From Cotton to Cows
A few years prior to 1929, Collierville’s “king cotton” image began to change when the boll weevil (a beetle that feeds on cotton buds and flowers) visited the area. Before that time, there were only a handful of dairies in operation. By 1929, however, the number had dramatically increased to several hundred, both large and small. One can see the importance of the emerging dairy industry in the newspaper in the numerous articles, advertisements, and stories in the local society section (Below, articles from the Collierville Herald)
Collierville was just one of many towns in the area where dairying was booming. As seen on the map, Memphis’ Milk Supply — 1924, there were hundreds of dairies providing milk to Memphis.
In 1922, the Guernsey Breeders’ Journal reported, Collierville resident Jack Clayton (below) “probably has the largest herd of Guernsey in Tennessee.” In January 1922, Clayton was elected vice president of the Tri-State Guernsey Cattle Club. Image courtesy of Joe Clayton.
Life on a Dairy Farm
Before a farmer was permitted to sell or distribute milk to a pasteurization plant, they had to receive a permit from the Shelby County Department of Health and submit to a rigorous inspection process. Farmers were required to test all dairy cows for tuberculosis and dairy stables, equipment, the people engaged in milking were subject to detailed rules to ensure safe and high quality milk.
Below: Mid-south boys working in a milk house (see milk bottles by their feet), August 1920, and a milk truck. The caption below the truck reads: Ordinance provides milk should be protected from sun and from comtamination during delivery. A Coca-Cola barrell cut in two, each half hinged, a hole bored about four inches from bottom to allow escape of water. A 60-gallon retail dairy is using this method delivering milk under 50F without difficulty.
Collierville Celebrates Dairy
Citizens, businesses, and civic organizations came together to celebrate the emerging, and soon thriving, dairy industry in Collierville in the 1930s. The local Rotary Club, organized in 1935, actively sought to bring dairy cow livestock shows to Collierville and promoted the Cheese Carnival to support the area’s dairy industry.
The Cheese Carnival held on Town Square lasted several days, complete with a queen and her court, band concerts, dances, parades, and a carnival atmosphere throughout the Town. The first Cheese Carnival in 1934 drew 12,000 to 18,000 people, “the largest number ever to visit Collierville in a single period.”
Cheese Plant on Main Street
Swift and Company, a food processing company incorporated in Chicago in 1875, specialized in meatpacking and sold dairy and grocery items across the country. In 1934, they opened a cheese plant located just off Main Street in Collierville.
Upon opening, a resident and dairy farmer commented on what it meant for the plant to be in Collierville, stating, “Our town is forgetting the
Depression and swinging into the new deal with hearts set on a glorious and prosperous future.”
Swift and Co. closed its doors in 1943 due to World War II, electricity costs, and internal company problems. In October 1944, local businessmen reopened the Collierville Dairy Products Company to “begin our own little post-war employment plan right here in Collierville.” The plant moved to Olive Branch, Mississippi, in 1952.
Newspaper articles show us that the Cheese Plant went through many ups and downs during its existence. Local headlines follow the Cheese Plant’s highs and lows.
Dairy Farms in and Around Collierville
From the early 1920s to the 1980s, dairy remained an important feature of many Collierville families.
Today, there are about 51,000 dairy farms in the United States and almost all of them are family owned and operated.