Stapleton’s Dairy Is Still
Remembered 60 Years Later
by Glenn Tunney
The days of fresh milk delivered to your front doorstep
have disappeared, but the image of a dairy truck moving
slowly down the street in the early morning mist still
stirs nostalgia in many folks. During the summer
months in the 1930s and early 1940s, boys like Thom
Stapleton, whose parents operated West Brownsville’s
Stapleton’s Dairy, earned money by helping the drivers
on their milk routes and by doing chores in the dairy
“In the summer when there was no school,” Thom told me, “my mom would roust me out of bed, and I would go to the plant and help load case after case of milk and cream into the truck for home delivery. When the truck was loaded, we would drive the route. I would ride on the running board of the truck, and the driver would hand me a bottle through the window. I would run to the house, drop off the milk, pick up the empty, and run to catch the truck, which was at the next stop where the driver was delivering that one. Then there was always the person who would leave a note in the bottle for an additional quart or something else, requiring another trip back to the truck to fill the order.
“This usually went on until 7 or 8 am, when we would go back to the dairy. There we would unload the empties, wash out the truck from spilled milk and broken bottles, and reload the truck to start the deliveries to all the stores around town. This took several hours, so it was always noon or later when the deliveries were done.”
For a young boy, making deliveries in the brisk morning air and running to catch up with the delivery truck was much more exciting than the mundane chores awaiting him back at the plant. Milk comes in plastic and cardboard containers today, but in those days glass was the medium of choice. It was ideal for showing off the layer of rich cream that filled the top of each bottle. Of course, empty glass milk bottles had to be collected and thoroughly washed, and that was one of Thom’s jobs in the summer.
“I had to load the dirty bottles into the bottle washer,” he explained, “which was a huge machine that washed the bottles with boiling hot water; then I would remove them when they were clean. This was a job that kept me soaking wet all the time, in spite of my wearing a rubber apron and rubber boots.
“Another job was putting clean empty bottles onto the bottle-filling machine, removing them when they were full, and putting the full bottles in the cooler, all the while making sure there were enough bottle caps in the hopper.”
The dairy business was carefully regulated and inspected, even in the 1930s and ‘40s. All equipment had to be scrupulously cleaned daily.
“Clean-up every day was also a wet job,” Thom recalled. “We had two 500-gallon pasteurizers that were made of stainless steel, and they were scrubbed every day with an alkali cleaner. You crawled inside the vat with a hose with live steam and a scrub brush and went to work! All of the equipment, including the pipes that carried the milk from the pasteurizing vats to the cooler/aerator to the bottle filler, had to be cleaned with steam everyday. Believe me, even in those days, rules and regulations regarding health were very strict.”
For a child growing up in the Depression, there was another modest income opportunity available to any ambitious go-getter. What kid from that era doesn’t remember looking for empty soda bottles to return to the store to claim the deposit? For Thom, empty milk bottles put pennies in his pocket.
“When I was six or seven,” he told me, “I had a wagon in which I would put a wooden crate, and my cousin Jim and I would go around West Brownsville looking for stray milk bottles left lying around. For this I would get ½ cent per bottle, which I had to split with Jim. Of course, we would cheat and pick up bottles from people’s porches, but that was no real big secret to my mom.”
Collection of payment from customers was another facet of running a dairy. Sometimes bill collecting was done in person, sometimes by other means. Thom’s sister, Marilu Stapleton Coppinger, recalls how that was done.
“I remember my mother, ‘Dutch’ Stapleton, going collecting,” Marilu told me. “One day a week she would drive the routes, collecting for the prior week. She had a blue purse-like leather bag that locked. It contained the money she collected, the money she carried to make change, and at the bottom, a pearl-handled revolver. To my knowledge, she never had to use it!”
“Billing was done by my mother and my aunt Lucy,” added Thom, “and some was handled by the U.S. mail, which was delivered twice every day and once on Saturday for three cents.”
It took many employees to keep Stapleton’s Dairy running smoothly, and some of them boarded at the Stapletons’ house.
“Our home was pretty good sized,” Marilu noted, “and a number of our employees lived with us. We usually had two drivers, who lived in the finished attic, and two girls, who shared a bedroom. Since Mother was either in the office or collecting during the day, the girls did all the cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing. You wouldn't believe the ironing! Everything for everybody was ironed, from the underwear the men wore to socks, handkerchiefs, sheets, and outerwear. Eventually we got a mangle, and that made life a lot simpler.”
Thom and Marilu were youngsters at the time, but they can still remember the names of some of those Stapleton’s employees.
“Ralph Cook lived with us for a while,” recalled Thom. “He was around 38 or 39 years old, just discharged from the Army before the war, and was always whistling ‘Pennies From Heaven.’ And I think Moe Davis lived upstairs for a while, and perhaps Gibby MacIntosh.”
Stapleton’s loyal employees kept the dairy operating until the 1940s. Then misfortune struck. The unexpected death of the dairy’s most irreplaceable employee, Litchie Jacobs, helped precipitate the dairy’s demise. Litchie had run the dairy operation, and without him, the business was never the same.
“Litchie died on the job at the dairy,” revealed Thom. “My guess is that he was in his late thirties or early forties at the time. Around 1940, while he was pouring a ten-gallon can of milk into the pasteurizer, he had what was officially called a heart attack. There were rumors that it was electrocution, but the state inspectors could find nothing to support that.”
“Litchie was a good friend,” added Marilu, “and his death was a great loss to us, not just because of his running the dairy, but personally as well.”
Sometime around 1943, under circumstances that Thom does not clearly remember, Stapleton’s Dairy was sold. According to 83-year-old George Wood of Uniontown, who worked in the dairy business around Uniontown all of his working life, Garner Dairy of Uniontown eventually purchased the customer base of Stapleton’s Dairy.
“Garner did not retain the Stapleton’s name on the dairy products?” I asked George.
“No. When they bought the dairy, the products went under the Garner Dairy name.”
“And the dairy building in West Brownsville was no longer used by Garner?”
“That’s right. All of the product came from Garner’s in Uniontown. By buying the business, Garner was buying Stapleton’s customers.”
“I remember Mom telling me that when we sold the dairy, we sold our ‘Good Will,’” confirmed Marilu, “which she had to explain to me. She said we sold our name, our customers, and as of the date of sale, our Accounts Receivable.”
Even if Litchie had not died, another factor might have caused Stapleton’s to go under. It was an innovation called “homogenization.”
“In the early ‘40s,” explained Marilu, “the trend toward homogenized milk was underway, and the cost of purchasing that equipment would have finished us. It was something we were not prepared to offer, and of course, it made us behind the times. I agree with Thom’s estimate that the dairy was sold around 1943. I know we didn't own it in 1945, when I graduated from high school.”
And what became of the Stapleton house on Railroad Street and the dairy building?
“After the dairy was sold,” Marilu told me, “to the best of my recollection, there was no activity in the building. I remember kids climbing on the roof, and my Mom would chase them off. She was fearful that someone would fall through.
“We owned two adjacent houses in West Brownsville, a large corner one and a smaller one next to it. The Ehlers family eventually purchased both houses and the dairy property.”
I asked Marilu if the reason her mother sold the houses was because she was leaving West Brownsville.
“Mom's health was poor,” she replied, “and had been for years. She was in the hospital frequently, and finally Doctor Waggoner told her to go to Arizona for her health. We auctioned off just about everything, then moved to Phoenix in September 1949. We stayed with Leona Hubbs of Brownsville, who had a motel on Route 60, until we got situated in Arizona.
“Mom did well out west, and I believe if she hadn’t smoked she would still be here! She died in 1990 at age 84. I'm sorry you didn't have an opportunity to know my mother. If she was your friend, she was your friend for life. I learned of many good deeds she did after she died. She was not one to betray a confidence, or to ‘blow her own horn.’”
Many of those good deeds have not been forgotten. As former West Brownsville resident Bill Beals told us in last week’s article, “the Stapletons were a generous family in the community when things were very difficult for most others.” Over half a century has passed since those days, but in West Brownsville and the surrounding communities, Stapleton’s Dairy and the family who operated it are still remembered very fondly.
These articles appear weekly in the Sunday Uniontown HERALD-STANDARD. If you enjoy reading them, please let the editors know. You may e-mail your comments to Mike Ellis (Editor) at MEllis@heraldstandard.com or Mark O'Keefe (Managing Editor - Day) at firstname.lastname@example.org
Readers may contact Glenn Tunney at 724-785-3201, email@example.com or 6068 National Pike East, Grindstone, PA 15442.
Click here to return to Glenn Tunney's Home Page.