Eating Local: Local milk was once common, now rare |

Eating Local: Local milk was once common, now rare

Marilyn Gleason
Staff Photo |

Denver’s Union Station in the thrumming LoDo district has been remodeled and revitalized. The stately old train station is on track to serve as the modern transit hub for Denver, integrating Amtrak, light rail and bus service in the heart of downtown.

For most of my life Union Station was a cavernous, deserted space, a hollow testament to its own gilded past. Twice a day, passenger trains stopped to pick up a handful of passengers draped over the worn antique benches with their luggage, dwarfed by the gigantic structure. The building reminded me of an aged debutante, still elegant, but threadbare and forgotten and more than a little lonely. I could almost hear the grand central hall echoing with its memories of bustling, enthralled crowds.

Behind the station to the west, white sculptural tents now span the rebuilt platforms. Beyond them stretches a no-man’s land of rail sidings, spurs and switches diverging to distant destinations.

Look to the right of Union Station’s classic neon “Travel by Train” sign and you’ll see “Ice House”painted in enormous letters on a mostly windowless five-story brick façade. Constructed in 1903 and perched beside the rail network, this refrigerated warehouse staged dairy products continuously until 1979. It was built by the Littleton Creamery to replace its original headquarters a few blocks away.

According to documents filed 30 years ago with the National Register of Historic Places, “The original 1903 building served the cold storage, administration, manufacture and distribution of dairy products. Butter was originally produced in the basement, offices were located on the first level and cold storage occurred on Levels 2-5.”

The Littleton Creamery sold wholesale cheese, butter and cream and equipped local dairies. A cheese factory in Sedalia, about 25 miles south, was a major client.

A competitor from Nebraska bought out the Littleton Creamery in 1912. That year, and again in 1916 and 1917, the Beatrice Creamery built additions until it was the largest cold storage facility in the Rocky Mountain region. To convert to office space and a showroom in 1979, it had to be defrosted. That caused a construction delay of seven weeks until 3 feet of ice melted from the walls.

A few blocks from the refrigerated warehouse stands the brick-and-terra cotta Windsor Farm Dairy, another attractive building plucked from morbidity in Denver’s historic warehouse district. It dates back to 1918. The dairy herd grazed on a farm near the site of Windsor Gardens in southeast Denver; the milk, butter and cheese came downtown for processing.

The Denver Public Library’s collection of historic photos and archives includes many creameries with names like Gold Coin, Gold Seal, Purity, Meadow Gold, Model and South Denver Dairy. Every town had its dairy; this seems to have continued up until the 1970s. In Boulder and other places, old dairies in their downtown locations today serve as art centers.

Beatrice started out buying butter, milk and eggs from local farmers to grade and resell. Soon the company started making its own butter and set up skimming stations where farmers could process their milk. Beatrice offered a fiendishly clever credit arrangement to sell farmers cream separators financed by their cream sales. Tens of thousands were purchased.

A cream separator sits on the porch of the 1880s Thompson House in Carbondale just outside the kitchen. You can also see one at the New Castle history museum, if you can figure out when it’s open. I don’t know whether these are Beatrice machines or not. They are evidence that a milk cow in the yard was once as common as bees at the bottom of the garden.

Just a few huge dairies supply cooler shelves at the local supermarket. Kroger owns 16 dairies and markets milk products as Simple Truth and Mountain Dairy brands. The closest Kroger cows are in Utah and Arizona. Horizon produces organic milk at two big dairies in Idaho and Maryland, supplemented by hundreds of independent farmers in 22 states. Meadow Gold (long under the Beatrice banner) started in Nebraska and remains more western. Meyenberg sells goat’s milk.

Today it’s not easy to find a milk cow within 50 miles. Demand for local raw milk is rising, but food safety laws erect hurdles that make it difficult if not impossible to purchase. I thought a milk cow might be the perfect addition to help mow Colby Farm, until Ed told me they have to be milked every day, twice, and we’d never go on vacation again. A single cow gives six to seven gallons of milk every day.

The dairy story is partly one of small local farmers, partly big business. The Beatrice Creamery Co. parlayed a leased, bankrupt factory in Beatrice, Nebraska, into a Chicago-based dairy giant shipping butter and ice cream cross country by the time World War I started. By World War II it bought out its competitor in Chicago. Eventually Beatrice Foods diversified into a mind-boggling list of many dozens of constituents, until a leveraged buyout and sell-off dissolved the conglomerate in the 1980s.

Marilyn Gleason writes Eating Local periodically for the Food pages.

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