Derry used to be home to almost as many cows as it did people. Some — like Robert Frost — had a single cow to provide milk for the family. Others — like the Hood Farm — had dozens of milch cows that were producing milk to be sold locally or shipped by rail express to distant cities. During the 20th century there were 22 commercial dairies in Derry and five in Londonderry that sold milk in bottles marked with their names. Some of these are quite rare and worth hundreds of dollars; others are worth only a few dollars. In the latter category are those of the Ross Corner Dairy of Derry.
The origins of this dairy farm of blessed memory began in Boston in 1907. Eugene W. Ross, 47, of Cambridge, Mass., was a route supervisor for the H.P. Hood Dairy Co.; his 25 year-old son Bert was a receiver of dairy deliveries and butter maker at the Hood plant in Charlestown, Mass. One day they heard from a man on the Hood milk train that there was a neat little milk farm for sale in Derry. And it was being offered at a price they could afford. They bought the farm sight-unseen from Chandler Knights. The house was on McAllister Court and they bottled their milk in a barn directly across from the present library on Broadway.
In 1909, the E.W. Ross & Son Dairy rented the John Folsom farm at the corner of Folsom and Manchester roads. In April 1910, they began bottling their milk from this new location. They began to buy modern processing equipment and were the first local dairy to steam clean their milk bottles.
Soon this 12-cow farm became a local landmark and the area became known as Ross Corner. In 1909, the Ross Dairy was one of six commercial dairy farms in town. The others were the Atwood, Eaton, Elwood, Hood and Ring farms. In time, as their business grew, the Ross family owned three local farms.
The Ross Dairy soon became a very successful operation. At first, deliveries were by horse-drawn cart. It wasn’t until 1915 that its first milk truck was purchased. Winter deliveries by horse-drawn sleds continued until 1923 due to fact that road plowing was far from today’s standards. Even into the late 1920s, the horse-powered vehicles were sometime brought out during the spring because, as Bert Ross’s son Herbert remembered, “The mud was sometimes up to you knees.” The five-corner area around the present traffic circle was in “mud time” more of a bog than a highway.
During the early 20th century, there was much competition among dairy farmers. In the 1930s there were reported to be 16 dairies delivering milk door-to-door in Derry. Soon, however, the Ross Corner Dairy became the area’s leading milk and egg supplier. Back 60 years ago, the town of Derry had a population of around 6,000 souls and each day the Ross Dairy was selling about 3,500 quarts of milk. They were supplying moo-juice to all the local schools and the Alexander Eastman Hospital as well as to most of the town’s restaurants and stores.
The Ross family guaranteed that their milk would be clean, hygienic and fresh. Milk sold in the afternoon had been processed and bottled before noon time. Generations of customers would drink Ross Dairy Milk and never tasted even a sip of sour milk. They passed state purity tests every year as being 100-percent clean. They bragged that they never lost a cow to disease. In 1932, the farm won first prize in the Pennsylvania Cattle Show — the largest milk show in America.
The customers learned over the years that they could also trust the honesty of the Ross family. Herb Ross in 1981 recollected that “When I was delivering after 7 o’clock in the morning there wasn’t a house where I wouldn’t go right in and put the milk in the refrigerator. We knew exactly what each one needed. If they had a little extra, you’d cut ’em down.”
After World War ll things began to change. More and more local dairy farms closed. Local milk producers couldn’t compete with milk being trucked in from Canada, New York and God knows where else. The cost of labor, electricity and farm equipment began to skyrocket. Eugene Ross died in 1945 and Bert in 1957. Herbert Ross tried to keep the dairy running by streamlining the business.
In 1966, the state purchased much of their corn fields and pastures to build the Manchester Road Industrial Park. The cows were sold off the next year and the farm buildings in 1970. The Ross Corner Dairy continued in operation by having their products prepackaged by the Turner Dairy in Salem and distributed from a plant on Folsom Road.
Herbert’s son Donald Ross took over in 1973 and tried, without much luck, to find more ways to keep the family business going. Local Stores such as Shaw’s and Cumberland Farms were selling their own brands of milk for as much as 43 cents a gallon cheaper than that sold by the Ross Corner Dairy. By 1981, the Ross Dairy had only 200 retail customers. And despite having a number of local commercial customers they were only selling 1,200 quarts of milk a day.
In August 1981, the Ross Corner Dairy finally gave up the ghost and went out of business. After 74 years of honest dealings, the last of the Derry milk producers to offer door-to-door deliveries was no more. Today the former Ross Corner Dairy’s farm land is now occupied by the Manchester Road Industrial Park, the Clearwater Shopping Plaza, the Derry Police Station and new shopping complex formally occupied by the Pinkerton Tavern, Hadco and the Treasure Masters buildings.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry and plans to hold office hours at the municipal center. He is the former chairman of the Derry Heritage Commission. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.