Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Facts and Findings - Milk and the urban food supply chain

On our newest program, The Moores: An Irish Family in America, we talk a lot about the consequences of poor milk production in the 19th century. Children drank milk that was spoiled or adulturated with ammonia, chalk, and water. Many died from bacterial infections or simply malnutrition, including Agnes Moore, a baby who lived at 97 Orchard Street in 1869.

Our friends at Saxelby Cheesemongers in the Essex Street Market know a lot about milk production, as befits cheese mongers. Their latest newsletter included this interesting round-up of milk production and dissemination in New York in the mid-20th century:

From the late eighteen hundreds to the 1930's and 1940's, milk trains were the commonest way of supplying urban populations with milk. As cities grew, and farmland in and around them diminished, urbanites began depending more and more on milk from the country. Milk trains were so important and vital to the urban food supply that they often took precedence over passenger trains and frequently caused backups and delays on various lines entering the city from upstate and Connecticut. It is rumored that milk by ferry was tried, and abandoned, for the simple reason that milk lacks sea legs... the jostling of the boat would churn it into butter.

So where did our milk trains come from? Milk was shipped to New York City from the far reaches of New York State, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Vermont, averaging a distance of about 250 miles by train, but sometimes nearing distances of up to 400 miles away. Before dawn in small towns all across New England, farmers would bring their fresh milk (in milk cans) to their local train station or depot. In some special cases, if the farm was far from a town but near to a rail line, the farmer would leave the milk at a 'milk stand' which was an elevated building next to the train tracks where the milk cans could be easily schlepped into the boxcar. Milk trains were cooled by large chunks of pond ice (harvested in the winter and kept in thickly insulated buildings for use in the summer) and kept the fragile delicacy intact for its journey to the city.

In New York, the 'milk yard' was located at 60th Street on the West Side, and the creameries (responsible for pasteurizing and bottling the milk) were located as close as possible to the rail yards. There were creameries in the Bronx and Brooklyn as well, but the largest and most impressive operation was a company called Sheffield's, who set up shop literally alongside the rail lines at 60th St. The milk would arrive in the city around 11:00 pm, be pasteurized and bottled by 2:00 am and sent out for delivery either to dairy stores or on local milk routes.

Tenement Museum records show that a milkman living on Orchard Street was responsible for delivering milk to 97 Orchard in the 1930s, the last decade people lived in the tenement.

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