Jersey butter led to ‘Dairying Center of the South’

Remembering Rutherford, Daily News Journal, September 28, 2014, Greg Tucker

“Rutherford County—Dairying Center of the South” declared the Daily News Journal on April 9, 1944.  For nearly a decade thereafter every edition of the newspaper repeated this boast at the top of page one.

The path to this distinction likely began in 1913 when 85 Rutherford County dairy farms organized the Rutherford County

Rutherford Creamery, 1919

Rutherford Creamery, 1919

Creamery Association to process locally-produced milk into cheese and butter — “Magnolia Butter.”  By 1922 over 1,400 farms in the county were supplying milk to the creamery, according to the “Handbook of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County” (Home Journal Print, 1923).  The market success of Magnolia Butter and the expansion of local herds made the cooperative creamery the second largest operation of its kind in the United States.

In 1922 the creamery produced 1,722,173 pounds of butter and paid local farmers $640,000.  Magnolia was clearly not ordinary butter. In 1923, the Magnolia product won quality competitions in Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga; Meridian, Mississippi and Atlanta, Georgia. “Rutherford County is perfectly adapted in every requisite to the successful and profitable breeding of Jerseys and other butter producing strains of cattle,” boasted one local promoter. Hard hit by the Depression, the creamery reorganized in 1931. By 1934 it was again buying cream from about 1,800 farms.

William Riley Clark, one of the Co-op Creamery founders, started the Clark Dairy Products Co.y in or about 1920 and began producing “Dawn Creamery Butter,” a local rival for Magnolia. This firm was bought by Wilson & Company, a national food products firm, in the 1940s. It continued the business, making butter and cheese at 401 W. Main into the 1960s. The founder’s son, Harvey W. Clark, Sr., managed the Clark Dairy in the 1930s and continued in that role under the new owner.

Leading Jersey herd owners in the 1920s included Murfreesboro Mayor Al D. McKnight, R.B. Roberts, R.L. Smith, George W. King, C.F. Holt, A.R. King, S.B. Smith, Ben Jordan and Jim Butler. River Oaks, the McKnight farm, was within one mile of the Courthouse Square.

Retail milk sales by local producers also expanded rapidly in the 1920s. Al D. McKnight was among the earliest to bottle and deliver milk directly to consumers under his own “River Oaks” brand. Castlewood Dairy operated by James Haynes on Lebanon Pike and the Harrison Dairy operated by Morgan Harrison on Greenland Drive were also delivering bottled milk door-to-door in the 1920s.

Several Murfreesboro-based milk processors also opened in the 1920s and entered the retail store and delivery markets. The Murfreesboro Pure Milk Co., owned by the Roberts family, was marketing “pasteurized and clarified” milk, cream and buttermilk as early as 1924.

“Family lore suggests that my grandfather, Riley Bradford Roberts, put my father, Bradford Earl Roberts Sr., into the milk processing business,” remembers James Richardson Roberts. At the time the senior Roberts owned a herd of Jerseys on a 500-acre farm on the West Fork which is now the Riverview subdivision.

Murfreesboro Pure Milk processed and bottled mostly milk from the Roberts herd. “I think my father got out of the milk business about when the Carnation plant opened,” recalls James Richardson Roberts.

[The demand for local milk increased dramatically in 1927 when the Carnation Milk Co. opened its evaporated milk plant in Murfreesboro. See Greg Tucker, “Tin cow promoted Rutherford prosperity,” Rutherford Ramblings (RCHS 2014), pp. 95-101.]

Henry White and his brother-in-law started the Sanitary Pure Milk Co. in 1926 promising ‘the safest and best milk” from a modern sanitary plant and delivered “sweet and cool.” But White and his partner soon encountered financial problems and had to sell their company. In 1929 the Sanitary Milk Co. was purchased by the new owners of the Murfreesboro Pure Milk Co.. Although a number of partners were involved in the first few years of operation, by 1932 Herbert D. Young was the apparent owner of what became the county’s most successful and enduring milk processor. The milk plant was in the 400 block of East Vine Street in Murfreesboro.

White re-entered the local milk market in 1938 with a farm on Manchester Pike and later in Lascassas (1940-43) and finally on the Old Nashville Highway (1943-52). White’s bottles were embossed “White’s Dairy,” but the paper bottle stoppers said “Whitehaven Farm” with the slogan “For Those Who Care.”

Another aggressive and successful milk processor and marketer in the 1930s was the Red Rose Dairy.  Founded in 1928 and incorporated in 1935 by Morgan Green, R. M. Carlton and W. S. Mendenhall, the Red Rose Dairy made home deliveries and operated a retail outlet at 530 W. College into the 1950s.

Becton Dairy

Becton Dairy was located at 630 West Burton Street

Others making store and home deliveries during the first half of the 20th century included the Becton Dairy operated by Tom Becton and the Bloomfield Dairy operated by F. D. Bills. At one time these two shared processing and bottling facilities at 630 W. Burton in Murfreesboro. Before using the Bloomfield name, Bills did business as the City Dairy from his farm on Franklin Pike.

The Salem Pike Dairy operated by Dorsey and Henry Cantrell initially bottled their milk upstairs above the City Café on the south side of the Courthouse Square. They later moved to a building on East College.  After a fire, they moved their processing to the farm on Salem Pike.  (Wayne Reed once found a case of Salem Pike Dairy bottles behind the old City Café.  “I sold them to collectors for $100/bottle,” notes Reed.)

One local collector of dairy memorabilia has identified 21 different Rutherford County milk bottlers.  Among these were the J. Wesley Bugg Dairy on Halls Hill Pike, the Jersey Springs Dairy operated by George King on Franklin Pike, the Stones River Dairy owned by Sam Jetton and Sylvester Willard on Old Nashville Pike, the Harrison Dairy owned by Morgan Harrison on Greenland Drive (1925-45), and the college dairy (now MTSU).  The college dairy did not have printed or embossed bottles. The bottler was identified on the paper bottle stopper.

Others without embossed or printed bottles were the Catalpa Dairy of J. A. Harris & Sons on Midland Road, the Bushman Creek Dairy managed by T. P. Elrod on Lascassas Pike, the Davidson Dairy on Lebanon Pike and McKnight’s Dairy owned by Benjamin S. McKnight on the Shelbyville Highway.

The only Rutherford County company name still in the area is Murfreesboro Pure Milk. Today it does only distribution for Purity Dairies (Nashville) and other name brands.  The Heritage Farms Dairy plant on New Salem Highway in Murfreesboro is affiliated with the Ohio-based Kroger Company and processes milk received from across the Southeast.

A special thanks for research assistance to Nelson Smotherman, Chuck Clark, Bubba Woodfin and Earl Roberts Jr.

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