tarboro municipal milk
photograph by State Archives of North Carolina

In 1917, an outbreak of what was then known as “the summer complaint” — dysentery, typhoid fever, and colitis — swept through Tarboro, afflicting many of the town’s 6,400 residents and killing 13 children.

The culprit? A foodstuff found on nearly every breakfast table in town: milk.

The contaminated milk was traced to area dairy farmers, some of whom resisted pasteurizing their product, fearing the heat would ruin the milk’s taste and destroy its nutritional value. Although there were standards for pasteurization at the time, they were not enforced. “The darndest fight you’ve ever seen broke out between the town and the milk producers out in the county,” former Tarboro Mayor E.L. Roberson later told the Rocky Mount Telegram.

But as more people became sick, Edgecombe County health officer Dr. K.E. Miller grew convinced that Tarboro had to take control of its milk supply. “There is perhaps no one single article of food so important to the human race as milk,” Miller told The Daily Southerner in 1918. “We can have some means within our reach of protecting our people from the serious dangers to health due to using milk from a great variety of miscellaneous sources over which it is impossible for us to exercise any constant control at the farm.”

On February 12, 1918, Miller lobbied the town commission to open a municipal milk plant. That summer, the commission took the first step, passing a law that prohibited the sale of unpasteurized milk. By August, its members had allotted $1,800 for the plant.

And with that approval, Tarboro became the first city to operate its own milk plant.

‘An anti-germ town’

City leaders never intended for the plant to be profitable, only for it to break even and to protect the public’s health. And it did: According to a 1936 article in The Daily Southerner, “… more babies [are] living in Tarboro by reason of the beneficent agency of this milk plant.”

With its concrete floors, white-tiled walls, and workers dressed in clean white coats, the Tarboro Municipal Milk Plant set an example for purity in what The Daily Southerner called “strictly an anti-germ town.”

It was originally housed inside the city water plant, then expanded to a steel building used as an electrical supply depot. In 1930, the city agreed to put forth $15,000 to build a new milk plant at West Wilson Street and Albemarle Avenue, near the tree-lined town commons.

Here, the plant’s 25 or so employees pasteurized milk from local farms, about 1,000 quarts each day. In the 1930s, the milk, which was half cream, sold for 15 cents a quart.

Here, the plant’s 25 or so employees pasteurized milk from local farms, about 1,000 quarts each day. In the 1930s, the milk, which was half cream, sold for 15 cents a quart. Customers could buy a ticket for the milk at the town hall, and each morning, the bottles were delivered to homes by horse-drawn wagon. By the 1950s, residents could also purchase milk at the plant, recalls Tarboro Town Councilman John Jenkins: “You walked in the front door, and there was a sales counter. Behind that were coolers with pints and quarts [of] white and chocolate milk. … Each bottle had a waxy cardboard stopper on the top about the size of a 50-cent piece.”

Eventually, the city added a creamery to supply its residents with butter, and the plant began selling cream and bulk quantities of milk to ice cream manufacturers and large distributors.

Officials from throughout the U.S. and abroad, intrigued by the idea of municipal milk, visited the plant. The U.S. Department of Agriculture studied its operations, and, in a 1938 report, noted, “Products of high quality are obtainable at reasonable cost, the service appears to be excellent, and no evidence was found indicating any of the oft-alleged wastes of public enterprise.”

Officials from throughout the U.S. and abroad, intrigued by the idea of municipal milk, visited the plant.

Meanwhile, delivery of “town milk” became a morning routine in Tarboro. In a 1987 Daily Southerner article, retired county administrator Ruth Ballard recounted the story of Lonnie Wynn, who drove a horse-drawn milk wagon. On one bitterly cold day, Wynn nearly froze to death while making his morning deliveries.

“The horse, though, was so familiar with the route that he kept going, stopping in front of each house for a minute before going on to the next,” Ballard told the newspaper. “Someone finally realized that something was wrong, got into the wagon, and found poor Lonnie passed out from the cold.”

Al Hull, now a town councilman, worked as a delivery boy for a summer in the 1950s. By then, horse-drawn wagons were out and automobiles were in; Hull was too young to drive at the time, so he rode along on a step van that looked like a small UPS truck. Every morning, at each house, he picked up the bottles, which by this point contained tokens rather than tickets, plus a note inside with the household’s order. He then retrieved the new bottles of milk from the truck and set them on the porch.

“It was whole milk, not low-fat,” Hull says. “It was delicious, except when the cows got into the onions. Then it tasted terrible.”

Milk bottle memories

As pasteurization became more common, privately owned competitors, such as Sealtest, entered the marketplace. In 1954, the town started losing more money than it was comfortable with. Town councilmen had mixed feelings about what to do with the plant, but by 1964, it was still losing money, so the next year, they shuttered it. During the plant’s 47 years of operation, other towns had followed Tarboro’s lead, opening municipal facilities to distribute milk to their residents. Yet by the time the Tarboro Municipal Milk Plant closed, it was again believed to be the only one of its kind.

The building itself became a recreation center. Although the town gave it a fresh coat of olive paint, the interior would likely be too expensive to upfit for office space, Councilman Hull says. The town now uses the building for storage: Wooden kayak paddles, firefighting gear, office chairs, and recycling canisters crowd the first floor.

Today, two majestic magnolia trees shade the east side of the building. The lawn is carefully clipped. And beneath the grass, according to local lore, dozens of bottles are buried, relics of a time when every morning, Tarboro residents opened their doors to quarts of fresh milk.

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Lisa Sorg is a contributing editor of Our State.