When the Boston & Worcester Railroad bisected Westborough center, the community was predominately based on agriculture and dairy farming with some manufacturing in the immediate downtown. However, dairy farmers in Westborough were the first to take full advantage of the newest form of milk transport. Shipping milk by rail was established shortly after the opening of the Boston & Worcester line, and Westborough became the primary milk shipping community to the Boston market. A number of milk cars were attached to the first passenger train of the day for the fastest delivery to Boston. The railroad proved to be a boon to area dairy farmers that continued to grow well into the 20th century.
From 1836, milk produced by Westborough dairy farmers supplied the Boston market via the Boston & Worcester Railroad. Milk was shipped raw from Westborough without processing or refrigeration. Its life span was established at two hours fifteen minutes and needed to be quickly transported and delivered to Boston milk peddlers.
Although some attempts at organizing milk transport by rail were met with questionable results, the dairy farmers were never financially hurt by lost revenue. In the coming years, a number of groups were established to represent the dairy industry. Agents were selected to represent the farmers, document the ownership and quantity of each can and accompany the milk cars into Boston to negotiate with the milk dealers for the best prices.
Over the years a number of rival companies were organized in Westborough. These companies provided the freight cars and an agent to work on behalf of the dairy farmers. Designated boxcars fitted to hold milk cans were parked on a siding with a loading dock to accommodate the milk farmers. These companies would also establish ice harvesting companies to provide Chauncy ice for the milk cars. The farmers would deliver their milk in 8½-quart metal cans each morning and load their own cans onto the milk car. Local farmers would contribute one to 30 cans of milk per trip. (Source: History of Westborough, DeForest. See Westboro Ice).
Jason Chamberlain, a successful Westborough dairy farmer, began sending milk to Boston in April 1838. At first, Chamberlain scheduled one small freight car to be loaded with milk at the siding on Brigham Street and then drawn by horse to the Southville station to collect milk before connecting to the first passenger train to the city.
In 1840, the Westboro Milk Co. was formed by John A. Fayerweather, George Denny, Abijah Wood, Elmer Brigham, and Col. Josiah Brigham and was operated for the next 25 years with S. Deane Fisher as its agent. By 1849 the company was shipping 2,500 cans per week from the Westborough rail siding. Meanwhile in 1852, the Westboro Milk Co. was transferred to George O. Brigham and Daniel and Stephen Fisher. This company later split but was absorbed by the C. Brigham Co. The Boston Milk Co. was then formed to replace the Westboro Milk Co.
Also in 1852 the Westborough milk train was delayed by an accident on the line and an estimated 20,000 Bostonians went without milk and cream that day.
In 1859 the Westboro Milk Co. was under the leadership of Cyrus Brigham of Westborough and Whittemore Rowell of Boston and was shipping eight milk cars a day amounting to a thousand cans per day; 750 cans per day were provided by 150 dairy farms in Westborough and the remainder from adjacent communities. It became the largest milk business in the world amounting to $1,000,000 dollars a year. These cars relied on Chauncy ice to help keep the milk from spoiling. (History of Westborough, DeForest).
A loading dock was fitted with a small room used for can storage and by the agent to oversee both the loading operation and each farmer’s contribution to the load. The agent would then accompany the milk train to the Boston milk freight house, supervise the distribution to the milk peddlers, and receive the agreed upon fee. The cans would be emptied, washed and sterilized, and returned to the Westborough yard.
Meanwhile, Boston-based milk companies bought numerous tracts of land on the east and south shorelines of Lake Chauncy to harvest the ice for the milk cars of the railroad for the trip to Boston. The Westborough rail yard was easily accessed by area dairy farmers and established Westborough as the primary depot to supply milk to the Boston market. The availability of Chauncy ice became a significant benefit to the milk producers to refrigerate the milk cars and increase the longevity time of the milk.
In 1863, the Union Milk Co. was established and purchased a portion of land owned by George B. Brigham at the corner of Mill (Brigham) and Cottage streets for $700.00. The new concern then built a building named the Cheese Factory. The purpose was to make cheese and butter from the excess milk not shipped to Boston.
However, due to financial difficulties the trustees dissolved the Union Milk Co. and sold the property with the new building to the newly formed Westboro Milk Producers Association for $3,500 in 1866. But in 1869, the association was dissolved by the Superior Judicial Court of Worcester after several years of minimal profit. The Cheese Factory building was also sold, and the shareholders were refunded their initial investments. In 1870 the Westboro Milk Producers Association, including the Cheese Factory building, was sold to Lyman Belknap, S. B. Howe, Curtis Beeman, and H. Weld for $3,700. (Source: History of Westborough, DeForest, Mass. Land Records, 721-207, 665-48, 822-189, 793-352. During the period between 1834 and 1870 the road leading south past Westboro Hotel, the train yard, and Brigham’s property to Cottage St. was identified on maps and deeds as Railroad St, Mill St., and finally Brigham St.)
In 1874 the Westboro Milk Co. was dissolved and sold the Lake Chauncy ice harvesting holdings to Cyrus Brigham, Rowell and Joseph Fay. A year later the C. Brigham Co. with Whittemore Rowell was established and began to buy and sell ice harvesting properties on Lake Chauncy. (Resource, Mass. Land Records: 1028-583. Cyrus Brigham died in 1899.)
In 1885, 212 Westborough farmers/shareholders were disgruntled with the prices offered them for milk and formed their own company named the Westboro Creamery Co. This association operated for many years but also had difficulties with finances and disbanded. This was the last of the local associations and was replaced by the larger companies such as Deerfoot Farms, Southborough; H.P. Hood; Whiting Milk Co. of Boston; New England Milk Producers Association; and Consolidated Dairies.
Refrigerated milk cars were introduced in the 1880s eliminating the need for Chauncy ice for refrigeration of milk and allowing Boston to expand its milk shed territory into Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. The milk supply companies that had relied on Chauncy ice for refrigeration began to sell their holdings to local business men. (Source: The Story of Milk by Rail.)
By the turn of the 19th century, William Sullivan, a Westborough selectman and road commissioner, purchased a select few of the properties on the east and south sides of Lake Chauncy to continue ice harvesting. These properties were previously owned by the Boston Milk Co. and the C. Brigham Co. that no longer needed harvested ice for milk preservation. A majority of the remaining Chauncy shoreline was owned by Commonwealth properties.
In 1888, George Fitch purchased the land and buildings at the corner of Brigham and Cottage streets, which formerly belonged to the Westboro Milk Producers Association as the Old Cheese Factory, from Lyman A. Belknap for $3,000. Fitch established a beef refrigeration business affiliated with Armour Beef of Chicago. He then petitioned the Boston and Albany Railroad to extend an existing stock yard spur line to his property at the corner of Brigham and Cottage streets. (Source: Mass. Land Records: 1276-397.)
Fitch then sold the Westboro Milk Producers property on Brigham Street to Jon Ogden Armour of Chicago, along with a house on Baxter Street with water access and ice-storage sheds in 1892. The new acquisition allowed Armour to establish a dressed-beef processing plant in Westborough. The plant was supplied by the New York Central Railroad with western pork and beef from the Union Stock Yards of Chicago. Armour became a major supplier of canned processed pork and beef at this location for the European market. (Source: Mass. Land Records: 1287-29, 1370-539, and 1370-540.)
In 1911, 48 people died and an estimated 1,400 were sickened by an outbreak of tonsillitis in the Boston-Cambridge area. The cause was attributed to contaminated raw milk that was traced to Deerfoot Farms in Southborough. Biologists investigating the tragedy believed the milk carried a contagion of either staphylococci or streptococci that led to the outbreak of the fatal illness. After the incident, Deerfoot Farms began in-bottle pasteurization, becoming the most famous and one of the very few dairies to do so. (Source: History of Southborough, History of Deerfoot Farms.)
In Westborough, health concerns over milk in the 1930’s were a major issue. The Child Health Association was established in Westborough and discovered through testing that 52% of sickly children were suffering from contaminated milk. In 1931, 40 dairy farmers agreed to have their herds tested for tuberculosis and 500 head were found infected and put down. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1930’s that state regulations were passed to require pasteurization and sterilization methods to minimize health issues with milk. These new regulations, the loss of dairy cows, the ever present fear of bad milk, and the Depression weighed heavily on the dairy farmers of Westborough. (Source: Google Milk, On the Beaten Path by Kristina Allen.)
The opening of the new Boston & Worcester Turnpike in 1931 and the introduction of refrigerated milk trucks dramatically reduced the dairy farmers need to ship by train. The trucks would make local stops and deliver their loads to local creameries which ended the need for milk cans.
By the end of World War II dairy farming in Westborough and surrounding communities was approaching an end. Only a few remained, and they were processing their own milk and trucking it to large creameries. The remaining milk trains were solely dependent on the faster, scheduled passenger trains, but in 1960 passenger trains were discontinued in Westborough, which brought an end to 125 years of the milk trains in Westborough.
Glenn R. Parker
City Milk by Horatio Newton Parker – US bureau of animal industry 1898 –
The Story of Milk Transportation by Rail, River Raisin Models
The Westborough Chronotype
The History of Westborough, DeForest