (Martin, 59-60).Skamokawa Creamery
When the Proebstal brothers decided to sell in 1898, John Strom encouraged local farmers to buy the creamery and run it as a cooperative. The Skamokawa Farmers' Creamery Association that Strom organized was the first cooperative creamery on the West Coast. Skamokawa Creamery operations expanded under the cooperative. In 1901 it made 6,074 pounds of butter. By 1932 it shipped more than 11,000 pounds in one week. The Creamery Association added a store and a warehouse to the creamery in 1926, providing members a source of inexpensive supplies and feed.
Due in part to the large numbers of Scandinavians among Wahkiakum dairy farmers and to strong support from the Eagle, whose editor, S. G. Williams, praised the Skamokawa Creamery in many stories and reprinted accounts of the Scandinavian co-op movement, more dairy co-ops soon flourished in the county. In Grays River in Wahkiakum's west end, blacksmith Charles C. Schmand led farmers in organizing the Farmers Cooperative Produce and Warehouse Association. They took over the Ferndale Creamery, which, like Proebstal Brothers in Skamokawa, had begun as a private business. In 1922, the Grays River cooperative joined the Lower Columbia Dairy Association, which was composed of cooperatives from both sides of the Columbia River.
Wahkiakum County creameries thrived only until the early 1930s, when the combination of the Depression and, ironically, the long-awaited extension of the state highway system to the county sent them into a decline from which they could not recover. The highway opened local creameries to competition from other dairies just at the time that prices for dairy products were plummeting. Although Wahkiakum County continued to see significant dairy production until the 1980s, by the mid-1940s, milk produced at local farms was shipped out of the county to be processed.