While repairing a Dupont Circle area building that was constructed around 1870, we found an old-fashioned, pint-size clear glass milk bottle. In letters molded on the front it reads: “Chestnut Farms, Chevy Chase Dairy, Washington, D.C.” Letters on the back read: “Safe Milk for Babies!”
It took me back to the days of my childhood, when milk and other dairy products were delivered door to door. But a dairy in Chevy Chase? That must go way back. Please help me know how recently there may have been such an establishment in an area that now seems thoroughly urban.
— David Mack, Washington
Before we get too far, allow Answer Man to remind everyone of the difference between a dairy farm and a dairy. The former is where the cows live and are milked. The latter is where the milk is processed. By the time that milk bottle was last filled there was probably more pasteurizing than pasturing going on in Washington.
Not that there weren’t once dairy cows within the city limits. Very early on, of course, people had their own cow, or access to one. Wandering farm animals were such a nuisance that in 1827 a fence was erected around the Capitol to keep cattle out. Later, the city fathers decreed that livestock could not be kept south of Boundary Road, today’s Florida Avenue. As a consequence, many animals were kept just north of the border in a sort of barnyardesque safe zone, giving the neighborhood the nickname Cowtown.
The dairy in question resulted from the merger of two companies. Brothers George and Joseph Wise started Chevy Chase Dairy in 1885. As far as Answer Man can tell, they didn’t have a dairy or a farm in Chevy Chase, but they took the name from the fact that they lived in Chevy Chase, in a house on Western Avenue that straddled the District line. They originally kept their cows in pastures on Murdock Mill Road in Tenleytown and Belt Road in Friendship Heights, two fairly urban areas today. The plant where the milk was processed was on N Street in Georgetown.
The Chestnut Farms Dairy was started by George Oyster Jr., whose father ran a produce stand at the Center Market. The story goes that one day young George took a trip to New York and experienced whipped cream for the first time. According to a company history, “It was a product unknown in Washington, D.C.”
Oyster found a place near Philadelphia — Chestnut Farms — that could supply the treat, and Washingtonians literally ate it up. He eventually dropped the produce side of the business and opened a dairy at 1116 Connecticut Ave. NW (across from today’s Mayflower Hotel) to process milk products. By 1908, Chestnut Farms was selling 1,000 gallons of white gold daily.
Chevy Chase and Chestnut Farms were just two of a dozen or more dairies in town. There was Standard Dairy at 1333 14th St. NW, Jersey Dairy at 460 K St. NW and Model Farms Dairy at 4115 Kansas Ave. NW. One of the largest was Thompson’s Honor Dairy, whose first plant was at 511 4 1 / 2 St. SW, a location that put it near the Southwest waterfront and boats bearing milk from Northern Virginia. Thompson’s newsletter was called the Monthly Moo and featured a column called From the Top o’ the Bottle.
In 1931, Chevy Chase Dairy was acquired by National Dairy Products Corp., which had already bought Chestnut Farms Dairy. The combined operation was run out of a plant at 26th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
In 1950, it was estimated that Washington’s “milkshed” — the dairy farms within a 150-mile radius of the city — provided 180,000 gallons of milk a day for D.C. residents. But times were changing, as times usually do. While in the 1920s nearly all milk was delivered to the home by milkmen, by 1963 that share had dropped to 30 percent. By 1971, it was only 15 percent. Fuel was expensive, traffic was bad and you could buy milk in cartons at the supermarket. One company — Damon — soldiered on for a while but stopped delivering milk to homes in 1983. Chestnut Farms Chevy Chase became part of the Sealtest dairy empire.
The Chestnut Farms Chevy Chase Dairy may be gone, but an unexpected descendant remains. Dairies — indeed pretty much every blue-collar workplace — used to sponsor all sorts of extracurricular activities for employees, from baseball teams to orchestras. Chestnut Farms Chevy Chase Dairy had a brass band. In 1938, the band played in the stands of Griffith Stadium during a football game. The owner of the team liked the idea of entertaining the fans so much that he signed them up to play regularly. The owner was George Preston Marshall, the team was the Redskins and the band became the Redskins Marching Band.
Now, drink your milk.