Constructed in 1925 at 2200 Sturdevant St., the Page Milk building and its landmark smoke stack will soon be gone from Merrill’s landscape. The abatement of various hazards in the building is currently underway, with demolition to follow.
Much of the building has been vacant for decades and its condition had deteriorated to the point that it was deemed blighted by the city of Merrill. The city took ownership of the building late last year. In February, the Merrill City Council approved a bid from C&D Excavating for the abatement and demolition of the former Page Milk property in the amount of $80,000 for abatement and $171,000 for demolition.
City Administrator Dave Johnson indicated that abatement must be done before demolition can begin, and will consist of asbestos and lead paint removal, as well as a heavy amount of pigeon droppings on the property.
The project is being paid for by an Idle Sites grant the city received last year in the amount of $417,350. One the site has been cleared, the city will put the property up for sale to be redeveloped.
History of Page Milk Co.
The history of the Page Milk Co. can be traced back to Switzerland and four American brothers named Page.
After serving as a correspondent for the New York Tribune during the Civil War, Charles Page was appointed U.S. Consul at Zurich. There, he took notice of the dairy activity in Switzerland and set out to organize a canned milk operation. He initiated the formation of the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Co., which began operation in 1866. Over the next few years, Charles was joined in the business by his three brothers, William B., George H. and David S. Page. William, the youngest brother, went to work at a new Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk plant in England in 1872. There, he met and married a girl from London. Among their children was Rowland, who was born in 1878.
In 1888, the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Co. opened an operation in the Page brothers’ hometown of Dixon, Ill. William moved back to the United States to take over that plant.
In 1902, company management back in Switzerland decided to sell its plants in the United States to the Borden Co. (The Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Co. later merged with the Nestle Co. in 1905.) Following the sale of the Dixon plant, William and his sons went to work for other companies in the industry.
William managed a milk plant in New York while Rowland went to work for the Hires Condensed Milk Co. in Michigan and later served as president of companies in Pennsylvania and New York.
In 1925, Rowland came to Merrill to organize the Page Milk Co. The Merrill Page Milk Co. plant, built by local contractor Gust Torkelson, opened on Nov. 1, 1925. They took in 6,230 pounds of milk that first day and would grow to be one of the largest such companies in the U.S. Additional Page Milk operations were established in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
With Rowland as president, the first plant officers were H.A. Page, treasurer; George Gilkey, secretary; Rowland’s son, George, assistant secretary and treasurer.
Rowland B. Page was president of Page Milk in Merrill until his death in 1941. He was recognized as one of the pioneers in the evaporated milk industry and among the foremost authorities in the field.
Following Rowland’s death in 1941, his eldest son, George, took over as president. George, who graduated from the University of Michigan, had filled various management and executive positions with Page Milk in Merrill.
In 1966, George B. Page received honorary recognition from the faculty at the UW College of Agriculture in Madison for his distinguished service as a state and national leader in the dairy industry, his long-time support of youth programs, his leadership in Chamber of Commerce activities and active participation in church and community affairs. At the time of his retirement, George was the chairman of the company’s board of directors. He had served as a director of the Evaporated Milk Association for over 20 years and served three term’s as the organization’s president.
Just three years prior to his death, George Page contributed an article to the 1983 Merrill Centennial book, in which he noted the reason for his father coming to Merrill. “It was the hope and expectation of the local investors that the establishment of another and larger outlet for local milk supplies would encourage dairy in the area,” he wrote.
The company maintained a large business through World War II. As dairying continued to increase locally, the Merrill plant took in 281,000 pounds of milk from 990 patrons on June 30, 1945.
Much of the evaporated milk was being shipped to Europe during WWII, George Page noted in the Merrill Centennial article. “Britain and other European countries placed a heavy demand on U.S. supplies of milk. The Page Milk Company supplied hundreds of carloads of evaporated milk to the U.S. Military and our Allies throughout the world.”
Changes in the market after WWII caused a decline in demand for evaporated milk. By the late 1960s, Page Milk was the last of 44 original U.S. plants still in operation. As business continued to decline, the Page Milk Company closed in Merrill in December 1973.
The legacy of the Page Milk Company did not die, however, as George Page concluded in his Merrill Centennial article: “Numerous contacts have been made as a result of the wide spread of Page products during the war years. To mention just one, sometime in the 1970s a letter arrived from a man in Poland stating that he had several cans of Page evaporated milk and that he knew that they were old but had tried one and found it still good. from the label which he enclosed, it was determined that the milk had been packed for the Military and was at least 30 years old. From ensuing correspondence, it was learned that the milk had been found when the gentleman was clearing up his parents’ home and that apparently they had received the milk from American troops who had released them from a German work camp.”
In his later years, George finished a genealogical research project started by his father and published “John Ham Page Ancestors and Descendants,” from which much of the genealogical information for this article was borrowed.