Point Reyes Light - July 10, 2003

Rancher Straus, 88, dies' Marshall family patriarch

By Larken Bradley

Dairyman and conservationist Bill Straus, patriarch of the Straus Family Creamery and the sagacious head of his clan’s global network of relations - died Sunday, July 6, in Santa Rosa, of complications from coronary problems. He was 88.

While Mr. Straus had been ailing recently, his death was unexpected, and came just seven months after the passing of his wife, environmentalist Ellen Straus, who died Nov. 30, from a brain tumor.

In 1941 Mr. Straus bought his Marshall dairy ranch and stocked it with 23 Jersey cows, which he named after his friends and relatives. His philosophies about farming evolved over the years, and more than five decades later Straus Family Creamery became the first organic dairy in the western United States.

Saved ranchlands

Along with his wife, Mr. Straus was an early West Marin conservation leader. As one of the founders of the Tomales Bay Association he worked to save Marin County’s ranchlands and helped forge positive relationships between farmers and environmentalists.

A family man by nature, in the last months of his life his focus on family grew deeper. "He really took opportunities after Mom died to get even more involved in the lives of his children," his son Michael Straus reflected.

Known as an insightful intellectual with a wise understanding of life’s ironies, relatives far and wide "sought him out for counsel and commentary," his cousin, Ernest Dernburg, M.D., of San Francisco, told The Light this week.

William Samuel Straus was born in Hamburg, Germany, on October 7, 1914, to Frieda Goldtree Straus and Albert Straus, one of the first German Jews to earn a doctorate in agriculture. Albert Straus died when young William was four years old.

As a young adult Mr. Straus followed in his father’s footsteps, studying agriculture. In 1936, under the increasing threat of Hitler’s Nazi regime, he and his mother escaped to British-controlled Palestine, a portion of which would become Israel.

California’s beauty

While planning to settle in the Middle East, he received a telegram from relatives in San Luis Obispo demanding he come to California where they were drilling for oil on family land. Although no rough crude materialized, Mr. Straus was enchanted with the land’s natural beauty and decided to stay. "It’s not good to have too much money," he would often say.

After earning a degree in agriculture at UC Berkeley, he purchased the Marshall ranch.

This week his family revealed, "In 1949, convinced that he would never find a nice Jewish bride in rural West Marin," relatives in New York set him up on a blind date with Ellen Prins, a Dutch-born Jewish refugee. After a whirlwind East Coast courtship of 16 days, the couple became engaged and married soon afterward.

Charmed by Mr. Straus’ photographs of the rolling hills and pristine beauty of Marshall, Ellen Prins Straus was happy to commit to rural life in her husband’s New Hampshire-style farmhouse.

Devoted to West Marin

One of few Jewish families to make a career in agriculture, for more than 52 years the couple devoted themselves to protecting West Marin’s landscape and developing environmentally sound farming practices that supported its preservation.

Their commitment to the environment, "helped launch a conservation movement that has permanently saved tens of thousands of acres of endangered agricultural land from subdivision," family members noted on Tuesday.

In interviews with The Light in recent years Mr. Straus claimed to be the first dairy rancher in West Marin to establish a stock pond to hold water; the first to install a parlor barn where cows stood above the milker; and the first to spread liquid manure washed from barns on the fields as fertilizer.

In 1994, the Straus’ oldest son, Albert Straus, converted the farm into the first organic dairy operation west of the Mississippi River. The creamery’s products can be spotted in dairy cases in trademark old-fashioned glass milk bottles decorated with Mrs. Straus’ bovine artwork.

Seeing the Straus family name affixed on dairy products came as a surprise to Mr. Straus. "I don’t think he expected to have a company with a product line," his son ventured.

Spiritual and savvy

A man deeply committed to his spiritual roots, Mr. Straus joined his wife in creating a Jewish home filled with the aroma of freshly baked challah, and the sounds of ancient chanted prayers.

"Occasionally a Shabbat dinner would be interrupted by the cows breaking loose onto Highway 1," his children said.

Visitors to the family home felt nurtured by the couple’s warmth and hospitality, and often experienced a twinge of longing upon leaving, observed Mr. Straus’ cousin, Dr. Dernburg. "They felt they had found a Valhalla."

Throughout his life, Mr. Straus maintained close relationships with family members and friends scattered throughout the world, including childhood pals who remained in the Middle East. "He really did expect to settle in Palestine," his son said.

Thoughtful

A thoughtful man whose opinions and advice were well considered, humanitarian, and often tinged with a drop of cynicism, Mr. Straus was also possessed of a mischievous sense of humor. In 1983 after waking from open-heart surgery in which he received a pig’s aortic heart valve, his first words were "oink, oink," his family said.

He is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, Albert Straus and Jeanne Smithfield of Marshall; daughter, Vivien Straus of Los Angeles; daughter and son-in-law, Miriam and Alan Berkowitz of Salt Point, New York; son, Michael Straus of San Francisco; and four grandsons, Reuben Straus; Isaac Straus; Jonah Straus; and Elias Berkowitz.

Private services were held on Wednesday.

The family has suggested that any memorial contributions be made to Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), PO Box 809, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956.

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