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The Bowman Dairy Company of Chicago

Posted under Collections by Jojo Galvan

January 11 is marked on the calendar as National Milk Day, commemorating the day the first glass bottled milk deliveries began en masse in the US, starting with the state of New York in 1878. And while Chicago’s strongest bovine association has been to the Union Stock Yard, the dairy industry was also a lucrative entity across the city that employed thousands.

Black & white photograph of a ailkman delivering milk for the Bowman Dairy Company using a horse-drawn milk delivery wagon on a residential street. There is a 3-story house in the background. In its front yard is a large tree.
Milkman making a delivery for the Bowman Dairy Company using a horse-drawn milk delivery wagon on a residential street, Chicago, 1914. CHM, ICHi-067268

The kings of the Chicago dairy industry were undoubtedly the operators behind the Bowman Dairy Company, who were the largest distributors of milk in the city through the first half of the twentieth century. The company began in 1874 under Johnston R. Bowman in St. Louis. By 1891, company leadership consolidated by selling the St. Louis operation for $110,000, which, adjusted for inflation, is just over $3.4 million in 2022. From that point on, all operations would be headquartered in Chicago, after the acquisition of a local operator, the Jersey Milk Company. A further partnership (and eventual buyout in 1898) with a local creamery further cemented Bowman’s presence in the city, as they became known for delivering freshly bottled milk across more than 30 commercial routes in the city, quickly developing a strong reputation amongst the city’s rapidly growing population.

Black & white photo of 6 white men bottling milk at the Bowman Dairy Company. There are pipes around the room and racks of glass bottles filled with white milk.
Workers bottling milk at the Bowman Dairy Company, Barrington, Illinois, 1914. CHM, ICHi-068768

One of the many factors that brought the company success was its pioneering efforts in delivering pasteurized milk and cream by 1899. This was achieved by a partnership with farms in the Chicago suburbs. Their milk and cream would be delivered via rapid train in the morning to the bottling and distribution centers that Bowman operated across the city, where workers and deliverymen were ready for their daily routes. Chicago passed its first pasteurization law in 1908, making Bowman’s practices for milk delivery the industry standard.

A sepia-tone photo of a line of Bowman Dairy trucks and drivers outside of a 3-story brick building that says "BOWMAN."
A line of Bowman Dairy trucks and drivers outside of a Bowman Dairy building, Chicago, 1915. CHM, ICHi-020259

By 1920, the company was strong enough to acquire another significant local competitor, the Kee & Chapel Dairy Company, which ultimately landed Bowman with expanded operations across the city and nearly 300 commercial routes for milk distribution. It would then expand into the ice cream market by 1938 and would invest heavily into the popularity of the frozen treat, acquiring competitors in Chicago and outside of Illinois in Wisconsin and Ohio. By the middle of the century, along with their profitable dairy operation, the Bowmans officially expanded into the poultry business with the purchase of a poultry farm, thus inaugurating the aptly named “Bowman Dairy Company Egg Division” in 1947.

Charles Creamery Distributing Station for the Bowman Dairy Company, Butter and Egg Department, 159 W. Huron St., Chicago, 1909. Bowman initially partnered with a poultry farm for their venture into eggs and bought the farm when their attempt proved successful. CHM, ICHi-068763

The decline of the Bowman Dairy Company was gradual, beginning with antitrust lawsuits claiming that the company’s size was making it impossible to compete in the region. Changing consumer habits also greatly impacted the company’s efforts, with milk deliveries dramatically decreasing in popularity as dairy products continued to be found in greater supply across supermarkets and grocers. This was compounded by difficult negotiations with the union that represented milk deliverymen, who refused to take decreases in pay and delivery routes. Ultimately, the company and all its holdings would be sold to the dairy conglomerate Dean Foods in 1966. Up until its sale, Bowman remained family owned and operated, overseeing what the company called the “Bowman City,” a network of bottling, production, and distribution centers that brought milk to thousands of consumers across Illinois and the greater Midwest.

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Comments (5)

  1. As a child we had Bowman milk delivered to our home. I remember saving the paper caps from the bottles. Once a year our family took a trip to Kiddyland. The saved caps went with us and they were turned in to get free ride tickets at Kiddyland. Anyone else remember this?

  2. Was the original owner and founder of the Charles Creamery Co. C. W. Williams, from Independence, Iowa? Who was owner of Allerton and Axtell, the fastest harness trotters of 1889 and 1890?

  3. Thanks very much for the article about Bowman Dairy Co. Of course I had heard of Bowman, but I grew up in Hyde Park and our family was served by Wanzer. Back around 1943-47, the Wanzer team was still horse-drawn. It is truly amazing to realize the milkmen would carry their supplies up to the 3rd floor landings like ours and –in some cases do favors for clients. I lived across from Kenwood School and one morning, when the weather started turning nasty I was shocked in kindergarten when our milkman brought in my galoshes. Some time later the milk man took me for a ride around part of his route and then back to to our apartment building. I noticed that the horse seemed docile and “refrigeration” on the wagon was provided by blocks of ice.

  4. Thank you for this fascinating article that tells of my grandfather, Emil Pergande, work life. He started with a horse “that knew the route better than me” so when he was “updated” to an electric truck he didn’t know how to get to his first stop, because he napped while the horse led the way!

  5. My dad, Thomas E. Adamson, Jr. served as Sales Manager and Public Relations Director for nearly 50 years at Bowman Dairy.

    You may recall that Bowman had two legendary spokespeople.
    Buddy and Betty Bowman, husband and wife were little people who wore similar attire to those archers in Robin Hood, including the tights!
    Occasionally Dad would drive them (and me) to a Chicagoland grocery store to meet all the customers and their kids.

    Buddy and Betty would encourage the kids to save the lids from the glass bottles. Once the kids saved enough lids they qualified for free rides at Kiddy Land.

    Another Bowman sponsorship was the Bozo Show. Dad would set up appearances for Bozo.
    He’d pick up Ray Rayner (Bozo). Fortunately I was permitted to ride along! And also go to the show!

    Son of the founder Johnston A. Bowman, Jr. lived on Orrington Avenue in Evanston. We lived on Ashland. So again I’d get another ride.

    We’d pick up Mr Bowman, (who had suffered through polio since childhood) they’d drop me at St. George HS and they’d head to their downtown offices.

    In 1966 Dad transitioned to Deans, then on to other roles within the industry.
    Dad’s connections got me a couple of Dairy jobs, one of which was working for Sun Valley Dairy, who had taken over Bowman routes in Highland Park, Glencoe and Winnetka.
    I started at 4:00 am, loading my truck (1951 Divco), glass bottles, nipping dogs and early morning wildlife.
    Bowman was a good Chicago company!

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