Looking back to the 1970’s it seemed like there were a lot more dairy farms in the Marengo-Union area than there are today. The pastures were speckled with cows lazily grazing on green grassy hills. It was a tranquil scene, and occasionally the tranquility was broken for brief moments by the rumbling of trucks with shiny silver tanks shuttling fresh milk from the farms to the processing plants. Little-by little these farms disappeared. According to the book Lost Farms of McHenry County, in the early 1990’s McHenry County dairy farms numbered at around 140, and by 2009 that number dwindled to approximately 32.

The Marengo-Union area has a rich agricultural and dairy farming history, but unfortunately it wasn’t always tranquil and peaceful. During the early part of the 20th Century McHenry County was considered part of the Chicago Milk Shed or Milk District. As early as the 1880’s milk produced in McHenry County quenched the thirst of Chicagoans; and as one observer put it; “a river of milk was flowing down the railroad tracks to Chicago everyday…” The price of milk was negotiated by an organization that represented the farmers--the Milk Producers Association-- and the large Chicago milk companies like Bowman, Borden, Wieland, Wagner, Mix and Natoma-Huntley. These companies were often referred to as the “dealers,” and they would try to secure the lowest price. The perception that the dealers’ goal was to break the Milk Producers Association was widely held by the farmers. During the 1920’s and 1930’s the struggles between the milk producers and the milk dealers often resulted in milk strikes. This month I’m going to write about a particularly rough and violent year in our areas milk production history – 1924.

The last issue of the Marengo Republican News for the year 1923 reported ongoing negotiations between the dealers and the producers. Area farmers were asking for a six month contract price of $2.75 per hundred pounds. The milk dealers countered with a three month contract, but offered no price. As the negotiations continued the producers modified their request to $2.75 for a six month contract, or $2.85 for a three month contract. The smaller milk dealers were willing to accept these terms, but the large milk dealers offered $2.60 on a three month contract. The two sides were far apart, and on January 1, 1924, the farmers went on strike. The January 3, 1924, edition of the Marengo Republican News announced “Milk Strike is Declared, Big Dealers Refuse to Meet Demands of Producers, Strike is Ordered, Local Borden Plant Closed Yesterday.” This was not only a local strike limited to McHenry County; approximately 6,000 farmers participated from Northern Illinois, Southern Wisconsin, and Indiana.

The news of the strike didn’t reach all local farmers immediately. In Marengo some farmers made their deliveries to the Borden Plant on Tuesday the second day of the strike, but by the third day the news sufficiently spread and no deliveries were made resulting in a complete closure of the plant. Marengo area farmers were skimming their milk and feeding the skim to pigs. One by-one almost all of the 20 milk plants in McHenry County closed – the one exception was the plant in Union.

This did not sit well with the milk producers, and hundreds of picketers gathered in Union to block milk deliveries to the plant. The Union farmers turned to the Village government for help, and special officers were put in place to counter the picketers. Union farmers continued their milk deliveries, and no stories of violence or destruction of property were reported in the newspapers.

The two sides continued to meet in Chicago and attempt to negotiate agreeable terms, and after nearly fifteen days a compromise was made. In a marathon negotiations session that started at 8:15 p.m. on January 13, and lasted into the early morning hours of January 14, the farmer’s finally accepted $2.67 ½ per hundred pounds for the next three months; the two sides split the difference between the producers request of $2.75, and the dealers offer of $2.60. The dealers also agreed to an eight cent freight differential bonus for deliveries made within a fifty mile radius of Chicago.

Soon after the deal was reached Bowman Dairy decided to renege on the 8 cent bonus, tempers flared, and a threat to renew the strike was made. The City of Chicago and the milk dealers were under pressure from consumers whose anger was fueled by rumors that during the strike the big milk dealers were purchasing and distributing uninspected milk. Bowman Dairy finally caved in and the strike was finally settled.

As I mentioned earlier in this story 1924 was a rough and violent year for the region’s milk industry. As soon as the January strike was settled the participants were looking ahead three months into the future, and the farmers not completely satisfied with the settlement were threatening a spring milk strike. Next month I’ll continue on this topic and tell the readers how another 1924 milk strike eventually turned deadly in neighboring Garden Prairie.

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