In the 1800s the Gwinnett County economy was based heavily on production of crops on farmland, with an emphasis on cotton. But by the beginning of the 20 th century another potential source of income for farmers had emerged – dairy operations. There were a number of dairies in the Norcross area in the old days, and in this article we will look back at a few of these.
According to the online New Georgia Encyclopedia, in post-Civil War days
Cows were pastured and milked by hand. Milk was cooled in cans in water tanks filled with spring or well water. (Milk was considered adequately cool at a temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit.)
The dairies closest to communities produced fluid milk for the town's population. The dairy farmers were producer-processors, as they produced the milk with their small dairy herds, bottled the milk, and delivered it to their customers. Dairy farms located farther away from the towns produced cream or butter, which could be stored longer and transported more easily than fluid milk.
In the early 1900s many Norcross families kept their own cows to produce milk for family consumption. Jean Robertson Beall recalled that in the 1930s her father kept three cows in a pasture behind their house on Britt Street (their house was across the street from today’s Lillian Webb Park), and milked them twice a day, with the milk being consumed by the family or shared with neighbors.
But there were commercial dairy operations in the Norcross area as well, including:
Norcross Butter and Cheese Manufacturing Company
This is the first commercial dairy operation that is documented in Norcross. Stock was sold to interested parties in early 1895, and the company used the funds raised to build a facility and had it up and running within a few months. By midsummer S. T. McElroy, a prominent resident of Norcross, and President of the company, brought a sample of the butter being produced to the editor of the Herald newspaper in Lawrenceville, who proceeded to praise it in print for its color, solid form and sweet flavor. The creamery had by then established a depot in Atlanta and operated a delivery wagon, and was “competing with the finest Jersey butter on the market.”
The newspaper editor, Mr. Peeples, visited Norcross later that summer and took a tour of the creamery facility while there, accompanied by A. A. Johnson, one of the shareholders. Writing in the next edition of the newspaper, he was highly complimentary of the butter production process employed in the factory:
The building is new and admirably arranged for the business. It is a handsome structure and the outfit cost about $5,000.00. The machinery is run by a stationary engine, and most of the work is done by machinery.
One of the most interesting things to us was the system of separating the cream from the milk. The sweet milk is carried from the vat through the separating process, and only the cream churned. The churning is done by machinery and the butter pressed until it is entirely free from water, which keeps it sweet for days. It is put in pound packages, neatly wrapped in tissue paper and sells in Atlanta for 25 cents per pound.
He also wrote about their cream cheese production – packages were up to 8 pounds in size, and the product required 80 days of ripening prior to sale. At that point the factory was running at about 40% of its maximum capacity, due to the difficulty they had in obtaining adequate raw milk from area suppliers.
The business was located on a one acre lot on the southwest corner of Peachtree (today’s West Peachtree) and Autry Streets by 1897. And their products remained high-quality - the dairymen of Georgia held a convention in Macon in November of that year, where the Norcross Creamery was awarded the second prize in a competition for the best butter produced in the state.
A photo of S. T. McElroy, the creamery president, is shown below.
Despite its early success, the creamery didn’t last very long – it closed by 1899 and its assets were auctioned off in December of that year. Frank Nesbit and other local businessmen purchased the Autry Street property. Years later Frank’s son Noye recalled from his days growing up in Norcross that the creamery building was still standing then, and
In the basement of this building is a room in which the cheese was cured. They bought whole milk from farmers around Norcross, separated it from the cream and fed the skim milk to hogs which were kept in a pasture behind the creamery.
Noye also described a large wooden churn about three feet in diameter in the building that was used to make cheese. His understanding was that creamery operations were discontinued since the heat of summertime in Norcross caused the cheese to mold before it was adequately cured for sale. (Mechanical refrigeration was not feasible in those days, and perhaps shipping ice in to use for cooling would have made the finished product too expensive to sell well.)
Frank Nesbit is shown in the photo below.
Tom Ray’s Dairy
Thompson (Tom) Ray (1856 - 1936) grew up on a farm on the Peachtree Road, on the outskirts of what became the city of Norcross. His father, John Wesley Ray, fought in the Civil War, and J W Ray and his wife Sarah Hamrick lived on the farm until their deaths in the early 20th century.
As a young man Tom Ray farmed with his father. He married Mattie Bostick Ray in 1879 and was a traveling salesman by the time of the 1900 census (a “commercial traveler” in the terminology of the day). In 1903 he and E. L. Barrett worked together to build and run a tannery and leather goods factory in Norcross, the Southern Oak Leather Company. (It was located in the area of town where WestRock had its main offices for some years, and then became Broadstone Junction.)
In the late 1800s Ray and his family lived in a home on North Peachtree Street (shown in the photo below, with the Ray family in front, children Walter, Hugh, Annie and Eula, with their parents Thompson and Mattie Ray.) They built a larger home next door and moved there in the early 1900s. Both Ray houses still stand on North Peachtree, although today the one shown here no longer has the wrap- around front porch shown in the photo.
Tom Ray was involved in another business in the early 1900s – he ran a dairy. John Adams, writing in the book Norcross by Martha Adams and Irene Crapo, describes Mr. Ray’s dairy operations:
He maintained a number of cows in his backyard between his home on North Peachtree Street and the railroad tracks. … Mr. Ray made door to door deliveries throughout Norcross in a Model T pick-up truck. The milk was prepared in quart glass bottles. These bottles had a pasteboard stopper in the top to keep the milk from spilling out. … I recall that he always asked customers to keep the stoppers so he could wash them and reuse them. … The daily delivery was very important since many homes had no refrigeration. Some people would put the fresh milk in a bucket and lower it into the water well [to keep it cool.]
A photo of a recently restored 1915 Ford Model T delivery truck, similar to what Mr. Ray would have used, is shown below.
Mattie Ray, who was three years older than her husband, passed away in 1924, and Thompson Ray lived until 1936.
Son Walter Ray married Annie Tisdale of Alabama and lived there for a few years, but moved back to Norcross when his father was building the tannery. In the 1920s he was employed as the Cashier for the Bank of Norcross, and later the family moved to Atlanta where he was active in furniture sales.
Son Hugh Ray attended the University of Georgia for one year and served in the United States Marines in the early 1900s, and acted as a recruiter for the Marines during World War I (1917-1918) with the rank of sergeant. After the war Hugh Ray moved to eastern Georgia with his wife Marian and family where he as a farmer and merchant.
Daughter Eula married local boy John B. Adams in 1908 and they raised a family in Norcross, where he was employed as a rural mail carrier for many years. The family lived on “Holy Row”, as it was called in the 1920 census (Sunset Drive today.) They moved to Florida in their later years.
Daughter Annie married widower John Henry Peebles, a prominent citizen of Mooresville, AL and former General in the Alabama State Militia. She moved to his residence there after their marriage.
The Carroll Dairy
Both Amos Carroll and Cecile Simpson grew up on farms between Norcross and the Chattahoochee River in the early 1900s. Amos had graduated from the Norcross high school in 1917 and served briefly in the US Army during World War 1. Afterwards he worked as a farm laborer and as a mail carrier on a rural route in the area. Following the couple marriage in 1929 they lived on Norcross-Tucker Road, and then in the mid-1930s moved to the brick home at 185 Lawrenceville Street (currently the Norcross Welcome Center.) They had two sons – Harry Lee, born in 1931 and Bill, born in 1935.
While living on Lawrenceville Street they started with a small dairy operation, keeping a few cows in a pasture behind their home (the area that is currently the Norcross Discovery Garden Park.)
In 1935 the Carrolls decided to expand their dairy operations, and purchased 52 acres of land on the outskirts of Norcross, near the intersection of Langford Road and North Peachtree Street. Mr. Carroll passed away at Christmastime in 1936, but Cecile Carroll, with help mainly from her family – her sons and her father Harry Simpson – carried on with the dairy and other farm operations, concentrating on milk production and local delivery, as well as sales of fruit and pastries, for the next 20 years.
The photo below shows the family home that was on this property (since demolished.) There was also a barn there, and other outbuildings as well.
The Carroll dairy had varying numbers of cows over the year – son Bill recalls that they had around 8 much of the time, but at times there were as many as 13 to 16. They concentrated on Jersey and Guernsey cows, which delivered raw milk with high-cream-content, as was prized by the 30 or so customers that they delivered to in the Norcross area. Most of their customers were individual families, but they also delivered milk to the Garner family’s stores (in downtown Norcross and on Buford Highway) when adequate quantities were available after meeting the needs of their individual customers. (Carl Garner Jr. recalled fondly the good qualities of the raw milk that his family obtained from the Carroll’s dairy.) Sometimes the Carrolls made chocolate-flavored milk to the local schools, and they also would on occasion make special orders of butter for parties and gatherings using individual molds.
Harry Lee Carroll and a neighbor, Major Martin, helped on the farm in its early years, and when Bill Carroll reached his teenage years he helped his mother to deliver the milk to customers as well. He would do this before he went to school in the mornings, using their Model A Ford, and recalls that completing the deliveries often made him late for the start of the school day. During part of high school spelling was his first class of the day, and his memory is that he missed almost every class during one of the school terms due to helping with the dairy delivery duties. (But he still managed to do well in high school, and then went on to college.)
The photo below shows Cecile and Harry Lee Carroll as they were returning from a wintertime hunting trip on the family property. This was taken circa 1942.
Diary operations required daily attention – milking and feeding the cows, and delivering to customers. The Carrolls delivered six days a week to many customers, and even made Sunday deliveries on occasion.
Cecile’s father Harry Simpson moved to live with his daughter several years after her husband Amos died, and in his first years there grew feed for the cattle on the property. However over time the family found that they could purchase cattle feed from others at a competitive cost, so they switched to that approach.
By the 1950s it was becoming more difficult for small dairy operators to do business - state health regulators were raising the standards required for dairy equipment, and were performing time- consuming inspections of dairy operations more often. The Carrolls had always concentrated on purity of product, but the extra regulations from the state drove up the cost and time required for operations. As a result, in 1954, after Harry Lee and Bill left home for other pursuits, Cecile Carroll decided to discontinue her dairy operations. At that point she sold her cows to Hubert Sheriff, who had a farm nearby.
A document written in 1977 on the history of dairies of Gwinnett contained this commentary about the Carroll dairy:
This dairy is the only one in Gwinnett known to have been operated by a woman.
"I tried to keep mostly Jerseys but had 3 registered Guernseys -- they helped keep the butterfat high," she told me. "We milked by hand, and had a route in Norcross." She sold raw milk, buttermilk and butter.
Dr. George Johnson, D.V.M., recalled Mrs. Carroll -- "She did almost everything a man did. She even helped deliver the calves ... she kept her cows well checked -- she milked and bottled the milk and then had a milk route... she was amazing."
After ending the dairy operation Cecile Carroll worked for the state government for another 20 years, in the vital records office in the state health department. (Her relative Ollie Simpson, who lived a short distance from her down North Peachtree Street, was well-connected in the state government, and helped her get this position.)
She was a determined lady, and worked hard to ensure that both her sons got a good education, with Harry Lee attending the University of Georgia, and Bill graduating from Duke University.
Cecile Carroll lived on the Norcross property until her death in 1999; it was then sold by the family, and today is the site of the Bishops Glen subdivision.
The Warbington Dairy
James Lafayette “Jim” Warbington and his wife Nancy Pickens Warbington (shown in the photo below) bought over 200 acres of the “old G. W. Hopkins home place” during the period 1917 – 1924. Jim was the great-grandson of pioneer Gwinnett settler Ellemander Warbington, a veteran of the War of 1812.
This property was near the intersection of Beaver Ruin and Shackleton Roads, a few miles from the center of Norcross, and the house there (shown below) was thought to date back to the 1840s or before. (This home has since been demolished.)
At first the Warbingtons used the land to grow cotton, but circa 1941 they started dairy operations there, run by son Clarence. Rather than deliver milk to individual customers, the Warbingtons sold their milk wholesale, working after 1954 mainly with Atlanta Dairies, which processed milk from multiple sources and sold it into the Atlanta market. The Warbingtons had a milking facility that could handle up to 12 cows at a time, and Atlanta Dairies would send a truck to the farm regularly to pick up their production. In the early days the milk was transported from the farm in large metal cans, but later tanker trucks were used for transport.
Clarence Warbington’s daughter Imogene Mullinax recalls that Interstate 85 was constructed through their farmland in 1959, and that at that point the highway design included a tunnel under the roadway to allow the Warbington family’s cows to move between pastures that were to be separated by the highway. She also recalls that the new road was lightly travelled at first, allowing her father to drive their large farm equipment across the interstate to get it from one part of the farm to another, if needed. However, as the road was extended further north and traffic picked up the use of that shortcut got to be too dangerous to continue using it!
The Warbington family stopped dairy operations and sold the property in 1973, as the farm was starting to be surrounded by commercial properties, and property taxes were going up. Today the land formerly occupied by the dairy is the home of multiple businesses and organizations.