Monroe welcomes a representative of Carnation, the condensed-milk firm, on January 29, 1908.

  • By Nellie E. Robertson
  • Posted 10/07/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8313

On January 29 and 30, 1908, L. R. Hardenbergh, a representative of the Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company (known as Carnation), visits Monroe and meets with citizens who hope to attract a condensing plant to their town. Hardenbergh is given a tour of the area and is introduced to many Monroe citizens who hope the company will choose their town as a Carnation condensery site.  The following day Hardenbergh drives through Tualco and Cherry Valley country to assess possibilities.  He remains noncommittal but leaves the impression that he is willing to build a plant in Monroe if the town can supply enough milk for the operation.  

Cows for Carnation Condensed Milk

Rumbles had been heard in 1907 about locating a milk condensery in Monroe. Late in January 1908, a representative of the Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company, manufacturers of Carnation Milk, spent two days in town meeting with Monroe Commercial Club members who hoped to persuade the company to choose Monroe for the condensery. At least 50 people attended a Commercial Club meeting on February 4 held in the Knights of Pythias hall. They considered the matter of bringing the condensery to town. The club president appointed a committee to count how many cows grazed in the surrounding area. It was generally thought that the required 2,000 cows could be found within the prescribed radius.   

Two days later, two men went through the valley south from Monroe as far as Novelty and counted 856 cows. The next day another man covered the area west of town. The condenser committee reported to the club in February 1908 that things looked very good. One member, John Hallan, said he would have to be shown how a condenser would be of greater advantage than a creamery, such as the farmers currently operated.           

Commercial Club members and farmers visited a Mt. Vernon condenser in March. The trip’s purpose was to gather information and inform the community of a condenser’s actual workings, both in relationship to the town in which it was located and to the dairies that supplied the milk. The group learned that farmers received about half again as much from a condensery as from a creamery. 

Siting the Plant

Following the trip, the Commercial Club committee received a definite proposition from the Pacific Coast Milk Condensing Co., which already operated six factories in Oregon and Washington. The proposition included assurances that the town would donate the site. Upon donation of the land, work would commence in 10 days and the plant would buy milk within 120 days.           

The only site the company would take included Milt Stevens's home, the Hotel Northern property, and the S. A. Buck property north of the hotel. It would also require the city’s vacation of Charles Street between the two properties, Stretch Street on the north side, and the alley between the Hotel Northern property and the N. P. Nelson home. Options were taken from Stephens for $3,500, from Mrs. Sawyer who owned the Northern Hotel for $1,800, and from Buck for $700, making a total site cost of $6,000.      

Building the Plant

The condensery for Monroe became an assured fact when the full amount necessary for the site purchase had been subscribed and was rapidly paid into the bank. Work commenced April 3, 1908, by moving three houses to clear the way. Mr. Hung, the superintendent of construction, had orders to use all the men he could in order to meet the July 1 completion date. Day laborers did all the work, and this put money in local pockets.    

The company put a sewer down Ann Street and paid $1,100. Ann Street property owners along with the town bore the rest of the expense. Weather hampered construction work, with the crew working one day out of two. Workers constructed a railroad spur to the property in June and placed two big boilers, each weighing eight tons, inside the foundation walls. Bricklayers set the boilers and built the walls.     

Manufacturing Condensed Milk

J. W. Crow of Chehalis arrived in town in late June to become the resident manager of the condensery that began the manufacture of Carnation Milk in Monroe in the middle of August 1908. Robert Main displayed his first monthly milk check from the condensery, which totaled $245 for the milk from 24 cows. A second large smokestack towered into the sky in March 1909. It measured 60 feet high, 5 feet in diameter and was placed on a foundation about 18 feet high. 

By May 1911, it was estimated that there were between 8,000 and 9,000 cows in herds within an easy radius of Monroe. Those cows produced an average of about $50,000 monthly for their owners. The condensery distributed about $30,000 monthly and the big local creamery made about a thousand pounds of butter weekly.    

As 1912 began, the condensery found it difficult to remain in business. Stocks of condensed milk in the east were very large and the price of the product had been going down steadily because of overproduction. In early February the plant stopped condensing milk in Monroe. Rumors abounded about its demise but Manager Crow assured the public that a month’s notice would be given should such an action be contemplated.         

From Milk to Casein

The waste from the condensery went to make novelties. Casein, in its semi-prepared state, is a white, rubber-like protein that can be precipitated from skim milk. By late 1920, the condensing and canning of condensed milk had come to a standstill. Instead the daily milk supply was skimmed and the cream sent to other plants for butter. Casein was obtained from the milk by adding acids and heat. The more elastic it became, the greater commercial value it had. Chemicals were added to harden it, and then it was rolled into large sheets and shipped to Mt. Vernon. This process produced a good imitation of ivory used for the backs and handles of toilet pieces such as brushes, combs, manicure tools, umbrella handles, billiard balls, buttons, and transparent sheets to replace mica on base burner stoves. 

Flax and the Fire

The condensery fell into disuse and in 1944 the Pacific Fiber Flax Association started flax production in the building. Flax was considered a war material at the time. The owners expected big profits while serving the nation’s needs.

But that was not to be. In late March 1944, at 1:10 a.m., fire destroyed the large frame warehouse. It was presumably started by spontaneous combustion. The building contained at least 600 tons of flax that had been shipped from Oregon for processing and a considerable amount of machinery and other equipment. The plant had been in operation for only three weeks.

The loss was conservatively estimated at $100 thousand, only partially covered by insurance.  The fire department, under the direction of Chief Drugge, fought like veterans and succeeded in confining the flames to the warehouse. The brick building housing the boiler, engines, scotching machine, and other machinery ignited from the intense heat many times, but the flames were quickly extinguished.       

The only structure that now remains of the condensery and the flax factory is the tall smokestack on East Main Street. For Monroe it has become a familiar meeting place along with the phrase, “Meet me at the smokestack.”


Sources:

“Chance for a Milk Condensing Plant,” Monroe Monitor, January 31, 1908; Monroe Monitor-Transcript, 1907-1908; Monroe Monitor, 1944; Nellie Robertson, Monroe: The First Fifty Years (Monroe: B. and N. Robertson, 1996).


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