Recalling Borden Dairy and Elsie's hay-day

Opinion: John Rice

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

Got milk? Probably not. Milk was once the mainstay of the American meal. We poured it on our breakfast cereal, washed down lunchtime PB&J sandwiches, and drank a tall glass at dinner. Those days are over. Milk drinking has declined 40% since the '70s. Borden Dairy Co. is one of the casualties of this decline. The venerable company recently filed for bankruptcy protection.

This hits close to home because Borden operated in Forest Park for many years. In 1929, Borden purchased the Broxham Dairy plant at Harrison and Marengo. They installed state-of-the-art equipment, capable of producing 125,000 bottles daily, enough to supply 50,000 families. They did away with horse-drawn wagons and delivered the milk with motorized trucks. In another nod to the modern age, the company displayed a rooftop sign with the words FOREST PARK to guide pilots.

Borden sold the plant to Ferrara Pan Candy in 1959. The company then moved to 1401 Circle, where Tri-Star Gymnastics is now located. Many longtime Forest Parkers remember Borden Dairy Co. Former mayor Tony Calderone's dad once worked there. 

The fact that Borden is seeking bankruptcy spells the end of an era. The major dairies are not only faltering due to falling demand, but retail giants like Walmart have opened their own dairies and undersell companies like Borden.

The dairy has a storied history. Its founder, Gail Borden, was a New Yorker who invented a method of condensing milk in 1857. Borden Dairy came to the Chicago area in 1891. By 1930, Borden was the largest milk producer in the world. Sales received a further boost with the debut of Elsie the Cow. 

Elsie helped in marketing milk as a healthy and wholesome product. As kids, we drank it at home and at school. Most mornings, we had a milkman come into our kitchen.  Mike dropped off fresh bottles and collected empties. Calcium-rich milk was an essential part of our diet.

It's been decades since I drank a glass of milk. I didn't quit because milk didn't agree with me. I simply thought it ludicrous for a grown man to drink something intended for baby cows. Humans are the only species that drinks milk in adulthood.

Most of us, however, stuck with milk. In the '70s, we used to guzzle, on average, 30 gallons per year. As recently as 1993, when the "Got Milk?" slogan was coined, Americans were drinking 24 gallons a year. Now we're down to 17 gallons annually. That's because an increasing number of Americans cannot tolerate cow's milk. In fact, 75% of the world population is lactose intolerant. 

Consumers are switching to soy, almond and coconut milk. There are also countless alternative drinks to choose from — flavored waters, sports beverages and energy drinks. This massive shift away from milk is killing the industry. Almost 3,000 dairy farms have folded in recent years. I'm worried Wisconsin is going to go out of business.

My brother Tim lives in Wisconsin, so naturally he's an authority on milk. He objects to drinking milk because of its high fat content. Whole milk contains over 4 grams of saturated fat. That was our first move away from milk, switching from whole milk to 2%.  

Writing about the demise of milk is a bit sleep-inducing, like having a warm glass at bedtime. So I'll end with my favorite milk joke from the film Ninotchka. A woman sits down in a restaurant and orders a cup of coffee with no cream. After 15 minutes, the waiter returns and says, "I'm sorry madam, we're out of cream. Would you like a cup of coffee with no milk?"

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com

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