Originally published October 16, 2013
For the first 60 years of the 20th century, the clop, clop, clop of hooves, jangle of harnesses and melodic whistles of milkmen were heard in the streets of Edmonton. Most Edmontonians got their dairy products delivered right to their homes by horse and wagon. In the wee morning hours, six days a week, while most citizens slept, dozens of teams fanned out across the city.
Edmonton’s earliest dairies began operating in the 1890s. Milk was hauled from surrounding farms to skimming stations, and the resulting cream was transported to the city for processing and sale. With the arrival of the railways, farmers began shipping their milk and cream by train, too.
Edmonton City Dairy
When pioneer entrepreneur Warren W. Prevey arrived in 1906, he quickly seized the opportunity. Prevey started up the Edmonton City Dairy (E.C.D.), with one milk wagon and a staff of six from a small shack at the south end of the recently opened Low Level Bridge, near the end of the EY&P rail line.
He soon shifted operations to an adjacent two-storey building at 9686 99th Street, and by 1913, E.C.D. was manufacturing 1.7 million pounds of butter and shipping more than 1.8 million quarts of milk and 420,850 dozen eggs. It processed milk and eggs from about 4,000 farmers in north-central Alberta, and employed more than 400 local workers.
A baby boom and westward migration that followed the First World War helped stoke demand for milk, and Edmonton City Dairy & Barns (E.C.D. Co. Ltd., as it was known then) began construction of a new $400,000 building in March 1927. The reinforced concrete and brick structure measured 140 feet wide and 85 feet deep and fronted the east side of 109th Street north of Jasper Avenue.
This grand new plant, with its automated mechanical handling equipment, commenced production that December. It was topped by an eight-ton plate steel milk bottle, nearly 50 feet high, that was built on special order in New York City, assembled in Edmonton and hoisted into place on the roof. The giant bottle also held the condensers for the refrigeration system.
Credit for the idea goes to dairy employee George K. Guild, who built a 10-foot-high bottle for a parade float in the mid-1920s. Company brass liked it so much that they decided to have an even bigger one top their new building.
Even after the business name was changed to Silverwood Western Dairies, E.C.D. was still visible on the bottle. It remained on the roof until 1977, when the building was demolished to make way for the $15-million multi-tower Hillsborough Place office, retail and condo complex.
The bottle was removed by Jenkins and Fleenor Enterprises and transported to the company’s salvage and demolition business at 66th Street and 156th Avenue. Ten years later, it found a home at the Edmonton Exhibition Grounds near 74th Street and Borden Park Road as part of Bonanza Park (now called Klondike Park).
Another pioneer milk processor was the W.P. Huff Dairy, started in 1907 by Warren Huff on his farm at 112th Avenue and 127th Street. He renamed it Jasper Dairy in 1914 and the following year moved the business to 109th Avenue between 152nd and 154th streets. From 1941, Jasper Dairy operated from 10406 119th Street. It moved to a new plant at 11135 151st Street in 1965 and was sold to the Safeway Corporation in 1966.
Woodland Dairy was founded in 1912 with seven milk wagons running from a small depot. The following year, the venture, helmed by managing director E.T. Love, opened a “finely equipped modern plant” at 9508 108th Avenue. “The proprietors claim that is by far the largest, best equipped and most up-to-date dairy plant in Western Canada,” reported a story in the July 19, 1913, edition of the Edmonton Bulletin.
The two-storey brick and concrete plant churned out 5,000 pounds of butter and 5,000 gallons of milk per day. “Every precaution possible is taken to prevent contamination of the Woodland products,” said the story, “…and the sanitary arrangement throughout the dairy is such as to insure the maximum degree of cleanliness…unquestioned purity and wholesomeness.”
By the 1920s, the plant had expanded to two cheese factories, and $125,000 worth of alterations and additions were completed in 1930, just as the Great Depression hit. “Progress of the milk through the plant is automatic, human hands not touching the product from the time it is received until it is bottled,” reported a newspaper story published on May 27, 1930.
It was big news when the dairy installed an “instant” ice cream freezer that could produce ice cream in less than 15 seconds. The only one of its kind in Western Canada at the time, the machine was hailed for its ability to produce maximum smoothness while making 150 gallons of ice cream per hour.
Woodland Dairy was purchased by Palm Dairies and the old plant was closed in 1979 when Palm moved its operations to the southeast part of the city. The site became seniors housing.
Northern Alberta Dairy Pool
Founded in 1928 as a producer cooperative, the Northern Alberta Dairy Pool invested $75,000 to build a two-storey brick and concrete creamery at 10531 102nd Street. It opened in 1929, boasted a production capacity of a bottle of milk per second, and employed 60 workers turning out milk, butter, ice cream, and eggs for delivery to more than 4,000 Edmonton homes.
An explosion and fire in the boiler room on September 16, 1949, injured 10 workers and shattered windows in buildings for a block around the plant. Damage to the boiler room was considerable, but the plant was rebuilt and continued operating into the 1970s.
For more than 25 years, its “Nu-Maid” milk sign rotated proudly on the roof. The 1929 building survived just 50 years and was demolished in early 1979.
Glass milk bottles, which had been a staple in the industry since the beginning, were deemed too expensive, too heavy and prone to breakage. They were phased out in 1975, replaced by pouch packs. But the flimsy plastic pouches proved unpopular with consumers, and soon dairies reverted to cardboard jugs.
Consolidation in the industry and its processing facilities helped speed the end for the city’s original dairies. While all the pioneering dairy plants are gone, some remnants of home delivery survive, such as milk chutes in houses that were all the rage in the middle years of the century. And vintage glass milk bottles have become highly prized by collectors.
Edmonton was one of the last cities in North America where horses were used for milk delivery, and they could be seen (and heard!) trotting along the streets until September 1962. That month, the last of NADP’s 14 remaining horse-drawn milk wagons were retired. (Silverwood Dairies had pulled their horses out of service in May 1961.)
The days of door-to-door milk delivery ended in February 2012 with the retirement of Barry Sverderus, the city’s last milkman.
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.