In 1933, with the Great Depression raging in the United States, some 15 million Americans were out of work and many of the nation’s major industries were under duress. The production of goods slowed prior to the stock market crash in October 1929,and by 1933, the cost of goods dropped dramatically due to overproduction, low demand, and decreased consumer buying power. Dairy farmers in New York, one of the state’s major industries, were hit particularly hard as they nervously watched retail milk prices drop 37% and wholesale prices decline by 61%.
According to the New York State Milk Control Board, “Prices paid for milk had fallen to such a low level that dairymen could not possibly meet their most pressing obligations. Even the bare necessities of life could not be secured by many farm families, and many dairymen were threatened with the loss of the farms and homes in which their meager lifetime savings were invested.”
State legislators, whose constituencies were largely made up of dairy farmers, such as Senator Perley A. Pitcher, a Republican from Jefferson County, gave those farmers an opportunity to have their voices heard. In 1932 through early 1933, Pitcher was selected as chairman of a joint legislative committee created to investigate farmers’ grievances. Through what would become known as the Pitcher bill, legislation was created that sought to fix minimum-prices to be paid by produces for their milk and maximum prices for consumers. Despite the investigation and farmers’ voting power, that influence was limited by the influence of groups, such as The Dairymen’s League Cooperative Association (the League), which had significant connections to the executive branch and the legislature. The League, a cooperative bargaining agency of sorts who, in theory, worked on the farmers’ behalf to get the best deal to distributors and dealers, were often criticized not only by member farmers, but also by those non-members farmers who felt prices were often too low. Further, the Senate Agriculture committee, made up of democrats representing urban consumers, had little interest in creating a higher, fixed price for milk to those already struggling to make ends meet.
This put the farmers’ future in the hands of others, none of which seemed to be working in their interest, and their patience was wearing thin. In March, the newly organized Western New York Milk Producers Association (the Association) voted to declare a milk “holiday” unless the League promised to pay them a flat rate (45 cents per quart) for their product. When this tactic failed, the Association called a strike that quickly led to physical acts against the League and its member farmers. In April 1933, independent dairy farmers began dumping milk on the way to market and blocking delivery trucks to pressure Governor Herbert H. Lehman to sign the Pitcher Bill into law, which Lehman would eventually do on April 10th.
Unrest continued to grow among dairy farmers despite the Pitcher Bill and, by August, that discontent, and the addition of interstate competition that kept prices down, created a cocktail that fueled farmers to take matters into their own hands.
On August 1st, the milk “holiday” turned into a milk war with its origins in Central New York. In Boonville (Onieda County), large groups of farmers, estimated between 400 and 800 strong, stopped delivery trucks and spilled thousands of quarts of milk into the streets. One incident escalated even further when some 400 farmers armed with tools and axes attempted to stop Dairymen League trucks, who were being escorted by the New York State Police. Troopers “hurled tear-gas bombs and charged the strikers’ rank, swinging nightsticks,” injuring forty farmers. Newspaper reports continued to mention spilled milk and stranded delivery trucks after their tires were shot. Word of the strikes spread throughout Central and Northern New York, and soon, “15,000 farmers in a dozen milk-producing counties were in arms.” An article in the New York Times stated the 1933 strikes “brought New York State closer to Marshall Law than at any time since the Revolutionary War.”
Soon, Syracuse was in the middle of the “Milk Wars,” with the Syracuse Herald reporting that Onondaga County deputies were investigating a report to the sheriff’s office that a milk truck was dumped near the viaduct at Thompson Road, just outside of Eastwood. Another incident occurred at a traffic light at the Jamesville Road and East Genesee Turnpike intersection. Two milk trucks stopped at a red light when strikers rushed the trucks, forcing them to move to the side of the road. When they did, the strikers picked up 30 large cans of milk and poured them into the street. On August 9th, strikers dumped 6,000 gallons of milk in Cards Corners in Marcellus that were headed to market in Syracuse. The outfit, according to the Syracuse Herald, was “well organized” and included “boys as young as 14 and men up to 70.”
By August 11th, with Milk Strike leaders calling for Peace after an increase in milk shipment security, the Dairymen’s League plant in Onondaga County admitted their supplies were becoming noticeably low. Shipments did begin to increase, however, as officials stated troubled routes were quiet and milk shipments had begun to go through unmolested, though under heavy guard. The following day, the strike had waned and the supply of milk began to increase and was the first day unmarked by violence.
Though the violence diminished, the fight for higher milk prices continued. In late August, between 10,000 and 12,000 dairy farmers gathered in Utica to decide the next steps of the movement. Governor Lehman and the State Milk Control Board made it clear that they had a willingness to cooperate with dairy farmers and listen to their concerns. Ultimately, the farmers had their voices heard, moving the needle on an issue that affected their daily lives, though in their eyes, there was plenty of work to be done. Milk wars in New York or in other states where milk production accounted for a large percentage of the farming would reignite in the late 1930s, continuing a long battle for price regulations. However, like many American industries, the solution to the dairy farmers’ problems was the looming war in Europe, which helped keep milk prices steady as demand increased. Problems did arise after World War II and lingered into the 1960s and beyond.