Milk Run

When Willow Farm Dairy closed in 1970, Brookfield's lost the last link to its rural past

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This is more than just a story about one of the first dairies in Brookfield, with its roots going back to 1890, when the village was still newly named as Grossdale. It is also about a family-run business that for 80 years served the needs of this and other communities.

Before 1890, Jon and Mary Polivka, with a number of other Polivkas, left Czechoslovakia and came to the United States, settling in the central part of Wisconsin, in Adams county. They were all potato farmers.

However, the Polivkas' crops were not sufficient to live off of, so Jon, Mary and their children-Peter J., Edward J., Jack II, George, Robert E., Richard, Agnes and Mary-left Wisconsin, coming to live in a square farmhouse with a barn on 47th Street and Plainfield Road. At the time. those streets were little more than dirt paths.

Jon became "Jack," the first of the Polivkas here. It is not known whether he tried growing potatoes here. Jack Polivka III, in a 1990 interview with Brookfield's Words Passed Oral History Group stated, "My grandfather [Jon] went to work for Stubbin's Greenhouse, which was located on Plainfield Road near First Avenue. He worked for 50 cents a day, seven days a week."

But the Polivkas were farmers and soon set up a hay, feed, and grain business while farming in the area. And what an area it was. At one time, they grew crops on about 700 acres, including the future Reynolds Aluminum plant site, which they leased. Local residents recalled the farm extending to and around Congress Park School at Shields and Raymond avenues.

Their crops were hay, oats and feed, which they took into Chicago and sold to the breweries. While this was happening, the Polivka children were attending Washington School in Lyons, carrying their schoolbooks and walking across the prairies. As they went, they passed small dwellings that housed the families of workers employed at the nearby quarry.

Jack Polivka III recalled that the people living along the children's route "used to ask them, because they had cows, if they would bring them milk. [The Polivkas] started out with just enough milk for themselves, and then they added more cows."

The milk was brought around on the way to school in tin buckets, and the empty buckets were left at the last house. After school, the children, still hauling their books, picked up and brought back the empty buckets.

"In those days," added Jack III, "people finished their milk generally the first day, because it was not pasteurized, and you had to use it as quickly as possible so that it didn't sour."

The family-run business, now with a milk delivery sideline, went on a daily schedule. Jack III agreed that "the Polivka boys used to work pretty hard working seven days a week. Saturday night was usually the night to go out and howl. They used to like to go to carnivals, going on at the southeast corner of Joliet Road and 47th Street.

"My father [Jack II] used to be a wild guy, and he would take on the Masked Marvel in boxing or wrestling. And the wrestlers who belonged to this carnival were greased, so you couldn't get ahold of them. They gave a prize to the person who could beat them. Most of the Polivka brothers were out there having a good time, and there was a big crowd in the tent. My father happened to win, and they wouldn't pay him the prize of $5 or $10.

"The brothers incited the crowd, and everyone started shaking the tent poles, and they almost pulled the whole tent down until they paid [my father] the money that was due him."

In the early 1900s and on, the milk delivery business expanded, but the hay, feed, and grain sales still remained very important, even as late as the 1930s. The Polivka Brothers Dairy officially opened in 1914. Milk was delivered by sleigh during the winter, and, during the summer, milk was kept cool by ice. The six boys and two girls went down to the Des Plaines River, cut out blocks of ice, and then transported them back to the ice room at the dairy.

By July 28, 1917, the dairy was advertising in the Suburban Magnet newspaper: "Pure Milk and Cream Deliveries Made in Brookfield, Congress Park, and Hollywood Daily. Postoffice address: LaGrange, Ill."

Though the dairy was within the unincorporated borders of Brookfield, mail was picked up by employees in LaGrange, on their way to work each day, at that post office. One story goes, that after the turn of the century, the dairy asked the Congress Park post office to deliver the mail over to them, but the post office refused, so the dairy chose LaGrange, instead.

Why someone couldn't have picked up the mail at Congress Park remains a mystery. Furthermore, there may have been another, unknown reason, for the odd addressing style, especially since Brookfield didn't even have a house mail delivery system until the middle 1920s.

A large ad in the Feb. 11, 1921 Suburban Magnet declared that "The Famous Red Comb Poultry Feed!" was now available by the Polivka Brothers, who were now proprietors of the Economy Feed Company at the same address. "Deliveries made promptly to all parts of LaGrange, Brookfield, and Western Springs-All Kinds of Cattle and Poultry Feeds."

The Polivkas were also offering for sale "Beef Scraps, Bone Meal, Grit, Clam Shells, Charcoal, Baled Hay, and Baled Straw."

An even larger ad in the June 27, 1927 Magnet begged that "For the Children's Sake, Give Them Willow Farm Highest Test Pasteurized Milk. A Recent LaGrange Laboratory Test has shown that the Willow Farm contained the highest ratio of nutritious elements among many submitted to the most exhaustive scientific test. The moral is obvious. Nothing is too good for the growing child, especially during the summer months."

Though the Polivka Brothers Dairy name was still being used, the Willow Farm name was slowly taking over. In an interview earlier this month, Jack III said, "Drivers would drive up to the dairy, with willow trees around along the driveway. And there would be the dairy on the left, and, on the right, the willow trees. While they waited in line for milk to be loaded, the drivers would cut off pieces of willow and make whistles from the willow trees."

The 1920s were boom times for the Polivkas, and they built a new milk processing plant that opened in 1929. Now the new building, with its striped canvas window awnings and homey front entrance, read Willow Farm Products, a name that was to endure for another 40 years.

Horse-drawn milk wagons were, in the 1930s, joined by motorized vans. The familiar old clop-clop was sometimes replaced by the hum of an engine and the squeak of brakes. At least the empty and full glass milk bottles were still clinking in the early morning hours. Also making its appearance in the 1930s was the Willow Farm Dairy's new motto, "Real Milk-Taste the Difference."

In 1937, "guarded milk" was introduced, with a sealed and sterilized paper "Sealon" hood that protected the purity of the milk, even during delivery. It was to become the well-known covering over a top of a milk bottle that you had to unwrap first, before you pried off the inside paper cap. Willow Farm was always a leader in trying out new methods.

During World War II, the business was only a little affected by the gas and rubber rationing. The dairy's eight horses in the red barn were used more than ever, pulling the old milk wagons to deliver in Brookfield, LaGrange and LaGrange Park.

Jack Polivka III recalled that "the last of these horses to be used was named Bonnie. Sometimes she'd escape from the barn and run around. Kids would ride her bareback, and she'd trot around on 47th Street, where she almost got hit a couple of times."

As new housing boomed in Brookfield during the 1950s, the increased number of babies and growing children needed plenty of milk. The dairy prospered, still delivering seven days a week, and the milkmen were still getting up at 3 a.m. Jack III went on his first milk route in 1950, "broken in" by his Uncle Richard. In 1990, Jack could still pass by houses and remember how many half gallons of milk that particular house took.

Milkmen's duties sometimes went beyond just delivering the product. A milkman might receive an unusual note in an emptied bottle, asking "Please feed my cat. Crawl in through the back window." Other times, he might be asked "to take care of the kids."

"Taking care of the kids" was done in another way, too. The Willow Farm Dairy used to deliver half-pint cartons of milk to Brookfield schools.

By the 1960s, Willow Farm was the eighth largest dairy in the Chicagoland area, with deliveries extending as far north as Palatine and Arlington Heights. Curiously, in all this time, the dairy had never had a logo, or a permanent symbol associated with it. Then came Willow Farm Willie, by 1961, who looked like a chubby-cheeked kid wearing a straw hat and overalls.

The little piece of straw dangling from his mouth was said, by Jack Polivka III, to be "my claim to fame. When I was in college, I used to, in the summertime, work on the farm, and I always had a piece of grass or something hanging out of the side of my mouth. I was the one who said to the artist, then-I'd like you to incorporate that as part of our picture. So he did."

Willie was put on all the dairy's products, including the half-gallon orange juice bottle.

In the early 1930s, the growing list of employees made their initial contact with members of Chicago Local 753 of the Milk Drivers' Union. Some 18 to 20 drivers became unionized in a most interesting way. Jack III remembered in 1990 that "the employees were invited to an 'introductory meeting' about the union, and were detained until they decided to join. Uncle George Polivka aided their release by agreeing to pay $1,800 in 'dues' to the Local 753 in exchange for the return of his work force."

The dairy reached its peak of 194 drivers in 1967. What had begun with two parents, eight children and a couple of cows had grown to a staff of 327 people. All but one, Jack Polivka III, the last president of the dairy, were members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union.

The year before, in 1966, the dairy had made a large investment in highly automated equipment. Eventually 21 employees lost their jobs due to this. The union complained, and no more jobs were cut until November 1969, after the dairy, now on the verge of bankruptcy, filed for reorganization of its assets.

What had brought such a large dairy operation to this point? The advent of large supermarket dairy coolers, service station mini-markets and the ability to keep milk fresh for longer periods were all given as the reasons, combined together with the preference for disposable packaging, instead of the old-fashioned breakable glass containers. The dairy closed forever on Dec. 31, 1970.

The last paper milk cartons were run off on the machinery on April 24, 1970. The empty cartons were sealed up as souvenirs for the future. The Polivkas sold them, as well as glass bottles and even butter crocks, in their yearly Red Barn Antiques sales held in the late 1980s. They were collector's items back then, and are even more so today.

"Save them," says Jack Polivka III, age 80. "They're worth a lot of money."

Maybe so, but they're worth a lot of memories, too.

Reader Comments

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Gary Sharapata from Prosper, Texas  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 9:48 AM

Loved reading this article a few years ago and it popped up again. My dad, Len Sharapata, Uncles Bob & Adolph Sharapata all came from Friendship, Wisconsin in the late 1920s and went to work for Willow Farm as they were relatives of the Polivakas through their mother's side of the family. In the late 1930s, brother Bob decided he wanted to have his own Milk route and developed one buying milk, cream and butter from Willow Farm. Dairy. My dad Len soon followed developing his own route which now the two of them were developing into a nice little business which they named Marquette Farms. They decided to keeping developing more routes and buying all their products from Willow Farms Dairy. In the early 1940s when the war started Bob decided to move back to Wisconsin to help their parents on the farm and brother Adolph and friend Cliff Higgley joined Len as co-owners and grew the business building a large building next to Willow Farm for offices, truck garage and ice house. The company grew into a major home delivery dairy business through the 1940s - 1960s with other family offspring joining the business. They even started another separate business call Golden York Egg Farm which provided eggs to restaurants, hospitals and nursing homes. In the late 1960s Willow Farm bought out Marquette Farms and most of the owners retired. As you read in the Willow Farm story, Willow Farm Dairy ended up going bankrupt in the early 1970s. I was teenage in the mid 1960s and remember going down to the dairy on weekends and in the summer to wash the delivery trucks. Also had an opportunity to drink a lot of samples of chocolate milk! Those were great times back then.......

Eileen Tendick Perry  

Posted: September 30th, 2017 3:35 PM

I have had a large milk can sitting on my porch for years and I recently decided to repaint but first I wanted to remove the layers of avocado green, gold and white paint. I uncovered the name Willow Dairy Products La Grange ILL. and under the handles are what seem to be initials, AC. Does anyone know what that could mean? My grandfather was a small diary farmer in Springfield ILL for a long time and its nice to have a small piece of that part of history.

Pam Stacey  

Posted: August 9th, 2017 8:47 PM

Does anyone remember the last year a horse would have been in that barn?

Mary Schuster-Callison  

Posted: March 18th, 2017 2:58 PM

I just picked up a large metal Milk Can today out in Paw Paw IL. It Says Willow Farm Prod. La Grange IL. It was a cool find since my family has lived in the Riverside family since the late 1800s. Makes me wonder if they bought milk or other items from that dairy =) A cool history lesson today!

Mike Andrew  

Posted: December 20th, 2016 6:10 PM

It's always awesome to read something about the Dairy, my grandfather and our family. Reading his quotes throughout are as if I'm hearing them straight from his lips. Thank you for the wonderful memories. - Mike Polivka Jack III's grandson

Jeanne Meyer Fitzgerald from Green Lake Wiconsin  

Posted: September 26th, 2016 11:59 AM

The Fitzgerald family was a big part of Marquette and Willow Farm. Bill, Tom, Steve and Denny all where milkmen. Denny went to Berwyn and then to Jewel. Denny and Steve still talk about those days with their fathers Ton and Bill Fitzgerald at Marquette

Glenn Thoele from Sullivan Wisconsin  

Posted: September 21st, 2016 9:47 PM

My dad Chuck Thoele and my Uncle Hank where milkmen at the dairy in the 60's. Then they left and went over to Beewyn dairy. Great memories.

Ladyphylandus Cook  

Posted: October 11th, 2015 9:26 AM

I love this story and they are a beautiful family.

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