Friday, April 1, 2016

A Sip of Death

By Matthew Shoen

When I was in elementary school the administrators took the soda machine by the cafeteria and replaced it with a milk machine. Back home milk was big and the milk machine was supposed to encouraging us to drink healthier (It failed, everyone drank the chocolate and strawberry milk). Yet more than encourage us to get our daily calcium, the milk machine was a reminder of our community’s bonded ties to the dairy industry. In the 1880s St. Lawrence County led the state in milk production with almost nine million gallons a year. Lisbon had more cows than people, by a significant margin. As a kid, my father milked five hundred head for a neighbor, by the time my brother started milking that same neighbors farm was three thousand head and struggling to survive due to how badly milk prices have bottomed out in the last few decades. 

When I moved to Buffalo to start working with Preservation Studios I had milk on the brain. My brother had only just quit milking because his employer had him working eleven-hour shifts without a lunch break. I hadn’t expected to learn about milk in Buffalo. Frankly, after my brother’s issues I was done with the stuff. Yet when we started working on the milk depot of Queen City Dairy at 885 Niagara Street I found the building’s story and by extension the story of milk in the early twentieth century fascinating. That story, and how it intersects with science and social history is worth digging into. 

The milk depot as a building type really only occurred in America between 1880 and 1930. This critical fifty-year span featured a massive transformation in both city life, and technology that majorly impacted the way milk was consumed. Prior to 1880 there were very few metropolises in America and many people living on the edge of large cities had barns and livestock from which they drew milk for sale to people living in the city center. The time between utter and human lips was minimal and this rendered milk generally safe (minus the very real potential of bovine tuberculosis). The great waves of migration that characterized the 1880s and beyond changed the urban environment however. Suddenly it was illegal to have livestock inside city limits and milk production became a completely rural affair after these ordinances were passed. A new building type became necessary, a place where milk could be accumulated and then distributed to neighborhoods as dawn broke.  The milk depot was created to fill this roll.

The milkman coming with his cart and bottles of fresh creamy milk is an iconic image of the era, a symbol of simpler times and quaint Americanism. Unfortunately this imagery is a whitewash of the truth. Though milk from Queen City Dairy came to the doorsteps of many houses in Buffalo it did not come as the rich healthy substance we know today.

As I said, the era of the milk depot was an era of massive change. Unfortunately, effective refrigeration was not one of those changes. In Buffalo, the milk gathered in the bulk tanks of Queen City Dairy came from as far away as Elma and Mt. Morris. This milk sat in twenty gallon metal jugs, waiting for a train to pick it up and bring it into the city. As you can guess this did nothing for the favor of Buffalo’s milk. Even ignoring the dangerous bacteria cultures, milk of this era “contained clods of dirt and had a barny flavor…Some bacteria gave milk a slimy consistency, increasing its viscosity so dramatically that it could be pulled into strings. Other bacteria colored it blue, green, or red.”[1] Perhaps bacteria are an explanation for the blue milk in Star Wars and why Luke was so eager to get off Tatooine.

Because of the  ordinances that outlawed keeping dairy cows within city limits the time milk spent traveling from the farm to consumer was dramatically increased, something that the creation of milk depots reflects. The milk depot as a space was necessary to concentrate milk for distribution, something a single farmer out in Elma could not do profitably. As the nineteenth century ended, the milk depot also became responsible for a new important function, purifying milk for consumption.

Because milk took so long to reach consumers people died by the millions from drinking it. With its mix of sugars and fats milk can grow a terrifying variety of bacterial cultures. Now compound that with 20th century ideas about the superiority of cows milk to human milk. During the decades when milk was easily one of the most dangerous substances in the world, people believed that breastfeeding was savage and too taxing for the modern woman's nerves. The industrialized world overwhelmed the female constitution in such a way that breastfeeding would be too much exertion for a new mother. While we can laugh at how nonsensical this idea was we cannot laugh at its effect. Infant mortality rates during this time ran between 15% and 25%. Babies were fed liquid diphtheria and typhoid to keep them from the over-stressed breasts of their mothers. Deaths were especially common during the summer months when milk sat in rail yards in sweltering heat, breeding bacteria.

Pasteurization began to alter this fatal relationship, and Queen City Dairy was one of the first pasteurizing milk depots in Buffalo.  Pasteurization was first promoted in wine as a way to prevent the wine rack from becoming a vinegar rack. A German agricultural chemist named Franz von Soxhlet first proposed pasteurizing milk as a method to reduce infant mortality rates, a proposal which was viciously contested. Many depots lacked the cash to upgrade their facilities to pasteurize and some scientists believed that pasteurizing milk destroyed its nutritional value, an argument you can still see being made to this day by a small vocal minority (milk libertarians?). Still milk interests, such as Queen City Dairy, who could afford to pasteurize began to promote their facilities as purveyors of clean wholesome milk. Pasteurization became a marketing strategy for Queen City Dairy and depots like it, and as a byproduct, the mortality rate of America’s babies began to fall.
A bit creepy, but nonetheless effective for its day.
Milk was finally made safe after the 1930s when refrigerated trucks and a more even application of pasteurization helped eradicate much of the disease milk historically contained. By then Queen City Dairy had gone out of business and soon after the entire milk depot industry went under as the supermarket began to displace milk deliveries as the medium through which people got their daily calcium.

For a brief fifty years the history of milk intertwined in terrifying ways with the society and technology. Milk was the deadliest substance in America and every doctor prescribed it for newborns. Taken from dirty tubercular udders and placed on rail spurs for hours on end in the hot sun, milk little resembled the substance we drink today. People drank milk and died unaware that they’d taken a sip of death with their evening meal.  The milkman making his rounds each dawn carried a cartful of disease and it was not until pasteurization and later on refrigeration that the danger of milk passed and people could enjoy milk without the fear of feeding tubercular death to their children. So, if you drive by the old milk depot at 885 Niagara Street slow down and take a moment to think about what happened within its walls. This building, like most of Buffalo's buildings, tells a fascinating story, a sad story no doubt, but a story of our ancestors and how they lived and died, drinking milk.

The Queen City Milk Depot

[1] Kendra Smith-Howard, Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History Since 1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 12.

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