by Norm Coughlin
Too many younger people who have known nothing of buying milk and related products except for the spacious and attractively arranged display cases in the large food stores’ dairy sections, it would be quite surprising to be told how your grandparents and parents obtained their supplies.
The oldest dairy that serviced Rogers Park and some close by suburbs to the north, was founded by John T. Ure in 1887 at 5138 (now 7527) N. Clark Street and continued in business as such until it was bought out by Bowman Dairy in the early twenties. (Mr. Ure was a large developer of the Howard Street area and Howard Street, itself, was named for Ure’s son Howard.) Mr. Ure obtained his milk supply in what is now known as the Village of Wilmette.
Supposedly, as did the other dairies across the country, the milk and cream was ladled out from five gallon milk cans on board the wagons into the house’s receptacle. Later, when the use of bottles was prevalent, and the proper sanitizing and filling of them was perfected, all dairies adapted these systems, bringing a finer, fresher supply to the home. Related items, such as butter, eggs, cream, and cottage cheese were all added to the lines carried by the drivers.
The first large dairy to come to Rogers Park was the Kee and Chappel Company–a large South Side firm. They opened about 1910 what was then considered a modern plant at 1801 Columbia Avenue, with receiving facilities on the east side of the building for the unloading of refrigerated railroad cars that were brought in each night on a spur (siding) from theChicago & North Western Railway’s main tracks.
These items were dispersed on a wide cement platform that was just as high as the wagon’s door. Each morning, the drivers would, after hitching their horses to the rigs, form a line and proceed alongside this platform, calling out their orders of the various items that they wished for inventory. They would then trot out the door and be on their way to their routes.
In the afternoon, upon their return, the wagons would again form lines and give the cases of empty bottles that had been picked up during the day, to waiting loaders inside the same cars, who would stack them for the return trip to the plants where they were again washed prior to being refilled.
This way of buying dairy products continues for decades. Food stores would carry small supplies of these items, but there was small demand for them. The public was sold on the idea of a seven-day-a-week home delivery of fresh items. It was not until World War II that there was any variance. Every other day delivery had been adopted to conserve manpower, horsepower, and gasoline during the war. Cut-rate milk stores had come into being during the Depression, and the buying habits of the public changed. Milk was now obtainable in larger and less costly containers, such as half-gallons and gallons. Plastic supplemented glass, and people began buying these items at the burgeoning supermarkets.
As the horses had been supplanted by trucks, a lot of the romance of the dairy business faded. Each horse had its own personality and became a neighborhood pet. Oftenm, an irate housewife, irked by the driver of someone at the dairy, would continues as a customer because her children were so fond of the milk horse.
Bowman Dairy, who bought out Kee and Chappel about 1922, was the largest dairy in Chicago and the suburbs, with over 2300 horse-drawn routes, in addition to many trucks. the stories about their horses, and those of the other dairies seemed almost fictional, but were, by and large, true.
Bowman continued to grow with the ever increasing population of Rogers Park, adding new routes and employing many local residents. Their traditionally black horses made striking contrast with their immaculate white wagons, washed daily and repainted often.
Close to the holidays, the horses wore cheery sleigh bells that evoked attention all day. Bowman sold the building at 1801 and move to three newly built buildings west on Columbia.
On bitter cold days, it was rather amusing to note their quickened pace as they headed for home, at full gallop, their blankets flying out to the side, as the Man-O-War (famous race horse) in them came out and the warm stable became the finish line.
One such day, as I (author, Norm Coughlin) was crossing Clark at Pratt, I noted a rig coming west on Pratt, the horse’s mane flying in the breeze, and the wagon rocking perilously from side to side. At the same time a similar rig was flying north on
Clark Street, almost at Pratt. Both drivers were standing braced as they approched, sawing at the reins, vainly trying to get their steeds under control.
A dead heat it was, with the wagons slamming and side-swiping each other with sparks flying from the horses’ shoes as they recoiled in fright and bolted westward. A sturdy old touring car, which had entered the intersection, got a good going over from one of the wagons, but its driver stopped only momentarily to inspect his car, and continued south on Clark. You just couldn’t dent those sturdy old cars, and insurance was practically nonexistent.
I should mention that at the time there was no traffic signal, nor even a “STOP” sign at the intersection. The two milk wagons continued west on Pratt, one behind the other, and when last seen turned abruptly left on Clayton Court (now Honore).
Presumably they completedc their tours without further ado.
Other dairies had come into the area, following customers who had gravitated to Rogers Park, and seeking others. They too had beautiful and well-cared for horses and shiny wagons that really added to the romance of this industry.
Slowly, though, they gave way to motor trucks and the changing buying habits of the public, and the alleys were never the same without them.
I suppose there are compensating factors for today’s children and young people, but I think anyone who was never aroused from sleep by the clop, clopping of the horses’ hoves or the clink, clank of milk bottles in the pitch blackness of early morning, or never heard the shrill whine of the wagon’s steel tired wheels in the snow on zero mornings, really missed a truly identifiable bit of America.