What happens to the colorful dairy farm yard signs when the farm no longer ships milk, the milk is shipped to a different dairy plant or a newly designed sign comes along? Some of them have ended up in the hands of collector Richard Schwartz.
Schwartz is a lifetime Manitowoc County resident who, starting at age 17, has hauled milk for many employers and to many plants for over 51 years. Since August of 1987, he has collected 156 signs that, as a whole, track much of the history of the names of dairy plants and dairy sector organizations in east-central and northeast Wisconsin.
Many of the signs have been acquired by simply asking for them or paying a nominal amount in many cases (or up to $130 to $140 for some of them). Schwartz obtained some signs at farm auctions and others through an antique dealer at Plymouth. Those signs served to identify the farm and to promote the dairy plant or organization.
Because of his intense interest in and direct acquaintance with many of the dairy plants and organizations in the region, Schwartz shared his knowledge and displayed some of the signs during two presentations to historical societies in conjunction with June Dairy Month — a session sponsored by the Kiel Historical Society and a presentation at Lakeshore Technical College, which was sponsored by Greater Centerville Historians.
Many of the people in both audiences were retired or active dairy farmers; current or former milk haulers; or dairy plant field representatives. In a few cases, the signs that Schwartz showed came from the farm of attendees at the presentations.
Most of the signs were made of wood, plastic, metal or fiber. The materials and the painting of the signs cost over $100 for most of them, Schwartz said. They were provided by the milk plant for the most part, but some of the buyers or processors required the farm owner to pay for the sign. He noted that the most elaborate signs cost up to $300 to $450 apiece.
Although a yellow Golden Guernsey sign was the first one he acquired, Schwartz has more Lake to Lake and Land O'Lakes signs than of any other brand, company or organization name. Lake to Lake, now a division of Land O'Lakes, was formed as a cooperative in the mid-1940s and became the leading dairy entity in the region between and around lakes Michigan and Winnebago. During its history, it had well over 2,000 different member farms in the area and continues to operate a major cheese and whey plant in Kiel, while its cheese facility in Denmark is set to close later this year.
Schwartz pointed out the artwork on the first edition of the Lake to Lake signs showed not only sailboats but also whales in Lake Michigan. The next set of Lake to Lake signs no longer had the whales.
As the Lake to Lake and Land O'Lakes signs evolved, one innovation was to identify the farms whose owners were among the charter members of the new cooperative. Some of the signs were from smaller cooperatives or dairy processors that became a part of Lake to Lake.
Names that not many people living today would remember but for which Schwartz has a sign are Fischl in Manitowoc, Kornely Country Fresh Milk in Manitowoc, Modern Dairy in Sheboygan, United Foods, Ellisville Co-op, Hawthorn Mellody, Osman Dairy Co-op, Fairview Cheese and Alaska Farmer's Co-op. Among the milk testing and dairy service organizations that have become part of a new entity are Manitowoc Milk Producers Cooperative, the Milwaukee Cooperative Milk Producers and Family Dairies USA.
Those which are out of business for various reasons include Kasson Cheese, Steve's Cheese, Tolibia Cheese, Potts Blue Star Cheese, Branch Cheese, Western Cheese, Sealtest, Schneider Cheese and White Clover. In addition to Golden Guernsey, the dairy operations for which Schwartz has signs but that are now part of another national or international entity include Krohn's Dairy, Verifine, Alto Co-op and Morning Glory.
Dairy operations still in business under the name for which Schwartz has at least one sign include Dean Foods, Sartori Foods (formerly S&R), Baker Cheese, Cascade Cheese, Gibbsville Cheese, Bel Gioioso, Henning Cheese, Foremost Farms, Dairy Farmers of America, Agropur, Organic Valley, Tri State Milk, Cedar Valley Cheese, Trega Foods, Lamers Dairy, Cedarburg Dairy, Grande Cheese and Arla Foods.
Other names of dairy processors or organizations which are in Schwartz's sign collection are Frigo Cheese, Sorrento Lactalis, Thiel's, Swiss Valley, Scenic Central, Tri State Milk (catering to colored breed herds), Wisconsin Organics, Hansen's Dairy of Green Bay, Simon's Cheese, Southern Milk Sales and National Farmers Organization. Although he has focused on dairy entities operating in Wisconsin, Schwartz has obtained signs for the Darigold Co-op (in Washington) and the Michigan Milk Producers Association through trades or special circumstances.
During his recent presentations, Schwartz also invited the attendees to browse through his historical albums of photos of milk trucks and drivers who have operated in east-central Wisconsin. He also has numerous newspaper clippings on subjects pertaining to the dairy industry in the area.
There are other signs Schwartz would like to obtain, but he acknowledged that his existing methods of persuasion have not succeeded in prying them away from the owner(s). In addition to the dairy sector signs, he has collected about two dozen seed company signs.