BY JIM MERCIER
Imagine for a moment, that you are out of milk. No problem, just run to the nearest grocery store and pick up a few gallons, right? Well, if you were around prior to the 1890s, before the use of milk bottles, it would have been a little more difficult (and less sanitary) to do that. The “milkman” of that time period would purchase cans of milk (often up to 40 gallons in size) straight from the farmer and would then make his deliveries in the city by the use of a horse-drawn wagon. The customer would bring a container, and the milk would then be transferred from the large can by using a ladle or faucet. One can only imagine how safe this process really was!
By the mid-1880s, things began to change. A large Milwaukee dairy began using milk “jars,” or bottles, to package its milk. Racine wasn’t too far behind. In 1888, a Racine newspaper published the following: “C. K. Stearns is out with something new in the way of delivering milk. The milk is put up in neat glass jars, and sealed in the dairy rooms. Then it is carried around in a well-built wagon, and delivered to his customers.” Of course, this vastly improved the quality of the product. By 1915, 78 percent of all milk sold in Racine was in glass bottles.
It was not uncommon for farmers to sell milk directly to the consumer. Many farm dairies even bottled their own milk, often in embossed milk bottles depicting their own name. Other milk distributors would purchase milk in bulk quantity from the farmer, and then bottle it (often in their own basements) before selling it to customers on their routes. Around the turn of the century, most milk distributors were the farmer producers or those who purchased milk in bulk from the farmer, bottled it, and peddled it on milk routes. However, at this time there were no laws requiring that raw milk be pasteurized, either by the farmer or bottler. It was not until 1949 that Wisconsin passed a law that required all milk dealers in the state to sell only pasteurized milk.
Early milk bottles were round and embossed with the dairy’s name and usually the city. These were common well into the 1940s. Pyroglazed (applied color lettering) bottles made their appearance in the late 1930s and quickly began to replace the embossed bottle. These colorful bottles proved to be very popular with consumers.
When you mention old Racine dairies, the first one that comes to mind is the Progressive Dairy. This was Racine’s largest dairy and the last one to close. Its roots date back to 1912, when brothers W. Allen and Joseph Gifford opened Gifford’s Dairy Farm, near Franksville. With fresh milk from their own herd, they began selling their “sanitary milk” using a horse-drawn wagon. In 1923, Progressive Dairy Products was organized, and a brand new dairy plant was constructed on Lathrop Avenue, just south of Washington Ave. W.A. Gifford insisted on tuberculin testing of all cows producing raw milk for the dairy. His bottles even had the words, “milk from tuberculin tested herds” embossed in the glass. Besides milk, one could order cottage cheese, cream, buttermilk, chocolate milk, and even eggs.
The honor of being Racine’s first true dairy (where raw milk is processed) belongs to the Racine Pure Milk Company, which was located at 1010 Thirteenth St. This dairy merged with Borden’s in 1928 before closing its doors in the late 1960s.
Some of you may even remember Studey’s, Harmony, Mari-Gold, and the North Side Dairy. Others included Cloverleaf, Westfield, Lewis Farm, and a host of others. When the Progressive Dairy closed in 1973, it marked the end of Racine’s dairy industry.
Jim Mercier is an avid collector of Racine historical memorabilia. Some of his collection in the Racine Business Center’s Spirit of Racine Entrepreneurs exhibit.