William (Bill) Straus
October 7, 1914 --July 6, 2003
German-born Jewish California Organic Dairy Farmer Leaves Vital Family Legacy
Bill Straus, patriarch of California's pioneering organic dairy family, died unexpectedly at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital on Sunday, July 6th. He was, as he would have said, almost in his 90th year of life.
The cause of death, according to family members, was complications arising from coronary heart disease. Hours before his death, he got the "dream of his lifetime" - a helicopter ride from his home on his dairy farm in Marshall, California. The fact that it was an emergency trip to the hospital did not diminish his excitement.
Though an only child, Bill was raised in a world filled with hundreds of relatives and friends. Together, they formed an intricate, global web that shaped his vision about how community should look and feel. He spent much of the subsequent eight decades trying to recreate this vision in a community emanating from his dairy farm in Marshall, California.
William Samuel Straus was born on October 7, 1914 in Hamburg, Germany, to Albert and Frieda Straus nee Goldtree.
In 1934, inspired by the memory of a father he barely knew, Bill and his friends involved in the Zionist youth movement took a series of hands-on agricultural courses in the Czech Republic, in order to obtain visas needed to enter British-mandated Palestine. He rounded out his training in the Netherlands where every cow in the small Holstein herd would come galloping to the milking barn when it was called by name.
Fleeing the increasing threat of the Nazis, Bill and his mother escaped to Palestine in 1936. Bill planned to settle, had he not received a telegram from relatives in California, stating simply: "Come immediately. Stop. We're drilling for oil. Stop" on land he had inherited in San Luis Obispo.
Bill fell in love with the California landscape, and chose to settle there instead of what was to become Israel. Although they didn't discover any oil on their land in California, Bill's mother was reportedly very happy with her son's decision. "It's not good to have too much money," Bill often told his family and guests.
Bill's mother, Frieda Goldtree, actually was born in 1887 in San Luis Obispo, California, after her father Morris and his two older brothers emigrated from Germany to seek their fortune at the tail end of the Gold Rush. The Goldtree family opened the town's only general store and were later instrumental in bringing the railroad to the central coast. Drought and a poor economy drove the Goldtree family back to Germany around the turn of the century, where Frieda eventually met her future husband, Albert Straus.
Bill's father, Albert, was one of the first Jews in Germany to receive a PhD. in agriculture, living a dream denied to countless generations of his Jewish ancestors to be connected to the land. But World War I interrupted his work in agriculture, and Albert died of the Spanish Influenza after a few years serving as an officer in the Germany army. Bill was only four years old.
After choosing to study agriculture over philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, Bill purchased a small dairy on September 1, 1941, in the outskirts of the hamlet of Marshall, situated on the eastern shore of Tomales Bay in western Marin County. He started with 23 Jersey cows, which he named after friends and relatives. Years later, his wife's cigar smoking, fast talking New York City aunt Gertrude objected to this tradition, and "Gertrude" was the last cow Bill named.
In 1949, convinced that Bill would never find a nice Jewish bride in rural west Marin, relatives set up a meeting with Ellen Prins, a young Dutch-born refugee from the Netherlands, living in Manhattan. Bill went to extraordinary lengths arranging for others to care for his cows, and embarking on a cross-country flight traveling to NYC in 1949 for a blind date, only to find that Ellen had left for a holiday to Amsterdam. In now-famous family lore, Bill returned months later to court Ellen. After sixteen days, Bill turned to Ellen and said, "Well, I've made up my mind. How about you?"
They were married three months later in New York, and came to "honeymoon permanently" at Bill's farm on the shores of Tomales Bay in 1950. They enjoyed a marriage of more than fifty-two years, until Ellen died of a brain tumor in November 2002.
Straus was an innovative dairyman, and was often the first in the region to adopt new and environmentally sound agricultural practices. He co-founded the Tomales Bay Association, which served as a conduit between the region's environmentalists and farmers, just one of many concrete steps he took for land conservation. Straus was a deeply principled man, whose strong convictions ran through all of his actions.
Bill and Ellen's commitment to agriculture and the environment set the stage for creating one of the most well-respected organic companies in the nation, and helped launch a conservation movement that has permanently saved ten of thousands of acres of endangered agricultural land from subdivision. Few have done more to preserve the land of western Marin County and the nation.
In 1994, Bill's oldest son Albert converted the farm to create the first organic dairy operation west of the Mississippi River. At midnight of the Straus Family Creamery's first day, Bill, his wife Ellen, and his son Michael joined Albert on the bottling line, where old-fashioned glass milk bottles bearing Ellen's artwork rolled off of the conveyor.
Bill felt a deep connection to his Jewish roots and relations. His great, great grandfather, the Ba'al Shem of Michelstadt, was a great rabbi and spiritual leader who is still revered to this day. Despite being one of the only Jewish families in his rural community, Bill and his wife managed to create a Jewish home, building in large part on their roots in the religion and tradition. They filled their home with history, tradition and an unflagging commitment to helping community. Friday evenings often found the Straus kitchen (the heart of their 1865 New Hampshire-inspired farmhouse) filled with the smell of freshly baked challah, and the ancient melodies of Jewish prayers. Occasionally, a Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner would be interrupted by the cows breaking loose onto Highway One.
Bill always had twinkle in his eyes and mischievous sense of humor. In 1983, awaking from an open-heart surgery operation that implanted a pig's aortic heart valve (the type of procedure his kosher ancestors may not have sanctioned), Bill's first words were "Oink, oink."
Bill had a joy for life that surprised even his family. He loved to hear the latest news about the Albert's new dairy products, the latest twists in his daughter Vivien's play, the news of daughter Miriam's shiitake mushroom enterprise, and his youngest son Michael's new clients in his burgeoning communications business.
Bill was a caring husband, father and grandfather. Ellen, his wife of more than 52 years, died seven months ago at his side at their farm in Marshall. Bill is survived by four children: Albert and his wife Jeanne Smithfield (Marshall, CA), Vivien Straus (Los Angeles), Miriam and her husband Alan Berkowitz (Salt Point, New York), and Michael Straus (San Francisco); and four sparkling grandchildren Reuben Straus, and Isaac, Jonah and Elias Berkowitz.
The family requests that any donations in memory of Bill be made to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, (415) 663-1158; Post Office Box 809, Point Reyes CA 94956.
Private services and memorial service were held on Wednesday.