How Toronto's City Dairy became one of the largest dairies in the British Empire.
At the turn of the 20th century the state of Toronto’s milk supply was abysmal, leaving the populace susceptible to milk-borne illnesses such as diphtheria, typhoid, tuberculosis, and scarlet fever. As early as the 1880s, city officials inspecting local farms and dairies found cattle crowded into filthy barns, feeding on by-products from distilleries instead of hay. Milk was often transported long distances without proper cooling, Paul Huntley writes in City Dairy Toronto: A Yellow Wagon on Every Street (Paul Huntley, 2011), then sometimes it was ladled directly from the wagon’s open cans, on the side of the dirty road, into whatever improvised, unsterilized containers customers might provide.
Farmers won lawsuits against the City by claiming that officials’ inspections of their premises to enforce sanitation and sterilization standards were too subjective. When the health department shifted to bacteriological analysis, the samples confirmed what many inspectors had suspected: milk sold in the city contained tuberculosis bacilli, dirt, and other contaminants—responsible for the deaths of 400 children each year in one contemporary study’s reckoning. Furthermore, milk was sometimes diluted with water, or adulterated with salicylic or boracic acid, chalk, and commercial dyes to improve the milk’s colour and to disguise spoiled milk.
As City health department staff urged the institution of reforms, including expanded farm and dairy inspections and mandatory pasteurization, one Toronto entrepreneur sought to improve Toronto’s milk supply by giving consumers choice. Walter E.H. Massey established the City Dairy Company Limited in 1900 to provide “Milk Good Enough for Babies.”
Walter Massey established Dentonia Park Farm in 1896-97 as a summer home and hobby farm about seven miles east of Toronto, on 250 acres bounded by Danforth Avenue, Medhurst Road, Dawes Road, and Pharmacy Avenue. The land included arable fields for corn crops, ravines and hills for pasturing cattle, plus wooded areas and ponds—even a tennis court and nine-hole golf course.
Although busy with other work commitments since inheriting the full-time management of the Massey-Harris Company upon his father’s death, Walter Massey spared no expense in turning Dentonia into an experimental farm where he might test new agricultural techniques, including the establishment of a cutting-edge dairy.
Massey assembled one of the finest Jersey herds in North America, numbering 200 head, along with a smaller Ayrshire herd. The dairy barn, which could accommodate 80 cows, was designed to maximize ventilation, natural light, and cleanliness. The first floor housed cattle and pigs, as Paul Huntley describes in his extensive history of the City Dairy. Milking was done on the tile-lined second floor, where an adjacent laboratory tested for tuberculosis and contaminants, and certified the milk as meeting the highest standards for purity and quality. The third and fourth floors stored the horses and wagons, and the straw and feed, respectively. The farm’s dairy operation also included, Huntley notes, a shipping and receiving room, a cooling and packing room, and sterilization facilities and bottling equipment.
The dairy operation, like the rest of the farm, was a showcase of new, scientific techniques and was open to visitors six days a week. Raymond recalls picking up visitors at the terminus of the streetcar line in east Toronto and driving them out to tour the farm buildings.
Originally started to meet the Massey family’s milk needs, by 1900 the farm dairy’s production of certified milk was 250 quarts per day, and its reputation for quality was such that many Toronto doctors, in particular, wanted to purchase its products.
Envisioning the large-scale commercial potential of providing pure, high-quality milk to the entire city, Massey enlisted investors in the formation of the City Dairy Company Limited in June 1900. A notice in the Toronto Star (June 12, 1900) and quoted by Huntley outlines the firm’s intention to establish “a milk supply for the citizens of Toronto and vicinity under thoroughly sanitary conditions.”
It wasn’t the first such attempt, as Dave Thomas and Bob Marchant outline in When Milk Came in Bottles: A History of Toronto Dairies (Cowtown Publications, 1997). The Sterilized Milk Company of Toronto, located at 678 Yonge Street, had begun advertising “sterilized milk in sealed bottles” in 1891. But certified milk was more expensive for the consumer, and the venture quickly faded.
As a serial entrepreneur with broad business interests beyond Massey-Harris, and a devout Methodist and long-time leader in religious organizations, Massey possessed a strong sense of public duty. Massey, who’d expanded the family firm (more than doubling annual output from $1.6 million in 1896 to $3.4 million in 1899), had the largesse and business acumen to make the dairy a viable commercial enterprise.
The City Dairy established its headquarters and centralized dairy facility on the northeastern arc of Spadina Crescent, between Russell Street and Bancroft Avenue. Designed by Massey-Harris company architect George Martel Miller and taking up a city block, the facility was built around a central courtyard. The original, northern building housed the main offices and the milk and creamery department. Miller’s 1910 expansion added a wing for an ice cream department, a four-storey stand-alone building for stabling the horses, and a carriage works for maintaining the fleet of delivery wagons.
The City Dairy was “the most scientifically advanced dairy facility in North America,” Huntley asserts. Milk cans arriving from dairy farms were received in the north wing, elevated onto the top floor where they were “poured into vats and test sampled” while the milk cans were sent for washing, sterilization, and sealing in preparation for their next use at the farm. After initial testing, the milk was piped into the world’s largest clarifier for cleaning and filtering. After bottling, the milk proceeded to the shipping department which could accommodate loading onto five horse-drawn delivery wagons simultaneously.
The majority of City Dairy’s milk needs, until 1913, came from Dentonia. But the company’s rapid growth required additional sources. To ensure contracted farms operated according to the strict standards set by the Dentonia model—where each cow was tested by a veterinarian three times monthly, the milk test sampled on a regular basis, and dairy staff had to be certified as healthy by a doctor every two weeks—City Dairy became one of the first dairies to appoint its own farm milk inspectors. Just as at Dentonia, veterinarians inspected the cattle, their feed, and the sanitary conditions of the farm itself. According to the terms of their contract, City Dairy suppliers needed to ensure the proper handling of the milk from the farm to City Dairy’s Spadina facility. There, under the guidance of chief bacteriologist Professor E.W. Hammond, Huntley notes, the onsite laboratory conducted 75,000 tests on the milk supply annually, to prevent contamination.
Eventually, a 950-acre City-Dairy-owned farm in New Lowell, Ontario, supplanted Dentonia as the company’s main source of milk products. Dentonia was donated to the municipal government by Massey’s widow, Susan Denton Massey, for use as parkland.
The company’s practices and procedures mirrored the city’s efforts, as one municipal health department document boasted, to regulate milk production from “cow to consumer.” The health department enlisted veterinary inspectors to examine herds and facilities at over 2,000 farms supplying milk to Toronto dairies. Within the city, the municipal inspectors took samples for analysis as each milk can was unsealed, either at the station or upon its arrival at the dairy. “If the milk contains crude dirt, it is at once condemned as unfit for human food and poured down the sewer,” Heather Anne MacDougall cites from government records in Activists and Advocates: Toronto’s Health Department, 1883-1983 (Dundurn Press, 1990). “Sometimes the dirty milk is dyed red and returned to the shipper, and in this case a large red label is attached to the can. The farmer thus loses the milk, and if returned, his neighbors all see his condemned can at the station.” The classification of dairies according to the results of their inspection scorecard would be published in the department’s Health Bulletin.
Likewise, the City Dairy was ahead of the competition when it came to pasteurization. The company had been conducting mandatory pasteurization—heating the milk to a temperature just below boiling, then quickly cooling according to standards recommended by the Canadian Medical Association—of all its milk and cream products since the fall of 1903, according to Huntley, when pasteurization equipment was installed at Spadina Crescent. The company’s efforts predated the most fervent efforts at the municipal level.
(Right: Testing laboratory in a dairy, ca. 1920. From the Archives of Ontario [SHC-1].)
Dr. Charles Hastings, who’d committed himself to the promotion of public health after having lost an infant daughter to typhoid contracted from contaminated milk, began leading Canadian Medical Association efforts urging governments to adopt compulsory pasteurization in 1907. But he encountered resistance. Many doctors felt unpasteurized, or raw, milk was easier for patients to digest; some members of the public claimed pasteurization lowered the nutritional value or altered the taste of the product. Even the City’s Medical Health Officer, Dr. Charles Sheard, didn’t think pasteurization was “worth it” on top of strengthening regulations on production. It was only after Hastings was appointed the City’s chief medical officer in September 1910 that his advocacy finally resulted the passage of a municipal by-law in April 1914. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Ontario government made pasteurization compulsory province-wide.
City Dairy’s advertisements extolled its milk products as the highest quality, most pure, cleanest, and therefore safest supply available. This language closely echoed the public education campaigns launched by the municipal government and philanthropists to promote the consumption of pure, and later pasteurized, milk among the city’s children.
“Milk Good Enough for Babies” was one of City Dairy’s long-time advertising slogans. Some newspaper ads featured a likeness of Dr. Ed W. Hammond, the company’s chief bacteriologist, in a lab coat vouching for the scientific purity of City Dairy milk. Others explained aspects of the company’s supply chain from pasture to milk bottle. Strengthening this sense of transparency of the company’s operations was the company’s standing invitation for any and all to visit the Spadina facility, just as the public had been able to visit Dentonia. By 1910, Huntley notes, about 400 visitors each week were taking inspection tours: observing milk production through a glassed observation area, then taking home products from the on-site retail counter.
(Above left: Advertisement from Jesse Edgar Middleton’s Toronto’s 100 Years [Centennial Committee, 1934].)
The City Dairy’s promotional savvy also resulted in the construction of an icon of the Toronto cityscape. Needing an immediate supply of water for the planned installation of a sprinkler system in 1915, the company installed a steel milk-bottle-shaped water tower. Illuminated and set on top of a 75-foot-tall pedestal, the 32-foot-high milk bottle was visible for blocks in every direction. By design, it didn’t bear the company logo, so that whenever the public viewed the generic, unmarked bottle, they’d associate it with City Dairy. (Although long since dismantled, the milk bottle tower is referenced at Willcocks Street, in artist Stephen Cruise’s Places in a Book sculpture that lines the Spadina streetcar right-of-way.)
The first City Dairy wagons, painted a distinctive yellow, left Spadina Crescent to initiate home delivery on January 30, 1901. By the 1920s, the dairy’s fleet, which Huntley numbers at 210 vehicles, comprised mostly horse-drawn wagons, as well as some sleighs for winter, and a handful of motorized vehicles to provide delivery to almost 50,000 homes in Toronto.
Horse breeder Catherine Sampson, whose grandfather worked for City Dairy, recounts the milkman’s daily routine in Between the Irons: Anecdotes of My Life with Horses (iUniverse, 2010). Arriving at the dairy in the dark of night, Sampson’s grandfather began by feeding the horses and preparing a feedbag with a midday serving of oats, before loading the wagon with the day’s cargo of bottled milk, butter, cheese, eggs, and cream. He would travel through the still-dark streets, whistling “The Missouri Waltz,” along a route that took him up through Rosedale and as far as Hogg’s Hollow, as the morning workday traffic gradually increased around him.
Returning to Spadina Crescent in the early afternoon, Sampson’s grandfather sometimes nodded off. But, well-practiced at following the route, his trusty horses continued on the way, stopping and starting at intersections by keeping with the flow of traffic.
Back at the dairy, the horses would be unhitched, and their harness removed. Then, he’d brush the horses out, and refill the stall’s hay and seed. “Grandfather gathered up the empties from the day and met the cashier, handing over his tickets and cash sales from his route,” Sampson writes of her grandfather’s activities. “Back out on the street, he waited patiently. He sighed with a deep breath while straining to hear the clang of the streetcar coming to carry him home.” Working 12-hour days, seven days a week, for much of his career before and during the Great Depression, Sampson’s grandfather earned $25 per week with only occasional days off.
By 1901, in just its second year of operation, the dairy was producing 10,000 bottles daily, according to Huntley, or 365,000 per year to meet the demand of their customers. By 1905, City Dairy’s annual production was 3.5 million bottles in addition to the 32,000 gallons of milk sold directly to restaurants and hotels. Two established dairies with an equally well-regarded reputation for quality, the Kensington Dairy Company and S. Price and Sons, were amalgamated by the City Dairy in June 1901 and August 1911 respectively.
From controlling just nine per cent of the city’s milk market in 1903, City Dairy controlled 40 per cent of the market by 1915. Throughout this period of growth, the City Dairy Company was overseen by Samuel J. Moore, who’d assumed the presidency after Massey had died at only age 37 in October 1901 after contracting typhoid from drinking contaminated water on a train trip. Day-to-day operations, from 1903, were managed by Charles Edward Potter. William J. Northgrave, a long-time employee who rose from clerk to company president, and Charles M. Ruttan also played roles in the growth and expansion of the company. “For three decades, the distinction of serving more homes than any other dairy in the British Empire belonged to City Dairy,” Thomas and Marchant assert.
In June 1929, the city’s third-largest dairy, Caulfield’s Dairy, was amalgamated into The Borden Company Limited, an American company which had first broken into the Canadian market in Montreal. Borden’s aggressive entry into the Toronto marketplace made it a city-wide force instantly, with Caulfield’s more than a hundred delivery routes, multiple distribution centres, and at least 10 retail dairy bars. And, almost immediately, it prompted rumours about whether City Dairy might be Borden’s next target. Nationalistic editorials bemoaned the potential loss control of the British Empire’s pre-eminent dairy being sold to American interests.
When an offer of over seven million dollars came from Borden’s, however, the shareholders accepted with overwhelming support on August 18, 1930. As the two companies’ operations were merged, City Dairy’s senior management assumed positions heading The Borden Company’s Canadian operations. Borden’s eventually moved its Canadian corporate headquarters to the City Dairy facility on Spadina Crescent, remaining there until the University of Toronto’s planned expansion and expropriation in 1962 forced the dairy’s relocation to newly-built headquarters near Lawrence Avenue East and Railside Drive.
Additional sources consulted: Christine Sismondo in the Toronto Star (November 23, 2008); and John Warkentin, Creating Memory (Becker Associates, 2010).