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Dixie Dairy coming down, memories still strong

A view through an open loading dock shows Josh Strominski Gary Material Supply operating an excavator bring down former Dixie

A view through an open loading dock shows Josh Strominski of Gary Material Supply operating an excavator to bring down the former Dixie Dairy Company building at 15th Avenue and Pierce Street in Gary, Ind. Wednesday March 21, 2012. The neighborhood eyesore is finally being demolished. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 23, 2012 11:36AM



GARY — A bright yellow excavator is chipping away at Dixie Dairy, once a landmark business that made fresh milk deliveries during the city’s boom years.

Motorists driving by the site Wednesday rolled down their windows to gape. “Bout time,” one driver yelled.

The city’s Redevelopment Department is demolishing the old dairy at 1200 W. 15th Ave., after years of complaints from neighbors about its deteriorating condition.

City Councilwoman Carolyn Rogers, D-4th, led the charge to knock down the old dairy.

“That’s something residents have been talking to me about over the years. It’s horrendous. The building is partially on the ground.”

She said demolition was begun a few years ago but halted when it was discovered the proper permits hadn’t been issued.

The city’s Redevelopment Department is overseeing the demolition which is being done by Gary Material Supply. A worker said the demolition would take about three weeks.

A survivor’s story

Dixie Dairy beat the odds for decades. It opened in October 1929 — the month the stock market crashed. “It’s kind of a miracle the company survived,” said Dixie Dairy’s former president Thomas Eskilson, 69, who now lives in Zionsville.

He said his grandfather, dairy founder Christian B. Eskilson, kept the company alive by virtue of his reputation and integrity, during the Depression.

He told his family not to worry. “Boys, remember, in every market there will always be room for one or two good independents. Make sure you are one of them.”

A Danish immigrant, Christian Eskilson, who had the equivalent of an eighth-grade education, arrived in the U.S. in 1895.

Four years later, his dairy empire began with two horse-drawn milk routes in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. He soon found a Danish partner and opened a dairy in Beecher, Ill. He purchased bottling operations in Harvey and Chicago Heights and named the business Dixie Dairy Co. in 1922 after the highway his dairies shared.

An immigrant friend told Eskilson about a blossoming city in Northwest Indiana and encouraged him to take a look. Eskilson came to Gary and bought a couple small dairies and then built his largest dairy on 15th Avenue.

The dairy’s last horse-drawn wagon was replaced by a motorized truck in 1939. Eskilson died in 1941 at age 63. His son, Eskil Eskilson and later grandson, Thomas Eskilson, would go on to run the company. At its height, the company employed more than 200 employees.

In the early 1950s while business was strong, Dixie milk cartons were built over brick pillars on the 15th Avenue front of the business. “Miss Dixie,” a little girl holding a carton of milk and an umbrella, adorned the milk cartons.

End of an era

By the 1970s, the dairy market dynamics were changing. Thomas Eskilson, who became president in 1982, said home delivery ended in 1976 as more and more women got jobs. His father, sensing the need to diversify, led the company to establish Zip Foods Inc., a small chain of convenience stores the family later sold.

With his family seeking to cash out their equity, Thomas Eskilson was forced to close the production plant and sell the equipment in 1999.

The dairy was sold in 2000 but the new owner couldn’t secure the necessary financing.

Thomas Eskilson said he remembers learning the business the hard way during in the 1960s.

“I worked summers there, in high school and college. I started on home delivery milk routes. I have the last truck that wasn’t refrigerated.”

Reach reporter Carole Carlson at 648-3154.



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