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Monday, December 4, 2023
Dec. 4, 2023

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Clark County History: 1931 Milk War


In the late summer of 1931, Clark County farmers poured milk on the roads, most of it confiscated from boycotted distributors’ trucks. Vancouver-Portland milk distributors dropped milk prices low enough it threatened farmers’ businesses.

The spilt milk led to violence, first on the Interstate Bridge and then in Cowlitz County near Longview. Before the hostilities, members of the Dairymen’s Association confronted milk distributors and contended they needed a better rate for milk. Then they formed a cooperative dairy consisting of most of the local milk producers and creameries.

Some, like Woodland farmer W.F. Martin, refused to join. In response, someone dynamited his milking barn. The Battle Ground Dairy Association also declined the boycott.

As both sides negotiated, the violence escalated. Finally, members of the county dairy association decided to act. First, they blacklisted distributors who disagreed with them. Then they chastised Portland City Commissioner John Mann for lowering milk quality by not enforcing the city’s milk ordinance. Finally, they decided to place three shifts of guards on Clark County roads 24 hours a day to deter distributors’ truck drivers, drawing lines for the milk war.

At the Interstate Bridge approach to Washington, farmers stacked railroad ties, cordwood and spiked planks and threatened to toss them in front of boycotted distributors’ trucks. Hundreds of farmers guarded the approach blocking access to the north bank, stopping boycotted trucks, and upsetting thousands of gallons of milk on Aug. 1, 1931. When Vancouver’s Police Chief John Cresap supported the distributors by driving a truckload of milk past farmers to the Battle Ground plant, tension increased. Mrs. W.F. Martin loaded her husband’s truck with milk cans and headed for the bridge, cargo bouncing in the truck bed. She also sped through the dairy picket line that day.

Olympia sent state patrol officers to Clark County to help local officer Harry Williams. Claude Mariner and North Roger halted a milk truck en route to Longview. Mariner jumped on the truck’s running board, and someone clubbed him, splitting his head open. Besides milk, the truck held at least eight men. A man bearing a shotgun jumped out. Roger wrestled the weapon away, but it went off without injuring anyone. A free-for-all ensued until the Olympia officers arrived. It would take seven stitches to close the wound that fractured Mariner’s skull. Fortunately, he recovered.

Although locals were sympathetic to the farmers’ stance, Gov. Roland Hartley called them hoodlums. The Portland Carnation Company manager claimed Hartley promised to send in the National Guard to settle the dispute, which Hartley denied later.

In late August, Rabbi Henry J. Berkowitz of Portland’s Temple Israel was chosen as the mediator because he wasn’t connected with either side. He was widely known for his “real integrity,” according to an editorial in The Columbian titled “The Milk Czar,” praising his efforts. The rabbi offered a commonsense solution: Let both sides recognize the survival of both farmers and distributors depended on mutual profitability. They agreed. By September, the deal was sealed.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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