Last installment on the history of Homer’s Milk Plants

READ INSTALLEMENTS 1 + 2 HERE

by Joshua K. Blay

Sheffield/Sealtest

The last plant built, the last to process milk, and the last standing until a few years ago, was located at 4 Center Street. Today, it is a vacant lot.   Looking to grow their business, Sheffield Farms sought to replace their Cortland Street facility, and in the summer of 1931, land was bought just north of Center Street for a new plant.   By January 1932 they accepted their first milk delivery.  A Homer Post article from April that year touted its “most attractive appearance” with tile glazed walls inside and out as well as its construction following the most modern ideas of creamery plant design and machinery arrangement. It was also the largest in Homer, being 200’ long and 66’ wide.   The laboratory for butterfat and bacteria testing was in the basement.  In addition to pasteurizing milk, it also processed cream and buttermilk and had its own ice plant capable of making twelve tons a day.   For water, there were two wells that could supply 500 gallons a minute, but a connection to the village water system was available if needed.   At the time of the article the plant received 1,000 cans of milk a day and was able to produce one bottle of milk every second. Three railroad cars of bottled milk and cream were being shipped daily along with another of bulk milk.  Even more processed milk was taken to a bottling plant in Pennsylvania, and excess skim milk was brought to nearby Truxton. Two double-ended sidings west of the Syracuse-Binghamton Lackawanna line were installed for railroad cars.   When spotted properly, employees could load and unload two strings of twelve railroad cars at a time.  Lackawanna owned and privately owned milk cars were usually spotted which were brought to New Jersey for the New York City area.   Even Lehigh Valley Railroad milk cars were spotted there for a time. The Lackawanna switch crew would pick up empties from the Lehigh in Cortland south of Port Watson Street and spot them at Sheffield and do the reverse with the loads.  Loaded cars on the Valley would be forwarded via a milk train on a secondary line running via Cortland, Freeville, Dryden, and Owego, NY to Sayre, PA where they would be combined into a mainline milk train bound for Jersey City, NJ near New York City.

In the Fall of 1953, 13,000 AFL teamsters went on strike in New York City, affecting local milk producers.  Sheffield shipped to Catskill three days a week and only 60 cases to Jersey for hospitals.  Otherwise, most of the milk was usually shipped to New Jersey.   That same decade, the name evolved to Sealtest.   By the spring of 1962, service evolved from refrigerator cars to truck trailers on flat cars.  From an article mentioning the change, we know the plant (Sealtest Foods, division of National Dairy Products, by this time) employed 40, shipped 40,000 bottles and cartons, and received 100,000 quarts of milk a day from 186 area farms.   That same year, the plant was renovated to handle increasing bottling and byproduct business.   At that time, the plant produced cream and skim milk as well as other products including egg nogg for the holidays.  Just a few years later, mid-May 1966, the last freight cars with milk were picked up, ending decades of milk service by rail.

In the summer of 1972, the Cortland Standard ran a very brief article along with an image.   After about forty years, the plant received the last can of milk; after that it would be bulk tank delivery only.  This author’s grandfather, Donald Jones, director of the Eastern Milk Producers Cooperative, looked on as Edward Signor emptied it and plant manager Earl Jacobi looked in.  Per the paper, Signor had received the first can in 1942 when the plant opened (an error on paper’s part as it was 1932).   At that time, 160 dairymen delivered 261,000 pounds of milk which was nearly twice the amount of milk delivered by 234 producers when the plant opened — evidence of the shrinking number of dairy farmers, which continues.

By the 1980s (at the latest) the plant was under the control of Kraft Inc. Dairy Group but still using the Sealtest brand name.   In the fall of 1982, the plant was taken over by Eastern Milk Producers Cooperative Association.   At that time, the plant had about two dozen employees and was producing white and chocolate milk, heavy cream, and buttermilk; 72,000 quarts of milk were produced daily.   Running at half capacity, the plant served the Syracuse/Binghamton corridor; Kraft had been purchasing raw milk from Eastern for 10-15 years at that point.

In the fall of 1986, an article ran in the Standard about the plant expecting to be profitable thanks to new state licenses in Oswego, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Tompkins Counties to distribute their own label as well as Eastern-produced milk sold under the Sealtest and other brands.  Forty people were employed at the time.  Until then, Eastern could only distribute its milk in Broome and Tioga counties, and milk bottled at Homer was sold by other distributors in other counties.   A year later, however, Eastern sold the plant to Dairylea.   September 11, 1987 was the last production run under the Eastern name, perhaps for milk altogether as any Dairylea activity afterwards is unknown.  Dairylea sold the property to HP Hood in late 1988.  Sometime after Sealtest closed, the Brown family that ran Roundhouse Mill in Cortland was looking to process soybeans.  Having no room at their mill on Elm Street in Cortland, they bought the Center Street plant in the summer of 1989 and converted the plant to process soybeans. The field crop, largely grown in New York, was rendered into meal and oil.  A rail siding (just one this time) was re-installed to serve the plant.  The meal was sold locally for animal feed and the oil was shipped out, mostly by rail and to Smucker’s.   In 2003, they had the ability to crush 6,000 beans a day but were operating at about half capacity.   The plant stopped rendering beans c. 2005 but shipped soybeans by rail to New Jersey for shipment overseas.   After some proposals to re-open the plant, it was sadly razed c. 2019.

Honorable Mention

There were some smaller milk plants in the Homer area as well; a few mentions were found in the course of research for this article.   Wright A. Perry had a business on Copeland Avenue for a number of years back to the 1920s.   Earl L. Brown, a former manager of the Homer Sheffield plant, purchased Perry’s business in late 1941 and was assisted by his father Arthur.   According to a November 1941 Cortland Standard article, Arthur planned to set up a modern pasteurizing and bottling plant at South Main and Cortland Street.   Nine years later, a mention was found in the Standard regarding Brown’s Dairy Bar and Ice Cream on South Main being purchased by the Chenango Ice Cream Company of Norwich.   Bell’s Dairy had a plant at 11 Albany Street going back to the 1920s at least.    A 1935 Homer Post article described the plant with modern sanitary refrigeration, pasteurizing, and bottling equipment.   They also sold butter, eggs, cheese, cream, and chocolate milk.  They were bought by Bill Brothers Dairy of Cortland in the 1940s.

Conclusion

Today, milk is no longer processed in Cortland County.   There are also fewer farms in Cortland than ever, but they are larger than ever.  In 2020 there were 75 dairy farms in the county producing 27.3 million pounds of milk per the Cornell Cooperative Extension.  The use of milk is changing as well. In 2000, 50%-60% was being sold as fluid milk.  As of 2020 that had dropped to 30-40%. The majority produced is a blend which is used for dairy based products including cheese and ice cream.  Nationally, the average cow numbers in 2000 was less than half of what it was in 1950, and while production per cow has more than tripled in the same amount of time, total production increased less 50% of what it was in 1950.

Joshua Blay concludes his well-researched and well-written article with this statement:

Thank you to Martin Sweeney, Walt Jones, Dana Michael Brown, David Marcham, and past and present staff at the Cortland County Historical Society for their assistance and my patient wife for her encouragement and proofreading.   Have additional information to share?  Please contact me at:  mail@joshuakblay.com


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