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1925. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company neg. 91531

What better way to promote your milk business than to construct a building flanked by two large milk bottles. Samuel O. Dungan, vice president and general manager of Polk Sanitary Milk Company, had the idea but family lore has it that he could not find contractors willing to build the unusual structure. One day he looked out his window and saw workers laying brick in a cistern. He asked if they could build it upside-down and above ground and this resulted in one of the most unique mimetic structures in Indianapolis. Mimetic buildings are a type of roadside architecture that mimic the product or service sold and bottles are a common building shape, particularly popular in the 1920s and ’30s. Polk’s milk bottle towers were made of white-glazed brick from Brazil, Indiana. A national architecture magazine praised the building, but thought they could have improved the design by including a band of yellow bricks to indicate a layer of cream near the top of the bottle.

The company started in 1872 when Civil War veteran James T. and Laura (Burdick) Polk began canning tomatoes in the kitchen of their Greenwood, Indiana home. Polk drove a horse-drawn buggy into Indianapolis to sell the canned goods to local restaurants, hotels, and the general public. Within a few years the Polks constructed a canning factory in Greenwood and gradually expanded the business to include several branch factories.

Having a large amount of scrap agricultural produce, the Polks purchased a herd of Holstein and Jersey cows in 1888 and sold the milk to Tanglewood Dairy Company in Indianapolis.  In the early 1890s Polk bought out the dairy. He brought his son-in-law and daughter, Samuel O. and Frances Pearl Dungan, from Detroit to manage the new dairy farm and milk company. According to the History of Johnson County (Bowen, 1913), the new business started at 613 E. 16th Street with one delivery wagon. Within eight years the company expanded to eighteen wagons and moved into a new $25,000 building on the corner of College Avenue and E. 16th Street.  By 1910 the company was so successful that it needed even more space and a compound of buildings was constructed on three-quarters of a block on the northeast corner of N. 15th and Lewis Streets. A private railroad spur entered the grounds to help move the 10,000 gallons of milk processed daily in 1913. Over 20,000 families purchased Polk’s Milk, which now had 65 delivery wagons.

Polk's Milk sign (eBay)

Polk’s Milk sign (eBay)

Dungan, who had studied business, had a flare for promotion. Soon after the state-of-the-art milk plant opened at 15th and Lewis Streets, he supplied fifty-three decorated milk delivery wagons for the Indianapolis Trade Association parade. They were led by a fifteen-foot-tall float that replicated the new milk bottle building. Within a few years Dungan adapted the slogan “Polk’s Milk — Always Ahead” featuring the head of a dairy cow. (You can see a couple of Polk’s billboards in other “Then and Now” photographs:  16th and Illinois Streets. Over fifty years later, pop artist Andy Warhol used the logo in a silkscreen on cardboard print.) Education appears to have been part of the company’s mission, and through the years the business hosted public and school tours and lectures on nutrition and child nourishment.

Google Street View, 2011

Google Street View, 2011

The milk company thrived, producing milk, butter, babies’ milk, and “Pok-o-lac,” their trademarked buttermilk. During World War I the company received a large contract to supply dairy products for the government and in the 1920s began canning grapefruit juice. The Dungans managed Polk’s Sanitary Milk Company until their deaths in the 1940s. Due in part to competition from food chains, the business experienced financial hardships in the 1950s and soon closed.

Indianapolis Public Schools acquired the old dairy and used it for maintenance and storage for several years before demolising it in 1967. IPS now uses the site as a parking lot. Fortunately, the brick, three-story stable building that housed Polk’s delivery horses still stands on Lewis Street (and is seen to the far left in the above photos). Today most joggers on the adjacent Monon Trail likely have no recollection of the whimsical milk bottle building that must have elicited chuckles from railroad passengers as the traveled through the city.

30 responses to “Indianapolis Then and Now: Polk Sanitary Milk Company, 1100 E. 15th Street”

  1. Joe Hettle says:

    There is still a Polk building on the Monon just south of 16th St. It has a head cap saying Stables Polk Sanitary Milk Co.

  2. Rick Patton says:

    The Polk Sanitary Dairy Stables still sits on the east side of the Monon. Now owned by the IPS and used for storage you can still see the bricked in stable windows on the north and south side. The horses were stabled on the second and third floor and the wagons were kept on the bottom floor.
    The name is accross the upper portion of the building front.

  3. Steph Mineart says:

    A section of the Polk Dairy building is still around, and until a few years ago, still had a “Polks Dairy” stone-carved sign on it. It’s the building at 1563 Lewis Street, if you look at it on Google Street View. At some point, whoever owns the building took the stone carved sign off and it was laying in the fenced-in empty lot where there are building materials next to the building.

    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=16th+street+and+college,+Indianapolis&hl=en&ll=39.787819,-86.139826&spn=0.001504,0.002881&sll=39.778464,-86.075048&sspn=0.075528,0.092182&t=h&hnear=N+College+Ave+%26+E+16th+St,+Indianapolis,+Marion,+Indiana+46202&z=19&layer=c&cbll=39.787821,-86.139827&panoid=a7QfGPvCLc24QmGUCSsWxA&cbp=11,92.45,,0,-18.75

  4. Steph Mineart says:

    This is a photo I took of the remaining building just after people reported that the sign had been removed.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/98295977@N00/5508622447/in/photolist-9oM8x6

  5. Libby Cierzniak says:

    The brick building that housed the stables still stands immediately east of the Monon in the 1500 block. The stone sign at the top that reads “Stables – Polk Sanitary Milk Co.” was removed by IPS a couple of years ago because it needed to be stabilized (no pun intended), but has now been reinstalled. It’s a wonderful reminder of the horse-and-buggy days.

  6. Sarah says:

    My grandfather and two Uncles delivered milk for the Polk Milk company starting back in the day when the wagons were pulled by the horses…..and my Grandmother worked there as well. The romantic side of the story…..that is where my Grandparents met.

  7. David Brewer says:

    A good friend of mine used to drive a route for Polk after WW2. Woodruff Place was one of his stops. If you go upstairs at the Distillery on Indiana Avenue, you’ll see an old Polk Dairy sign painted on one of the brick walls from when it was an outside wall.

  8. Joan Hostetler says:

    Thanks for sharing, Sarah. Do you have any snapshots of them at work or the building? I’d love to find more photos of the place.

  9. Joan Hostetler says:

    I’ve added a line about the stable. Thanks for sharing that the sign was returned; I was scared when it disappeared that it was gone for good. I wish IPS had not modified the brickwork around the sign (they slightly shortened the parapet above the sign), but at least it was saved.

  10. Joan Hostetler says:

    Thanks for the photos, Steph! I’m a fan of your “big things” blog (http://commonplacebook.com/big-things-photos/big-things-in-indianapolis/) and we share a love for Mr. Bendo. I’d love to find an older snapshot of him so I could write a Then & Now column about the sign. Have you ever seen an old photo of him?

  11. Joan Hostetler says:

    I’ve been told that the stable had a freight elevator to transport the horses to the second and third floors, while others say that the building has ramps. I’ve love to get a tour of the stable some day.

  12. Joan Hostetler says:

    Here is a cool cellulose nitrate toothpick holder advertising the Polk Dairy. It is owned by the Smithsonian: http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1317130

  13. Joan Hostetler says:

    Interesting about the sign. You’ve given me a new excuse to eat at the Distillery.

  14. Steph Mineart says:

    The earliest photos I took of Mr. Bendo were in 1999, I believe. I don’t think I still have those on my site. I’ll try to see if I still have them. I updated my photos with higher resolutions ones from a better camera eventually. Unfortunately, I haven’t been terribly organized. I need to do a round of re-photographing everything in the spring.

  15. Larry Hawkins says:

    I have a photo of ips building then and now/ polk’s dairy
    IPS BUILDING DECORATED WITH MURAL

  16. kelly steinmetz says:

    my father was photographed for polks advertising!! not really sure what year, i would say…1924-1925

  17. Jim Wheeler says:

    My Grandfather worked there, we still have one of the milk bottles from the plant, he actually delivered for the company

  18. Ed says:

    I was interested in the history of a milk bottle that I have with “Polk’s Best” on the bottom. It is one of the old bottles with the “bulb” cream catcher at the top.

  19. Ed Flake says:

    Joan in 1948 or so Polk came out Golden Flake ButterMilk. The driver stopped. on our street to make a delivery. My dad told to him that Golden Flake. was his name. The driver in disbelif ask for ID. He was speachless when he saw my dads license. At that point he gave Golden Flake a free quart of the butter milk. Ed Flake email tankfranklyn@aol.com

  20. Lisa Perry says:

    My grandpa delivered milk for Polk with a horse-drawn wagon. I was told his horse knew the route and when he would hop off the wagon to make a delivery, the horse (at the appropriate time) would continue down the street, turn around, and come back to where my grandpa was located. They would then continue down the street in that opposite direction to make more deliveries. We still have grandpa’s Polk hat and jacket. I would love to tour the old stables building.

  21. Sarah rUSSELL oKEY says:

    My grandfather spoke of taking the horses up to their stalls via an elevator.

  22. Julia Garvey says:

    My husband was born in Indianapolis and he said that at one time his parents rented “Polk mansion” and it was on the old farm land. He said the house had lots of strange things and happenings going on. They heard people walking the halls at night and doors opened or closed. A few of his siblings have told me of experiences they had there. The family didn’t stay long and he said the mansion was demolished not long after. I have researched “Polk mansion” but just get articles about the farm.

  23. Tareena says:

    I have a picture of my dad and his crew when he worked at Polk Milk. Not sure if the date. Could I post it here?

  24. Becky says:

    I was going through items from my mom’s estate. I started researching a Polk quart milk jug with the cream bulb on top. It is so cool to learn all of this about the business in Indianapolis. Thanks to everyone who made comments.

  25. JACK MORGAN says:

    AROUND 1941/42/43/44WHEN I WAS ABOUT 5/6/7 YEARS OLD I USED 2 CARRY AN EMPTY 1 GAL “POLK’S MILK BOTTLE” W/A WIRE/BALE HANDLE ACROSS AN ALFALFA FIELD 2 A FARM OWNED BY GEORGE STEINMEIER ON ALLISONVILLE RD & RETURN W/THAT “POLK’S” MILK JUG FULL OF FRESH UNPASTEURIZED MILK,PROBABLY TWICE A WEEK. THE COST WAS 50 CENTS !!!! THE NEXT MORNING WHEN MY MOM REMOVED IT FROM OUR ICE BOX, SHE ALWAYS REMOVED ABOUT A PINT OF CREAM, BEFORE SHE SERVED THE MILK.
    OCCASIONALLY, I WATCHED JIMMY STEINMEIER MILK THE COWS & SOMTIMES WHEN NO-ONE WAS LOOKING, HE WOULD SQUIRT A QUICK SPURT RITE INTO A NEARBY WAITING CAT’S MOUTH. WELL, SUM OF THE SQUIRT WENT IN THE CAT’S MOUTH & SOME THE CAT HAD 2 LICK OFF IT’S FACE .
    WISH I STILL HAD THAT 100 YEAR OLD BOTTLE W/THE PAINTED RED LABEL & THE VERY COLORFUL CAP.
    WHY DO SUM OF OUR OLDEST MEMORIES,SEEM THE MOST VIVID?

  26. Jo D. says:

    I had a visit to the “milk bottle building” in the early 50’s. And they gave us a bullet pencil as a souvenir. Elementary school field trip.

  27. Martin Stephens says:

    Does either of your relatives recall a George Reiss who I believe was an executive at Polk Milk possible in the 1940’s ?

    Mr. Reiss’s daughter, Margaret, married my uncle James Murray.

  28. Paul Mauldin says:

    I have about 20 unused cardboard bottle plugs that say Polk’s Creamed Buttermilk. I live in south Alabama about 10 miles from the Florida line
    Just curious if any historical person would have any interest in having them? Lmk.

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