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The Whitewater Condensery: A representative of Wisconsin’s 20th century dairy industry

Updated: May 30, 2023

Along Wisconsin Street, near Trippe Lake, modern condominium buildings sit in an attractive and quiet setting. But for many years the site was taken up by a large dairy plant, a factory that represented Wisconsin’s 20th century industrial dairying history. Known historically as the Whitewater Condensery, the factory became a milk products plant for Hawthorn Mellody, a popular dairy brand in the Midwest.

The site was initially developed for a saw mill around 1840. A paper mill was built on the site in 1859 and operated until around 1895. The mill stood vacant until 1913, when parts of it were used to construct a large milk condensery for Libby, McNeill & Libby, best known for canned vegetables. The development of the condensery was part of early industrial dairying in Wisconsin.

Whitewater Condensery - Image from the collections of the Whitewater Historical Society

Dairying became important for state farmers beginning in the 1870s with the construction of small cheese factories and creameries. These small plants purchased milk from farmers, creating a “cash crop” that they had not had since the wheat-growing era of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s.

Farmers began to embrace cash dairying and established their own co-operative cheese factories and creameries. The small, mostly rural, cheese factories and creameries were the most common buyers of milk from dairy farmers until after 1900 when larger dairy plants were built and the industrial dairying era began. Many of these plants were condenseries, producing canned condensed milk. By the mid-20th century, most small dairy plants were closing.

In the 1920’s and 1930s, the Whitewater Condensery employed 50 men and handled up to 36,000,000 pounds of milk per year. In 1939, Libby’s sold the condensery to Hoard’s Creamery of Fort Atkinson. The plant expanded its products to include butter and powdered milk. In 1944, Hoard sold the plant to Hawthorn Mellody.

Hawthorn Mellody was started near Chicago, and became a very popular dairy brand. The old Whitewater Condensery was converted to a “Grade A” fluid milk production plant and additions were made to the factory. By 1962, 115 people were employed there. At its height of

popularity, Hawthorn Mellody operated several dairy plants in the area and had popular 1950s celebrities such as Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, and Peggy Lee featured in their advertising. Consolidation in industrial dairying into even larger milk and cheese plants began in the 1970s and put stress on older companies like Hawthorn Mellody and its old Whitewater dairy plant. Then, in the high-flying days of business merger and buyout in the 1980s, Hawthorn Mellody was a casualty.

It actually began in 1968, when the majority stock of Hawthorn Mellody was acquired by National Industries, a company that ran discount stores and truck fleets. In 1978, National Industries merged with Fuqua Industries and in 1981, Fuqua sold the dairy to some Hawthorn managers and New York investors. After downsizing and making non-related investments, in 1984, this group of owners merged what remained of Hawthorn Mellody into Custom Creamery, Inc. At each step in this process, Hawthorn Mellody’s assets were used as collateral, increasing the company debt, and quick profits from sales and mergers were more important to owners than the actual business.

In 1985, Custom Creamery took $7.2 million owed to Associated Milk Producers for milk collected from farmers for Hawthorn Mellody, and used it to buy Orange Julius International. The state agriculture department then revoked the Whitewater plant’s license, but a quick deal with Associated Milk Producers kept the company in business, but just barely and with even more debt.

In 1990, Hilmon Sorey and James Chatz of Chicago purchased the company in the hope that it could be revived. It seemed a possibility since Sorey, a successful African-American businessman, could tap into grants and loans created specifically to help minority businesses. But it was too little, too late. The Whitewater plant was badly in need of updating and the previous owners had sucked all the assets dry. Competition from larger dairy companies like Dean Foods, was stiff and after only two years, in February of 1992, the company went bankrupt, eventually forcing Sorey to go bankrupt in 1994.

The old Whitewater Condensery was declared a “brown field” or hazardous site and the buildings were demolished. After the site was cleaned up, it was seen as a desirable location for a housing development. Although industry is long gone, it is hoped that the history of one of Whitewater’s most important industrial sites is not totally forgotten.

*If using this article, please cite: Carol Cartwright, “The Whitewater Condensery: A representative of Wisconsin’s 20th Century dairy industry—and how Orange Julius played a role in its demise,” 2013, Whitewater Historical Society web site, Whitewater, WI.

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