Growing up in Kansas, some of my fondest memories were those made on my grandparent’s farm. My grandfather worked in the oilfields, farmed, and performed other odd jobs to support his family of six. My dad, who passed several years ago, told me the story of how my grandfather helped clean up an old dairy located in Bartlesville, Oklahoma that closed in the 1960’s.
Home Milk Delivery
Much like the rest of America at the time, Bartlesville residents enjoyed the convenience of home milk deliveries throughout the first half of the 1900s. Located in the northeast corner of The Sooner State, Bartlesville residents enjoyed the original version of the “farm to table” experience. Fresh milk was supplied by nearby dairy farms, then bottled and sold by dairy companies. Once delivered, the chilled milk was quickly relocated from the residents’ doorsteps to their iceboxes, where it would remain chilled until consumption.
With the introduction of reliable power refrigeration in the early 1950s, home milk delivery service slipped into an irreversible decline across all of America. Bartlesville was no different, as various dairies and creameries came and went, all trying to adapt to the rapidly changing consumer market.
Of all the dairies and creameries that once proudly served Bartlesville, there’s one of particular interest to this story: Top-Hand Dairies.
Bartlesville’s Dairies and Creameries
Debbie Neece, the Bartlesville Area History Museum’s Collections Manager, has extensively researched and written about Bartlesville’s dairies and creameries. In fact, this subject is so important to the local community, that the museum staff created an entire exhibit dedicated to the dairies and creameries of Bartlesville.
Asked why an entire exhibit was dedicated to the subject, Neece said:
“It’s a subject dear to the hearts of people who grew up here and have fond memories of the sweet treats.”
In an article written for the Bartlesville Monthly Magazine, Neece carefully documents the city’s once thriving dairy business and Bartlesville’s love affair with locally sourced ice cream and dairy products; and the establishments that served them.
The roots that would eventually give rise to the Top-Hand Dairies were planted in 1903, by Harry McClintock, who founded the Crystal Ice and Cold Storage Company. It was his ice that would later provide the ice in the ice cream enjoyed by those living in, or passing through, Bartlesville.
In 1924, the Crystal Creamery opened its doors; selling, serving, and delivering ice cream, butter, and other dairy products. The creamery was soon replaced by Western Creameries Inc., operating at the same location from 1930-1940.
In 1940, along came The Glencliff Company, replacing the previous tenant, Western Creameries Inc.
Like its predecessors, Glencliff also produced and sold ice cream and other dairy products. Glencliff continued its operations until 1948. Two years later, the building was purchased by none other than The Crystal Creamery; then operated by McClintock’s son, Edward.
The creamery wasted no time in drumming up support from its fan base, launching a contest that gave its loyal patrons the chance to vote on the name of the new dairy. The winner? You guessed it, Top-Hand Dairies!
The Crystal Creamery continued to operate Top-Hand Dairies until 1957; after which, the creamery and the building that housed it, exchanged hands twice more to two different dairy-based companies. The last of those companies, was Top-Hand Creamery, who operated until 1968 before closing its doors for good.
Amassing Thousands of Milk Bottles
Left behind after closing was a large inventory of unused quart and half gallon milk bottles; all of which were in near mint condition. My dad fondly recalled how his father would come home nearly every night with milk bottles haphazardly packed into the back of his pickup truck. At that rate, it didn’t take him long to fill up several outbuildings on the family farm.
As a kid, I spent many days on the farm making memories that I still hold dear today. I vividly recall the old outbuildings on the property―buildings that had seen better days. One such building had proudly stored tack and feed in its earlier years; only to have slowly decayed into a dilapidated graveyard for thousands of milk bottles. In fact, there were so many bottles packed into that fragile building that they were spilling out from under the foundation, through broken windows, and every other opening in which they could escape.
In wonderment, I would always ask my grandmother about those milk bottles. As I’ve come to appreciate, she had a great love and appreciation for things of the past and would always tell me…
“They don’t make those anymore and one day they may be worth something to someone.”
In years’ time, my grandmother decided to sell the family farm and moved closer to town. As part of the move, she held an auction and sold many of the items from the farm. However, of all the items that were sold, there were a few thousand things she didn’t sell. You guessed it, those milk bottles!
When it came time to move to her new home, she had several high school boys pack all the milk bottles into banana boxes and transport them to her new residence. There, they were stored in an old run-down house, as well as several other outbuildings located on the new property. To this day, I can remember me and my dad joking about how we would end up owning all those bottles someday.
Fast forward to 2002. My grandmother passed away and my dad and I ended up buying the property from her estate. And yes, we ended up with all of those milk bottles! And that was in addition to a 40×60 Morton building full of old treasures that she had collected over her lifetime.
I’ve sold many of those bottles through the years on eBay; and on occasion, a banana box or two at a consignment auction. Buyers have purchased the bottles to be used as drink pitchers, flower vases in weddings, anniversary receptions, as well as theater props. And for those collectors into western décor, the painted label featuring the cowboy and lasso have always been a favorite.
Despite those sales, I still have a few… thousand bottles in storage. I have to laugh when I look at the inventory that remains. I will never in my lifetime, or my kids’ lifetime, run out of bottles to sell. In fact, like I did with my dad, I joke with my kids that they’ll end up owning those bottles someday!
Visit Bartlesville & Buy a Top-Hand Dairy Bottle
When traveling through Oklahoma, Debbie Neece and the city of Bartlesville would like to invite you to visit the Bartlesville Area History Museum, located at 401 S. Johnstone Ave., 5th Floor, Bartlesville, OK 74006.
And if you’re interested in purchasing one, ten, or a thousand milk bottles, please let us know through our contact page, and we’ll gladly put you in touch with Shane! Of if you prefer, you may contact Shane directly via email.
This article was written by Shane McElroy, edited by Will Adams, with contributions by Debbie Neece.