Industries of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad: Evaporated Milk (Part 3)

The Dixie Flyer, the Official Newsletter of the NC&StL Preservation Society, Spring 2016

The following are excerpts from the NC&StL Bulletin, March 1945

Why Would Anyone Want to Evaporate Milk? A Brief History

By David Ibata

Up through the mid-19th Century, drinking milk was a privilege of those who owned a cow or had easy access to one; in those prerefrigeration days, the product couldn’t get far from the source before it spoiled.  Also, bacteria could get into raw milk and cause potentially fatal illness – the dreaded “milk poisoning” of Victorian dime novels.

An American named Gail Borden is said to have been inspired to create a milk product that would not spoil while on a trip across the Atlantic in 1852, when an infant aboard ship died for lack of fresh milk.  Borden found that by heating milk and evaporating its water content, he could reduce its volume so it could be canned; heating also prevented spoilage by killing harmful bacteria.  And sugar, he discovered, could lengthen the product’s keeping properties from days to months.  Sweetened condensed milk was born.

Borden started commercial production in 1857 in Connecticut.  Sales took a leap with the outbreak of the Civil War and the need for canned milk in the field rations of Union troops (similar spikes in demand would occur during the First and Second World Wars).  Production of unsweetened condensed milk — uncommon today — and evaporated milk, also sans sugar, began in the late 19th Century.

Evaporated and condensed milk could be stored, unopened, for months at room temperature and used at will – just add water – and a consumer could be reasonably assured they would not kill her.  They were staples in almost every American household until refrigeration and big commercial dairies in the 20th Century made safe, fresh, bottled milk widely available.  They are still used in home cooking.

Both products have about 60 percent of their water removed.  Evaporated milk is heated to drive off the water, and then homogenized, canned and sterilized.  It has no sugar added, and it pours like ordinary milk.  Sweetened condensed milk also is heated to remove the water but doesn’t require as much processing afterward; the addition of sugar naturally extends its shelf life.  It is thicker than evaporated milk and pours like syrup.

Producers like Borden and Carnation relied on local farmers to supply their factories – hence, canned milk factories built in rural places with lots of cows.  Rutherford County, of which Murfreesboro is the county seat, had 1,400 dairy farms in the 1920s and 21 milk bottlers in addition to the Carnation plant.  Lewisburg, in Marshall County, became home in 1929 to what is now the Dairy AgResearch and Education Center of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture; on its website, the center boasts of having “one of the largest and highest milk-producing Jersey herds in the world that functions as a research herd.”

Finally, there had to be a railroad to take the product to market.  That’s where the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Ry. came in.

The Borden plant in Lewisburg was sold in 1967 and operated under the names Tennessee Valley Milk Producers and Dairymen Inc. until it closed in the late 1990s, according to Lynda Potts of the Marshall County Historical Society.  The building was sold at auction and now houses climate-controlled storage units, Borden Storage, and an events venue, “The Powder Room,” where powdered milk was stored.  The smoke stack still stands, but the rail spur was removed in 2010.

The Carnation plant in Murfreesboro closed in the 1960s.  Frank Caperton of the Rutherford County Historical Society says the dairy’s tall chimney still stands as a local landmark.  It was restored several years ago to ensure it would remain standing for years to come.

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