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Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Jun 21

Carnation Milk Factory in Iredell County

Posted on June 21, 2022 at 2:33 PM by Jenny Levins

Carnation Milk Plant

Carnation Milk Plant has worlds largest milk can on flagpole in 1940 photo by Elbert A. Ammon, Ammon's Studio

The Statesville Record and Landmark carried Augustus Ray Morrow’s obituary on April 6, 1997. He had died in Lumberton, N.C. at the age of 98. The article mentioned that Morrow had once served with the NC Agricultural Extension Service in Montgomery and Iredell counties. At 98, Morrow had outlived the family he grew up in along with his friends and peers. There is no mention of what he was once known for in Iredell County, and few if any remembered that as the Iredell County Farm Agent this man had helped bring Carnation Milk to Iredell and forever change the county’s economy.

On Monday, June 20, 2022, the Iredell County Historical Society will present a special program on Carnation Milk and its importance in Iredell County’s economic development. This free and open program will be held at the Iredell County Agricultural Center at 444 Bristol Drive at 7 p.m. A special survey form for those who have stories or memories of Carnation Milk are available online at https://www.iredell.lib.nc.us/167/Local-History-Genealogy. Printed copies are available in the Local History Room at the library in Statesville and in the Statesville Historical Collection at 212 N. Center Street in Statesville. 

A.R. by Ben Stimson

A.R. Morrow family by Stimson 7

R. Ray Morrow was born in the Amity Hill area of Iredell on April 26, 1898. His parents, Tom and Betty Margaret Brown Morrow were farmers. After serving in WWI, A. Ray Morrow studied Agriculture at N.C. State College where he milked cows to help pay for his education. After graduating in 1921 he became County Agent in Montgomery County, N.C. On Dec. 1, 1925 he returned home to become the Farm Agent for Iredell County. 

The year now is 1937 and County Agent Morrow is worried. Agriculture had been the mainstay of Iredell County’s economy since its creation in 1788. Farming in Iredell County is based on the row crops of tobacco and cotton and the profits from the sale of these products is dropping. Even worse the soil these crops are being grown on is becoming less productive due to years of cultivation and planting. 

Morrow had advocated crop rotation and the planting of grasslands as a way to keep the soil fertile for years, but it wasn’t enough. Many Iredell County farms were second and third generation farms and the farmers themselves farmed the way their parents and grandparents had taught them. In fact, many of the farms looked little different than they did when he was boy.  Many farms still lacked electricity and indoor plumping. 

Morrow wasn’t alone. John W. Wallace, became president of the Statesville Chamber of Commerce in 1937. Industrial growth had helped carry the county’s economy since the 1890’s, but no one was building factories during the depression. Wallace realized modernizing the county’s farm industry was the key to improving Iredell’s economy.

A.R. Morrow family by Stimson 7

A.R. Morrow family by Stimson 7

In speaking with Morrow he learned that there were five thousand farm families in the county. Half were farm-owner families living on their own land while the other half were tenant farmers. The income for these farmers came from the sell perhaps twice a year of the crops they grew. This money had to last the farmer for the entire year and almost none of them kept any type of bookkeeping system to actually know if they were actually making a profit or just breaking even year after year. 

Wallace asked Morrow, “Do you think the pace of our agriculture progress could be quickened by stimulating the farmer’s interest in keeping books, say, by organizing a contest in which the keeping of records would be a primary condition for winning any of the prizes?” The goal he pointed out to Morrow would be to increase the farmers income. Wallace asked if Morrow thought it would be feasible to increase the income for a farm by $100 a year which would be approximately thirty cents a day. Morrow agreed that it was possible and together a plan was made. 

On April 15, 1937, The Landmark carried a full-page ad, “The Statesville Chamber of Commerce Announces ‘A FARM & HOME PROGRESS CONTEST FOR IREDELL COUNTY.” The contest consisted of $2800.00 in cash prizes and would be “Under the Supervision of A.R. Morrow, County Agricultural Agent.” The prize winners would be “those farmers, who, adhering to sound farming practice, increase their net annual income in per cent in the greatest measure over a three-year period.” 

Morrow began an intensive campaign to get farmers to increase their grasslands through regular meetings with farmers and speaking at clubs and events. He pointed out that a thousand farmers adding $100 to their annual income would increase the community’s income by $100,000 and a thousand farmers adding $200 annual income would increase the community’s income by $200,000. The contest received letters of encouragement from N.C. Governor Clyde R. Hoey and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. 

Iredell County farmers favored enriching the soil, but if they planted grass where they used to plant crops how were they to make a living? County Agent Morrow’s believed that to thrive Iredell County farmers needed to transition from being row crop farmers to dairy farmers. Morrow, the Statesville Chamber of Commerce and local Iredell city and county government officials began efforts to have the Carnation Company of Wisconsin chose Statesville as the place to locate the new plant they were planning. What followed was an industrial recruitment campaign that would put today’s efforts to shame. 

Joining in the effort was Chester Edwin Middlesworth who purchased The Statesville Record in early 1938. Middlesworth began running bold large print headlines at the top of the front page of the Record announcing progress with Carnation.  The Aug. 12, 1938 headline read, “MILK PLANT MAY LOCATE IN COUNTY”with news of a visit by the Carnation executives. This was followed by, “SURVEY SENT TO CARNATION” on Aug. 26, 1938. The survey showed there was 4,000 milk cows in Iredell for a creamery with 4,000 more to be easily added. 

On Aug. 26, 1938 The Record headline read, “PLANT MAY OPEN IN COUNTY” and finally on Oct. 28, 1938, The Statesville Record proudly proclaimed, “MILK FIRM TO BUILD PLANT IN STATESVILLE.” By April 3, 1939, The Record was announcing that, “MILK RECEIVING STATIONS OPEN,” while Agent Morrow continued to push for more pastureland with “GOOD PASTURES ROAD TO SUCCESS” in the Aug. 24, 1939 issue. 

Carnation Milk Company had reservations about coming to Iredell, but County Agent Morrow answered them all. It was said that Iredell often suffered from drought and lacked good roads and that the site where Carnation was to build lacked a suitable supply of water. Morrow fought back against these claims pointing out the road system in Iredell County on maps and supplying data on the amount of rainfall each year in the county. He even told the company exactly where to dig their well which when dug produced 300 gallons a minute as told in the Jan. 16, 1939 article “WELL SUCCESSFUL.”

The winners of the Farm Contest were announced in the April 19, 1940 issue of The Statesville Record with the bold front-page headline of, “ANNOUCE WINNERS OF FARM CONTEST.” 

William Morrison Pressly and wife, Eula Bailey Pressly of Shiloh won 1st place. Other winners included Luther Troy Brawley and Mary Elizabeth Lentz Brawley of Barringer and Mr. and Mrs. T.S. Adams of Bethany. Adams pointed to having a power line run into their house, the purchase of a Kelvinator refrigerator and an electric motor to pump water to the house and barn as having improved their lives. 

On the Carnation Milk plant Adams said, “I consider this milk plant the greatest forward step Iredell County has taken in a generation. We are milking four cows and expect to add more to our herd as we get more pasture and grow more feed.” Those supplying milk to Carnation were being paid once every two weeks. A tobacco farmer who previously had sold his main cash crop once a year now for the first time had a steady influx of cash. 

Once Carnation had chosen Iredell County as the location of their milk plant and creamery Statesville celebrated. The Sept. 16, 1940 headline in The Statesville Record read, “EXPECT THOUSANDS ON CARNATION DAY.” On Oct. 2, 1940 the Carnation Plant had its formal opening and the following day The Record congratulated Carnation on their choice of Statesville on Oct. 3, 1940 with the headline, “CARNATION PLANT HERE WISE MOVE.” 

By February 1941, The Statesville Daily Record had started putting, “Published in the Heart of the Dairying and Industrial Centers of Piedmont North Carolina” on the front page above the newspapers title. The Landmark and the Statesville Daily Record merged and published the first issue of the Statesville Record and Landmark on May 6, 1954 continuing to carry the dairying slogan above the title.

In 1944 for the first time in N.C.’s history the state produced enough milk for both home consumption and export to other states. By 1946 Iredell County had more dairy cows than any county in N.C. and some 10,000 cows were being milked every day. In 1947 the N.C. Dept. of Agriculture reported that there were more than 350,000 dairy cows on N.C. farms which produced 175 million gallons of milk.

Iredell County kept its support of Carnation and the dairy industry going when it held a Dairyland Festival on May 29-30, 1952. There was a parade downtown of dairy cows and movie cowboy, Don (Red) Barry. A dairy beauty queen pageant was held and a square dance on West Broad was attended by several thousand. R.D. Warwick, secretary of the Statesville Chamber of Commerce proclaimed that dairy in N.C. was a $3,000,000 a year industry. In 1954 more than 300 dairies existed in Iredell making it the leading dairy county in N.C. 

By the mid-1950s the dairy industry began to decline due to overproduction. Local county agents across the state and in Iredell gradually transitioned the local farmers from raising dairy cows to Hereford (white-face) beef cattle. By 1956, Iredell ranked fourth in the state in the number of Hereford farms and by August 1958 Iredell County was receiving more gross income from livestock and livestock products than from crops. During the 1950s and 1960s, more than 35,000 gallons of milk was being received each day at the Statesville Carnation plant. 

County Farm Agent Augustus Ray Morrow resigned as the Iredell County Agent on Sept. 1, 1943. Upon his resignation The July 29, 1943 issue of The Landmark praised Morrow saying, “One of the outstanding monuments to Mr. Morrow’s work in his native county of Iredell was the part he took in bringing the Carnation Company’s milk plant to Statesville.”