Early in Ypsilanti’s history, many families kept cows to furnish their families with milk and butter. As the Midwest began the process of industrialization and more citizens went to work in specialized labor, Ypsilanti’s dairies came to the fore, delivering milk in horse-drawn wagons. In 1851 Ypsilanti dairies produced over 40,000 pounds of butter.
By 1892, a group of farmers founded the Ypsilanti Dairy Association in order to cooperatively improve both their products and their marketing strategies. The Association was located on Spring and Race Street, southeast of downtown Ypsilanti. These farmers sold most of their products locally, and according to a 1942 newspaper, any surplus was sent to Detroit and cities on the east coast.
Joseph Warner, an employee of the Ypsilanti Dairy Association from 1897 to 1898, owned about a half-dozen cows of his own and in 1914 founded the Warner Dairy. In 1934 Warner’s business was worth about two million dollars and by 1942, they had absorbed another area dairy – the Lewis Creamery.
1930 saw the founding of the Ypsilanti Dairy by Fredrick J. Peters Sr., who originally trained as a plumber. His two sons, Fred Jr., and Art as well as his daughter, Bernadine helped run the dairy, performing office and delivery duties. Eventually, the dairy began producing ice cream products in addition to milk, coffee cream, buttermilk and chocolate milk.
According to the 1923 Washtenaw Post, 42 different milk dealers supplied Ypsilanti with butter, milk, cottage cheese and various other dairy products.
In the 1950s and 1960s, it became more and more difficult for small dairies to sustain their business due to competition with larger corporations, increasing suburbanization of the U.S. population and rising land values. Many of the Ypsilanti dairy owners found other employment including Fred Peters of the Ypsilanti Dairy which closed in 1965. Though these icons of another era no longer exist in great quantity, they continue to exist in the collective memory of Ypsilanti as a large part of our heritage.
Gone But Not Forgotten - Spotlight on Bella Vista Dairy: Bella Vista Farms was founded in 1922 by Ferdinand “Fred” Palma Sr. It was located at 1084 South Huron Street in Ypsilanti. His son, Fred Palma Jr., ran the farm after his father became ill in 1934 and continued after his father’s death in 1938.
According to a 1954 advertisement in the Ypsilanti Courier, Bella Vista Farms covered 465 acres. It was a certified dairy, and also had one of only three certified herds in the state of Michigan. At the time of the article, the herd at Bella Vista numbered 150 strong. In order to operate the farm there were twelve buildings on the land set aside for dairy production including four cow barns for the herd. The dairy had twelve employees whose work was dedicated to caring for the herd. The employees lived on the land in one of the five buildings reserved exclusively for them.
Bella Vista produced a variety of goods for sale and delivery in the local community. During World War II, the dairy delivered to Willow Run Village. Some of the products available for purchase included: homogenized vitamin D milk, pasteurized milk, chocolate milk, coffee cream, whipping cream, cottage cheese, buttermilk, yogurt, skimmed milk and an orange drink.
By 1981, the dairy and the remainder of its land were sold off to Morgan-Mitsubishi Corporation, a New York state developer. The dairy had already been parceled off, and the developer purchased the remaining 130 acres. The buildings that remained were set afire on September 14, 1981 in a controlled burn managed by several local fire departments. Today where Bella Vista Farms once stood, modern development now resides. As you drive by the McDonald’s and the nearby stores, you can imagine the once proud dairy that operated on site. It may be gone, but it is not forgotten.
(Pamela German and Veronica Robinson are graduate students in the Historical Preservation Program at Eastern Michigan University and serve as interns in the YHS Museum and Archives.)
Photo 1: The Ypsilanti Dairy Association barn.
Photo 2: The Warner Dairy in 1928, located at 1024 W. Michigan Avenue.
Photo 3: A Parade float for the Lewis Creamery.
Photo 4: Bella Vista Farms used to occupy 465 acres along South Huron.
Photo 5: Bella Vista Dairy delivery trucks covered the region in the 1940s.
Photo 6: A Bella Vista Dairy milk bottling line in 1948.