James Polk, Milk Magnate

James T. Polk & American Milk Pasteurization

James T. Polk lived a life that was quite an adventure down to the very end.

Who is James Polk?

Polk was born in Princeton, Indiana on February 25, 1846. He moved to Indianapolis in 1860. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the Indiana Heavy Artillery - 1st Indiana Infantry under the command of Colonel James Winning McMillan - and served for 3 years. Returning home, he decided to make Greenwood his home and married Laura Burdick of Milton, Wisconsin in 1871. The next year, they started to make history.
James T Polk's Best Jersey Milk

It began with canning tomatoes on their kitchen stove, “Polk’s Best” brand of canned vegetables, and delivering them by wagon to local stores and restaurants. It quickly grew into one of biggest canning factories in the midwest, occupying 12 wagons to keep up with deliveries.

Finding a Better Way

Because of the large amount of scrap vegetable product in their ever-increasing canning company, the Polks decided to purchase Holstein and Jersey cows in 1888 and sold the milk from the all vegetable-fed cows to Tanglewood Dairy Company in Indianapolis. In the early 1890s, the Polks decided to buy the dairy and imported their son and daughter-in-law from Detroit to manage the new milk company.
Polks Best Milk Factory

About this time in Europe, pasteurization of milk was starting to become more popular, but it had yet to take off in the United States. Polk decided to use Louis Pasteur’s (1822-1895) pasteurization process originally used for wine (of course) as a standard - and Polk’s Sanitary Milk Company was established. This turned out to be an extremely wise move as it would be over another 30 years before milk pasteurization would be popularized in the United States. While other dairies would have various problems with contamination and disease outbreaks, Polk’s did not.

Fun Fact: Al Capone is the reason  we have expiration dates on milk. 

We can help sell your antique advertising

Laura Polk passed away in 1909 and - after a scandalous affair and eloping to Chicago with a woman half his age who had been a family friend since her teens - James T. Polk passed away in 1919. The canning business had stopped while the dairy became a nationwide phenomenon, increasing in size, scope, and products, with the children building new, distinctive-looking, factories with an army of drivers.
Polk's Best Milk Factory Workers
Polk’s Milk continued up until the late 1950s when it was bought out.

Here's Your Sign

This cow’s head with the famous “Always Ahead” slogan was used quite extensively in the 1920s-40s, and was even painted by Andy Warhol and one of his artists/characters, “Pietro Psaier,” in 1968. This double-sided porcelain sign comes from the 1920s to 1940s, measures 22" and can be found hanging with a bracket at our shop. Find out more.
Polk's Milk Always Ahead advertising sign

Explore our collection of antique porcelain signs

Thanks to the Indy Star, we can take a glimpse inside the Polk's Stable building today.

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