The Dairy in the City

A guest post by Kathryn Gallien.

Our thanks to John Garman and Susan Garman Hess for sharing their photographs and memories with us.

When Hopalong Cassidy visited Albany in 1951, his famed horse Topper found comfortable lodgings on the second floor of the Norman’s Kill Farm Dairy plant on 120 South Swan St.

Hoppy’s visit drew more than 30,000 fans to the Hawkins Stadium and Empire Raceway in Menands, thousands of them children dressed in full Cassidy gear.

Horses were stabled above the garage. Courtesy Susan Garman Hess.

At the dairy, one lucky kid named John Garman got to go upstairs with his father—yes, some two dozen horses were stabled on the second floor, their wagons on the first—to see the celebrated equine. “I petted him on the nose,” Garman recalls, explaining that the dairy was perfect for Topper’s stay as it—along with the Freihofer Baking Company—was one of the last businesses in Albany still delivering by horse and wagon.

With gas rationing during World War II, the old delivery system was economical. “It was a lot cheaper with hay than gasoline,” says Garman. And dairy owner Mark Stevens loved animals, so they kept them on for several years after the war. “The horses were so smart,” Garman remembers: “The driver carried two wire carriers that he could put six milk bottles in; he would leave his wagon with those two carriers full, start walking up the street leaving the milk at each of the homes. Well, when the carriers were empty, he turned around and there was the horse and wagon waiting for him.”

Alas, the horses were not able to outsmart increasing automobile traffic, and after a few unfortunate accidents, the horses were retired in 1955.

Horse-drawn milk wagon, ca. 1955. Courtesy Susan Garman Hess.

Norman’s Kill Farm Dairy Co. was founded in the early 20th century by Charles P. Stevens, who was succeeded at the helm by his sons Mark and William. Its peak years of operation were 1920-1960, and many who grew up in and around Albany have fond memories of their deliveries. At the time of the dairy’s 50th anniversary in 1958, it boasted 158 employees, 51 wholesale and retail routes covering some 18,000 accounts, and 30,000 production units daily—milk, cream, cottage cheese, ice cream, and butter. While its farm was on the southern edge of the city, its headquarters and production plant were right downtown on Swan St., between Hudson Ave. and Jay St.

Vic Garman at his desk, ca. 1960. Courtesy Susan Garman Hess.

John’s father, Victor Garman, joined Norman’s Kill Farm Dairy as production manager in 1947. A dairyman through and through, Vic had delivered milk by horse and wagon as a teenager. After graduating from Cornell University’s agricultural school, he designed and supervised construction of a new plant at the Golden Guernsey Co. in Syracuse. He went on to manage production at dairies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania before coming to Albany.

After Norman’s Kill Farm Dairy acquired the former Seventh Day Adventist church building on the corner of Swan and Jay, Vic was responsible for design and construction of a new milk processing plant. By 1958, he was executive vice president.

The bottle filling department before automation, ca. 1955. Courtesy Susan Garman Hess.

1958 was also the year Vic told his son John he would need to work summers to help pay for college. “Dad offered me a special delivery driver job at the ice cream part of the dairy,” John recalls, noting that “because of the higher traffic in ice cream in the summer, they needed an additional driver.” He joined the teamsters union and learned to drive a stick shift. His horsepower would be under the hood of a 1953 International Harvester pickup truck.

Courtesy Susan Garman Hess.

At times the summer job was special indeed. In June, John got to deliver boxes full of Dixie Cups—the little ice cream servings that came with flat wooden spoons—to classrooms all over Albany for their end-of-the year celebrations. In August, he made weekly runs to the Albany Central Warehouse to pick up 30-50 cases of shelled butter pecans for the popular summer flavor. He also rushed ice cream to restaurants that had run out and organized ice cream containers in the hardening room.

The dairy complex spanned the whole west side of Swan St. between Jay and Hudson. While it was not part of the original 98 acres seized by the State for the South Mall, the dairy was seized by the State of New York, in 1964, as part of an ill-fated plan to develop an extensive system of arterial highways. One of the proposed roads would have run through the Center Square and Hudson-Park neighborhoods and into or under Washington Park.

The old and new dairy buildings on S. Swan St. Courtesy Susan Garman Hess.

By the time the State sought the Norman’s Kill site, Vic Garman, by now president, had already determined to move dairy facilities out of downtown Albany and convinced the Stevens family to purchase land on the city’s western edge in anticipation of building a more modern facility. But before construction could start, the State acquired that property for a Northway interchange, paying the dairy three times what they had invested.

S. Swan St. corner of Hudson, ca. 1965. Courtesy John Garman and Susan Garman Hess.

The dairy would also profit from the State’s acquisition of its Swan St. facility. Like most large South Mall property owners, the company sued the State of New York, arguing that the reimbursement offer was too low—in part because the South Mall redevelopment project had made the dairy’s land more valuable. In 1968, the dairy was slated for demolition but received a reprieve, because the State needed space for contractors working on the South Mall.

Meanwhile, also in 1968, Norman’s Kill Farm Dairy opened a new fully automated milk processing and distribution facility—“Dad’s dream,” says John—in the West Albany Industrial Park. But the fulfillment of Vic’s dream was short-lived, as the era of home dairy delivery was giving over to supermarket shopping and home refrigeration. Says John, “He accomplished his dream, and within a few years that whole plant out there was sold and demolished. Home delivery was not a way to do business anymore.” Vic retired in 1970, and the business was sold to Crowley Foods Inc. in 1975.

Vic with Mayor Corning and Norma the cow at the ground-breaking ceremony, June 1966. Courtesy Susan Garman Hess.

The Swan St. facility wasn’t demolished until the late 1970s. John wasn’t around to see it, and he dismisses the thought his father might have been saddened by it: “He had moved on.”

John too, though he does enjoy reminiscing about horses and horsepower, Dixie Cups and butter pecans, and Albany’s crazy back streets. “Returning from a delivery I would explore all the back streets, and a lot of them were not very straight, and many of the streets I was on were still cobblestone. In fact,” he says, “I have one cobblestone here in North Carolina at the edge of my front walk as my Albany reminder.”

 

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