Contented cows and udder holiday delights at historic Carnation Farms

Dec 15, 2023, 9:27 AM | Updated: 9:32 am

Historic Carnation Farms has been a fixture in the Snoqualmie Valley for more than a century. The unique Northwest destination is open to the public on Saturday, Dec. 16, for a holiday market along with a history tour led by the company founder’s great-grandson.

Carnation is a local brand name that dates to 1899 in Kent, Washington that eventually went national and international in the 20th century. Their flagship product was evaporated milk.

The founder of what became Carnation was Elbridge Amos Stuart. His great-grandson, with the same name, says evaporated milk is not something many people think about much these days. But 120 years ago, Stuart says, when dairies were moving farther away from population centers, and fresh milk would often spoil in transit, it was a real innovation.

“If you wanted whole milk again, all you had to do was add an equal volume of water,” Elbridge Stuart told KIRO Newsradio on Thursday. “And that’s how they made evaporated milk, they put it into something that looked like a still. They sealed it up, created a vacuum, and in a vacuum, things will boil at a much lower temperature.”

“And so they were able to boil off 50% of the water vapor without spoiling the milk,” Stuart continued. “And if you put it in a can and it sealed properly, the shelf life was decades.”

Around 1910, Carnation was a successful and still growing business with expanding markets around the United States. Founder Elbridge Stuart decided that a working farm in the Snoqualmie Valley was a great idea – as a place to experiment by breeding cows that yielded more milk and by serving as a base from which to sell those cows around the world.

Carnation Farm – singular, no “s” on the end – was launched in 1913 and served the company in its original purpose and as something of a public relations initiative for decades. Beginning sometime in the early 20th century, Carnation marketed its dairy products as coming from those specially-bred “contented cows,” and by the 1930s, the company began sponsoring a long-running radio variety program called “The Carnation Contented Hour.”

Operations at the farm tapered off significantly circa 1990, or about 5 years after global conglomerate Nestlé purchased the company and all of its assets.

Nearly 40 years after Nestlé took over, Carnation still exists as a brand in the United States and in other countries, but it’s not as widely known domestically as it was as recently as the 1980s. Still, along with the more recent products such as Carnation Instant Breakfast, Nestlé does still offer American consumers the tried and true cans of Carnation Evaporated Milk.

The “Carnation” name on those cans also made its way onto the community where the farm is located.

The nearby Snoqualmie Valley town nearest the Carnation complex was originally called Tolt (for what was said to be a shortened local Indigenous name, “Tolthue”) when the town was founded in 1912. Carnation – the farm, the company, and “the brand” (as someone might say nowadays) – was so important to the growing community and to its burgeoning identity that city leaders petitioned the state legislature, and Tolt was officially changed to “Carnation” in 1917.

One account of the renaming, as described by author and place-name expert Robert Hitchman, says that Elbridge Stuart asked for the name change in exchange for promising to locate a milk condensing plant there. Hitchman writes that when the plant closed in the 1950s, some residents wanted to change the name back to Tolt.

The farm itself has gone through a few changes since the 1990s with different owners and different management. Elbridge Stuart (the founder’s great-grandson) recently purchased the 800+ acres of real estate from the Camp Korey organization, which had offered its programs there for about a decade.

With the land back in family hands, Stuart helped found a non-profit to manage it and to create a series of programs and initiatives related to culinary arts and what Stuart calls “regenerative farming.” He says this concept is a step beyond organic farming that’s also about sustaining the health of the land and the economic health of the farmers, too.

Elbridge Stuart will lead a guided history tour – and probably touch on some of the farm’s more forward-looking plans – at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday. The tour is free, but guests are required to RSVP in advance online.

Along with cool parts of the sprawling agricultural buildings of Carnation Farms, Stuart says tour participants will also get to see a collection of historic vehicles, including one that was on display at the Carnation Café on Main Street at Disneyland for about 50 years: a 1913 Carnation Model-T truck, which Walt Disney himself once drove.

“He and my father drove the truck in the opening day at Disneyland in July of 1955,” Stuart said. “And there are pictures of Walt and my father opening up the ice cream store on ‘day zero’ before the public was let in” to the grand-opening of the legendary theme park.

If you go:

Admission to the Carnations Farms Holiday Market is free. There will be live music and food available for purchase from vendors. Hours are Saturday, Dec. 16 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The farm is located at 28901 NE Carnation Farm Road in Carnation.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Contented cows and udder holiday delights at historic Carnation Farms