Polk’s history was a sanitary one

The unique building which housed the Polk Sanitary Milk Co. stood on the 1100 block of East 15th Street.
Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society


If you had lived on short 15th Street on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis 100 years ago, you would have undoubtedly used the Polk Sanitary Milk Co. as a landmark. Which is to say that you could have given directions to your house something like this: “Turn left at the giant milk bottles.”

Built in 1910, a couple of decades after James Polk founded the company in the 1890s, the Polk Sanitary Milk Co. building was fanciful on the outside and ultramodern on the inside. Polk – not the one who became president of the United States – opened his first milk company at 613 E. 16th St. in Indianapolis, but by 1910 he had expanded to a brand-spanking new building that, in combination with the company manufacturing establishment to the north and a large garage and wagon shed to the east, covered most of the north side of the 1100 block of 15th Street.

According to the 1914 Indianapolis Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, the two-story brick building with three-story “Br[ick] towers the form of milk bottles” on each corner, had offices in the milk bottle towers and a laboratory, can and bottle-washing room, butter room, cold storage, and sales offices elsewhere in the building.” Behind the conceptually thematic building was a large brick factory where the freezing room, machine shop, boiler and storage were located.

Polk was the city’s largest milk distributor by the time the company built its milk bottle towers. According to a Board of Health report in 1909, Polk’s company raised few dairy cattle but purchased milk from 175 producers. It was a successful business, but the Board of Health review of the factory was not favorable that year. Inspectors said Polk was not pasteurizing its milk at a high enough temperature to make it safe.

Changes needed to be made and Polk was up to the challenge. In 1914, the company was advertising in The Indianapolis News its “special centrifugal filtration process. This in addition to eight different strainings. Polk’s Milk is the only milk sold in Indianapolis that is clarified.” The ad went on to report “additional safeguards,” which included: “Aeration . . . Bacteriological testing . . . Standardizing . . . Bottle washing by hand and powerful special machines. 35,000 bottles daily washed TEN TIMES . . . Bottling and capping by machinery without contact by human hands . . . [and] Refrigeration.” The company also promised prompt delivery by their 65 service wagons.

By 1915, “Polk’s Nursery Milk” was officially endorsed by the Children’s Aid Association of Indianapolis. All milk used by the association would come from Polk, the association had declared. “The milk will be a distinctive product handled under the direction of physicians and will be confined to the milk of four herds of tuberculin tested free cows,” according to that year’s Indianapolis Medical Journal.

That same year, 1915, an article about the firm was published in the trade journal, Milk Plant Monthly. “Polk’s Sanitary Milk Company started 23 years ago with two wagons, one of them driven by Samuel Dungan, now the general manager,” it reported. The purpose of the firm was to give the “public a grade of milk and quality of service that could not be excelled.”  A “Sunlight milk plant,” a type of industrial building that employed the liberal use of windows to allow sunlight to reach the manufacturing floor, “was completed a few years ago.”  The company used the most up-to-date equipment, including a “rotary type filler and capper with a special conveyor belt system,” the article gushed.

In 1935, Polk introduced a chocolate milk drink made with Hershey’s chocolate. The new chocolaty milk was added to a long list of milk-laded Polk products, which now included “standard milk,” sweet cream butter, coffee cream, “Frisco Style Cheese,” special “Guernsey Milk,” sour cream, buttermilk, special nursery milk, whipping cream, and orangeade (for the non-milk drinkers), all delivered from the plant on 15th Street, according to an advertisement in The Indianapolis Star.

In 1943 Polk celebrated 50 years in the milk business. A new company slogan, “Always Ahead,” was prominently featured in its advertising, keeping customers aware of the modern practices at the milk plant. The company offered both “fat-free milk” and “extra-rich milk”, aiming to provide some milky goodness for everyone.

In 1959, Samuel Dungan II became president of the company, representing the fourth generation of Dungans at the helm, according to The Indianapolis Star. He was the namesake of the Samuel Dungan, who had moved from deliveryman to general manager in 1915.

Despite a long family history with the company, though, Samuel Dungan II accepted the offer of Maplehurst Farms to buy the company in 1963. An Indianapolis News article announcing the sale noted that Polk had 258 employees and was still located at 1100 15th St. No mention of a fabulous building with milk bottle towers: That no longer seemed so interesting or fun, it seems. Sadly, that building is no longer standing. Its enormous milk bottle towers have been replaced by a surface parking lot. n

o That surface parking will soon be no more. See the “WesMont” report on page 15.

Connie Zeigler is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm.