Highland News Leader

A Thought to Remember: Spanish-American War brought big growth to milk condensing company

“Helvetia Milk Condensing Co. of Highland was started in 1885 in what had been the old wool factory, on the southeast corner of the Square.

“The original building was a small two-story brick building. (Today, it’s where U.S. Bank is located.) The original investment was $15,000. The milk factory needed more production, so two additional buildings were added, which gave the plant 30,000 square feet of ground floor space, plus upper floors and basement.”

(I have told about the early problems in my earlier columns, now I’ll return to 1893.)

“In 1893, the factory consumed 2,500 gallons of milk daily, from 75 local farmers. It produced 300 cases of four dozen cans of Highland Brand Condensed Cream, daily, giving employment to 75 to 100 local people.

“The milk factory required a great deal of water and two artesian wells were sunk, the first to 800 feet, and the best at 1,200 feet. A large 46,000-gallon tank was erected at the rear of the buildings and was filed several times a day. The waste water was used for street-sprinkling purposes.

“Early in the spring of 1893, the Money Panic of 1893 forced the Helvetia Milk Condensing Co. of Highland to close its new branch plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and return the Highland workers, which they had sent to the new plant.

“Before mid-summer of 1893, the Money Panic caused the company to cease operations at both plants, as it could not sell the output of even one plant, much less the output of two. When the money panic was over, for some unexplained reason, the plant at Cedar Rapids was never reopened. The plant remained the property of the Helvetia Milk Co. and stood idle until the Spanish-American War in 1898, when it was leased to a company to manufacture gun stocks. Later, the plant was sold outright.

“In the meantime, many individual stockholders had become discouraged, because there were no dividends, and they sold their stock for whatever they could get. There are many stories of how little this was.”

(I think they are worth repeating.)

“One saloon keeper traded his share for a barrel of wine, another for two barrels of cider. A farmer traded his two shares for a horse. Still another farmer found himself without money to pay the attending physician after his wife had given birth to a child; he readily gave up his one share of the milk company’s stock,

“The panic caused the milk company to stockpile some output, but it continued to make profits, and by year end of 1894, was able to pay its first dividends. It was a dividend of 15 percent, and the first paid in their first nine years of doing business. After that, dividends were paid annually, but only three men were running the company: Louis Latzer, John Wildi Jr. and Fred ‘Fritz’ Kaeser, plus they owned the majority of the stock. Emil Wildi was the tinner and was superintendent of the can making.

“The next years, the company had a steady and profitable growth. More and more farmers of this vicinity took up dairying, with enough milk furnished to the plant that it could keep fairly abreast with orders. The processing had been perfected, and with constant improvements made to the machinery, by Leutwiler Machine Shop, and also to its buildings, the business returned a handsome profit, with only the one plant in operation.

“Then came the Spanish-American War in 1898. Immediately, the company received large orders from the federal government — at fancy prices. One plant would never be able to supply that demand. A branch plant was needed nearby.

“So it could be better supervised, Greenville was selected as the place to build it. The Greenville plant was in operation early in 1899 and the output of the two plants greatly aided in meeting the demands of the Army and as well as regular customers. The company was now twice as profitable to the stockholders, as one plant had been, before.

“The war enabled the soldiers to get acquainted with the Highland Brand Evaporated milk, and they were a ‘walking and talking advertisement.’ The demand for condensed milk for infants became greater than ever, and the company had to continue its program of expansion.

“It was decided to build a new plant in Highland, along the railroad on Zschokke Street, so that switching facilities could be obtained. It was getting very expensive to haul from the depot to the factory on Broadway all the coal, tin and other articles of daily need. Then, all of the cases of milk had to be transported back to the depot.

“In 1904, the Helvetia Milk Condensing Co. purchased land on the south side of the railroad tracks and up to 6th Street on the east side of Zschokke Street. The brick buildings, along the railroad siding, was the Helvetia Milk Condensing Co. modern plant that was completed in 1905. This same plant was closed in 1920, when the local farmers pulled a milk strike at the milk company plant. (In 1937, when the Centennial History of Highland was published, these buildings were the Hug Truck Co., and St. Louis Dairy.)

“The old plant on Broadway stood vacant for several years; then it was partially occupied by Wicks Organ Co., until they built their building, which was along the railroad tracks on the north side of Zschokke Street at 5th Street.

“Later the old building was sold for a song, being purchased by five Highland men, Louis Koch, Charles Hoefle, Adolph Meyer, Josias G. Bardill and C.T. Kurz. These five men later moved the frame office building, and in its place, built a brick building, which served for about 20 years as Highland’s Post Office until the present Post Office was built and owned by the government. This Post Office building is at Main and Walnut.

(Quotes from Brief History of the City of Highland, Pages 6-8; the late Edwin Gerling’s Civil War book, The Centennial History of Highland and my files.)