JAMAICA — Henry Schwartz has milk in his blood.
When his business, the century-old Elmhurst Dairy where he has worked since he was 6, first began struggling about two decades ago, he refused to give up.
His goal has always been to pass the company on to his sons and grandsons, as his father, Max, who founded the dairy with his brother Arthur in 1919, asked him to.
Credit: Nigel Chiwaya
But the dairy became unsustainable years ago and its Jamaica-based factory, built on the experience and knowledge of five generations, will stop operating this fall, putting 273 people out of work and leaving New York City without a milk bottling plant within its city limits for the first time since at least the 19th century.
“It was very painful to see the company not succeeding,” said Schwartz, 82, the CEO of the company, who has worked with one of his sons, Cyrus, on attempts to rescue the dairy. “There were many times that I felt very sad and in a sense I failed.”
Schwartz grew up learning the ins and outs of the milk industry, which has been the family’s trade even before his great grandparents immigrated to America from Poland in the 1880s.
Soon after arriving in New York, the family began operating several dairy farms in Queens.
His maternal great-grandfather, Henry Feld, started one in Middle Village. Schwartz’s grandmother, Dora Krout, and her husband opened another, called Juniper Valley, in the same neighborhood.
The family quickly became well-known experts in the field.
Schwartz still remembers watching his grandmother demonstrating how to milk a cow and explaining the dairy business during the 1939 World’s Fair, when he was about 5 years old.
Dora Krout ran a dairy farm called Juniper Valley in Middle Village. (Photo courtesy of Henry Schwartz)
Schwartz's father started his own 40-acre dairy farm on Caldwell Avenue in Elmhurst at the turn of the century. He purchased his first seven cows in Manhattan and walked them back to Queens after crossing the newly opened Williamsburg Bridge. By the 1920s, the farm had over a hundred cows.
Max and Arthur started their own dairy business — Elmhurst Cream Company — by hand-filling bottles of cream in their father's barn.
They converted a car into a delivery truck and filled it with blocks of ice to transport the cream to Bay Ridge, where it became a favorite delicacy in the Scandinavian community.
About 5 years later they started to bottle milk as well.
In the mid-1930s, the company, which later changed its name to Elmhurst Dairy, moved to a small facility consisting of one building on South Road in Jamaica.
The family also moved to a house in St. Albans, and then later to Jamaica Estates.
Schwartz, who started working at the plant on Saturdays as a boy, later studied dairy manufacturing and agricultural economics at the University of Vermont, he said.
In 1948, the dairy merged with Juniper Valley, which at the time had 200 milking cows and was run by Percy Krout, Dora’s son.
Back then, Schwartz said, “it was a very labor intense business.” Up until the 1960s, milk was delivered directly to consumers' homes “and a lot of people had a good job being a milkman.”
Over the years, the company acquired 15 acres around its Jamaica facility stretching all the way to Liberty Avenue, and built six large buildings, eventually becoming the biggest milk plant in New York.
It also gradually changed its profile, focusing on processing milk rather then farming.
At its height, in the 1960s and 1970s, the dairy produced more than 5.6 million quarts a week, the company said.
Max Schwartz founded Elmhurst Dairy with his brother in 1919. (Photo courtesy of Henry Schwartz)
The situation changed dramatically in 1987, when the state deregulated milk sales, allowing dealers from other areas to sell their milk in New York, fueling fierce competition and driving down prices, Schwartz said.
Evolving consumer preferences, including growing popularity of plant-based milks as well as organic products with a long shelf life, processed with different equipment, also began affecting the market.
The changes led to closing of about 20 other milk processing plants in the New York City and Long Island area within the past 25 years.
The Elmhurst Dairy, which was the last plant left in New York City, announced this summer that it will close in October.
“Sometimes there are things that change in the world and don’t allow certain businesses to succeed,” said Schwartz.
Schwartz said the family wants to re-use its Jamaica site to benefit the local community.
One option could be using the property for “a sports-related activity,” he said, but declined to elaborate further.
“So I think that to a degree this will be the successor to the family farm,” he said. “The new Elmhurst will have different types of products and I feel now that we are going to be able to move forward and go on to the next 100 years.”