Homer: Supplier of Milk to New York City Through the Years

By Martin Sweeney

This is the first of three installments by Joshua K. Blay, a former student of Martin Sweeney and a returning guest columnist. It is proof that a column in a local newspaper on local history can motivate others to do research, to add to the municipal archives, and to enrich our understanding of the past. Joshua wrote, “The impetus to write a history of milk plants in Homer came from a few different sources.   First and foremost, I grew up in the area and many members of my mother’s family were dairy farmers and some are still connected to the industry.   I’ve also long had an interest in local history, especially the railroads through Central New York and the Syracuse Branch of the Lackawanna in particular.  I’ve known about three of the milk plants, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered information on the other on Maple Avenue. I thought I’d put together some information I found over the years, and this led to a lot more discoveries!” We are grateful for Joshua’s efforts, and I am personally appreciative for his giving me a “breather” in preparing articles over the holidays. What a fine present for all of us! 

Cortland County, located between Syracuse and Binghamton, NY, is right about in the middle of the beautiful rolling hills in Central New York.   For hundreds of years, the area has been known for its dairy farming; New York State remains the fourth largest dairy producing state in the country.   First the railroad, and now highways gave area farmers access to larger markets to sell their milk, and the higher quality milk the better.  Milk plants in Homer, the second largest populous area in the county, were “pioneers in producing Grade A milk by applying the laboratory system of examining milk for bacteria” per a local paper in 1919.   It took more work and care on behalf of farmers and creamery employees, but farmers were paid more for this lowest bacterium count premium product as well as milk with a higher butterfat content.   For just about a century, starting in the late 1800s and ending in the 1980s, there were four major milk plants in Homer.   The first was a Kaatz/Clover Farms/Sheffield plant at Cayuga and Cortland Streets, the second the Homer Creamery Company/Dairy Demonstration plant south of Clinton Street on Maple Avenue.  Next a Clover Farms/Dairymen’s League plant northwest of Warren Street and finally the Sheffield/Sealtest plant between Center and Cayuga Streets on the west side of the tracks.   As some locations shared business names over the years, we’ll review them by location.

Kaatz/New York Dairy Demonstration Company/Clover Farms/Sheffield

As a former professor was prone to say, research is never, ever done but sources available at the time of this writing strongly indicate that the first milk plant in the village was located at the corner of Cayuga and Cortland Streets just east of the tracks- 20 Cortland Street- and dates back to the 1890s at least.  Built on property leased from the Lackawanna Railroad, it was modified over the next forty years and operated under a variety of owners.

A Cortland Evening Standard article from May 1893 documented early milk plant history in all of Cortland County.  The proprietor of the milk station in Homer was D.W. Kaatz, and a Sanborn map (a very detailed fire insurance map) from the same year shows just that — actually calling it a milk shipping station with an icehouse.  The milk train at that time passed through the area before lunch and reached Hoboken, NJ at three the next morning.  At the time of the article, 37 farmers regularly brought in 3,600 quarts a day with the most received in one day being 5,000.   225 pounds of butter were made from the surplus and 65 barrels of Dutch cheese were made in June 1892.

A few articles about the plant over the years refer to a new plant or at least renovations.   A possible further complication is that this plant and the one to the north on Maple Avenue (see other section) were both operated by the Dairy Demonstration Company.   If one compares the 1893, 1907, and 1915 Sanborn maps, which give some evidence to the use of interior spaces, it does appear to evolve from a milk shipping station to a creamery but maintains the same overall shape/footprint.

A 1903 Lackawanna company drawing of railroad property and businesses between Clinton and Cayuga Streets shows a plant in the same location without a name, but the 1907 Sanborn edition shows Kaatz’s name still.  The next ten years are unknown.   By 1911/1912, possibly after a period of disuse, the New York Dairy Demonstration Company had purchased the plant.  It was “organized by a number of prominent New Yorkers interested in the health of babies and small children in New York City” per a milk official in the 1930s.  The goal of the company was to demonstrate that a better grade of milk could be processed and delivered.  After a couple fires at the Maple Avenue plant, they consolidated their operations at Cortland Street.  A representative from the Homer Republican visited the plant and shared observations in an August 1912 article.   A new receiving room was added on the east side, laboratories were located on the second floor, and the engine room was enclosed by cement block walls.   An automatic bottle washing machine was in use, a filling machine that processed six bottles at once was mentioned, and five tons of ice were made every day.  In the Summer of 1913, the New York Demonstration Company was sold to the Clover Farms Company.   By 1917, the business handled at the creamery outgrew the building and Clover bought land north of Clinton Street for a new facility (see other section) and the plant sat idle for a time.

As mentioned, the property was leased from the railroad.   In March 1920, a newly formed county maple products co-operative leased the property from railroad for 99 years for bottling and packing.  However, in the lease was a provision that the plant would never be used for handling or shipping milk.  After two or three years of use, the maple operation ceased.  After a brief use by T. Irving Bell/Bell’s Dairy, it was used by Homer Jones, and by January 1, 1925, Sheffield Farms ran the plant.  Will Bell was the first farmer to deliver milk to the “new” plant; 725 cans were received that day.   Farmers as far away as Spafford, Solon, and Marathon delivered milk to the plant at this time.

The Dairymen’s League sought action against Jones and Sheffield Farms.   It was argued that by a conspiracy Jones had the clause removed but stated Sheffield officials knew of its existence.   The League alleged that Sheffield had knowledge of restricted clauses in the bills of sale by which the title to buildings on the ground leased from the Lackawanna.  Sheffield admitted knowledge of a restriction in the leases but not the bills of sale.   Sheffield said they had acted in good faith.  A temporary injunction was granted but vacated the same day.   An action for civil damage was later pursued but dismissed later in 1925.

Sometime between 1915 and 1928, a separate smaller building was built just to the north for an office and laboratory.    Sheffield had been looking to expand their operation for years, but it wasn’t until early 1932 that they opened a new plant just south of Cayuga Street (see later section); the later history of the creamery on Cortland Street is unknown.   It was still standing in 1936 but by the mid-1940s it appears to have been razed from a photograph taken in the area that should have shown the building.  The former office and laboratory building lasted longer; it was used as a plumbing and sheet metal shop and stood until the mid-1950s at least.  In the fall of 1957 it was noted in the Standard that the foundation had been cleaned up and it was now available for parking spots. It is not clear if they meant the creamery site, but due to the size of the original building it would seem reasonable that it was indeed the creamery and not the office/laboratory.   The property remained owned by the Lackawanna and successor Erie Lackawanna until 1964 when Berry’s Mobile Milling, Inc. was looking to expand and bought the property to build a new mill.  They opened in March 1965 and were in business until the 1980s.  Today, the building is occupied by a dog groomer and the lot is privately owned.

To be continued….

This is the second of three installments on the history of Homer’s milk plants by Joshua K. Blay

Homer Creamery Company/New York Dairy Demonstration Company

The second milk plant in the village was used the least.  Built as the Homer Creamery Company, it was located on the west side of Maple Avenue near the railroad tracks south of Clinton Street.  Very little is known of the plant’s history before 1910; the earliest information found was a deed in county records which records Jane A. Murray selling the land to the Homer Creamery Company in late November 1901.  The next month, the company was incorporated.  The directors of the company were Ralph Butler, William Wakefield, Charles A. Henry, Frank Copeland and Thomas H. Bell, all of Homer.  The next source is a previously mentioned 1903 Lackawanna drawing showing railroad property in the area showing the plant.   A 1907 Sanborn map shows the creamery, but it was noted as not running.  In early 1910, the New York Dairy Demonstration Company purchased the land and creamery from the Samuel Alvord estate.  The new company “will fill the icehouse as soon as possible and put the plant in first class condition.”   A letter from the President of the Lackawanna Railroad to a Demonstration Company official in late Summer 1911 regarding a considered railroad siding provides a bit more history.  The creamery, a cooperative enterprise of promoters and farmers, was never used to market the milk produced but under the new ownership was shipping milk in bottles equal to about 100 cans a day.   The letter also gives evidence on how the milk was loaded on the southbound train.   Since they didn’t have a siding at the time, milk containers were brought over to the freight house on James Street and then loaded on to a parked milk car.  With increasing shipments, the milk was later loaded directly to a milk car on a team track (presumably right across the tracks from the freight station along Cortland Street just south of James Street).   Should the volume of the plant approach 120 cans, a siding for the creamery would be considered (it was added later).  Much of the other known history comes from a Cortland Standard article from the Spring of 1919.   Dr. Charles E. North of New York City was a bacteriologist and milk expert and was secretary of the company.   Per the article, he gave:

“Homer milk producers their first real education in the best methods of producing clean milk and originated the plan of paying the farmers well for applying the sanitary methods taught them by giving them premiums monthly, for milk having low bacteria county and high butter fat content.”

A dozen original dairymen participated including Homer Jones, William Miller, the Currie Brothers, Frank Rice, Clinton Bennett, and the Hathaway Farm.   It was a success — so much so that Homer and Cortland County milk was famous in New York City; advertisements for local milk could be found around the city including in the subways.   The plant had an icehouse and boiler house, as well as a main building.  There were two plants operated by the company at this time, one on the west side of Maple Avenue next to the railroad tracks, and the other at the corner of Cayuga and Cortland.

The Maple Avenue plant had at least two fires.   The first was on Saturday May 25, 1912, and the most severe.   The general manager suspected it was due to a spark from a passing locomotive that landed on the roof of the boiler house.  At the time of the fire, it received 325 cans/13,000 quarts a day.   Encouraged by winds, the damage was severe. Much of the higher value equipment was destroyed by the fire.  The second was a few weeks later in June when the ruins caught alight, this time perhaps again from the spark of a locomotive which lit off hay and straw of the associated icehouse.   The same article noted that ice was being moved for use at the other location on Cortland Street.   It is doubtful that the creamery at Maple Avenue was rebuilt as a 1915 Sanborn map does not show a creamery, just the icehouse along Maple Avenue just east of where the creamery was.  By the 1928 edition of the Sanborn maps, even the icehouse was gone, and a smaller building is on the site of the old creamery.  A house at 7 Maple Avenue occupies the site of the icehouse, the creamery was behind near the railroad tracks.

Clover Farms/Dairymen’s League

A bit better history can be found of the northern most plant, located north of Warren and Clinton Street and west of the tracks.  The first piece of known history comes from a 1917 Lackawanna drawing that shows a proposed siding on the west side of the tracks for the proposed Clover Farms Inc. milk station just about where a siding and building would be built.  The plant opened as a Clover Farms facility c. 1917/1918 after outgrowing their previous location at Cortland and Cayuga Streets (see earlier section).   A larger plant than the first two, the milk depot had a connected icehouse and separate laboratory and office.  Creameries were great users of water; steam and hot water were used to clean milk cans and bottles as well as any pipe or container used for holding milk at the creamery.  Many plants also made their own ice either naturally or mechanically, sometimes both.   Old aerial photographs of the site give proof that this plant, unlike the other three, had its own pond certainly for water and perhaps ice.   Located between the plant and Factory Brook (which supplied the pond), the outline could still be seen into the 1960s.

In 1918 milk processed at the new plant came from as far away as Scott, Spafford, and Blodgett Mills.  In 1919, the milk produced by the plant was the cleanest milk produced versus any other in the state.  Indeed, New York health authorities had doubted the high grade of milk produced in Homer using the laboratory process per a local article on the history of local milk production.  Inspectors had come to examine everything associated with milk production — the condition of barns, etc. but they didn’t test the milk shipped out!   A repeat visit in the summer, made purposely on 90-degree days, far exceeded their expectations and Homer’s reputation was well deserved.

In December 1924, the Dairymen’s League took over operation from Clover.   In 1931, it was noted in a local paper that a shipment of milk and cream pasteurized and bottled at the plant was flown on the initial flight of a new 24-hour service between the east and west coast.  By the mid-1940s, the size of the plant had been greatly reduced; the icehouse was no longer there, and the main building was a third of its original length.

The history of the plant after World War II is a little hard to come by. Mostly through newspaper articles and photographs has information been found, and mostly through the site’s present use.  The baby boom in the post-World War II years lead to a rise of the student population throughout the nation, and Homer schools were no exception.   Due to a growing need for additional school space, several options and sites were considered.  In 1957, the school district purchased land north of Clinton Street west of the railroad tracks for the purpose of building an intermediate school, including a portion of land purchased from the League.  That same year, there was a teamster’s union tank truck strike which gives us the last found evidence of the plant in operation.   The August 1957 Cortland Standard article had a comment about how the plant was dealing with the strike, and manager Kenneth Little was quoted.   Despite the land purchase in 1957, it wasn’t until about ten years later that ground was broken for a new intermediate school to house 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students to replace the need to use Jones Hall at the Homer Congregational Church and schools at Preble and Scott for the growing student body.  For a time, the new school co-existed with the plant, but the use of the building is unknown, if any, at this later time.  The last known information comes from a local business directory which lists the building being used as a warehouse by the Interstate Creamery in the early 1960s.   Also unknown is when the siding serving the plant was removed, by the 1960s at the very latest.   By 1974 (it’s believed) the junior high school annex was completed for 7th and 8th grades, and certainly by this time the plant was gone.  The site of the building today is mostly a parking lot between the northeast corner of the Junior High School and the railroad tracks, and all evidence on the pond has been erased by the athletic fields.

To be continued….

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