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Lambert: The Sennitt’s Curious Dairy Barn

Downtown Plainfield builders are a testament to a family's innovative response to adversity.

The Inquiry 

A Plainfield Patch reader inquired, “What are those small buildings that were recently painted white near the Plainfield Historical Society’s depot at Lockport and Wood Farm Road?”

The Facts

Acquired for preservation by the Plainfield Historical Society, the two concrete structures that stand today are remnants of a local family’s tenacity and innovation in the wake of a weakened economy and scientific advancement.

The unassuming buildings are remnants of the small dairy complex operated by Charles Sennitt and his sister, May, for three decades in the early 20th Century.  Originally, the Sennitt’s dairy operation included a dairy barn, milkhouse, corncrib and silo adjacent to a fenced-in pasture.  The original farm buildings were constructed of wood. 

The Sennitt Family of Plainfield

In 1851, John Sennitt, Jr. (1830-1905) came to the United States from England.  After working as a farm laborer in Ohio for one year, Sennitt enrolled at Hiram College. After graduation, Sennitt moved to Plainfield, finding employment as a clerk in the local post office by 1860.  Nine years later, he was named Plainfield Postmaster.  Here, John Sennitt met a young schoolteacher, Emma Drew. 

Emma Drew (1839-1922) was the daughter of a pioneer family that settled at Plainfield in the mid-1840s. Born in Canada, Emma spent her early childhood in Vermont before moving to Illinois.  After attending the local Plainfield schools, she continued her education at Oberlin College in Ohio.  Upon her return to Plainfield, Emma taught school for nearly a dozen years.

John Sennitt and Emma Drew were married in April 1871 and raised four children: May (1873-1970); Carolyn “Carrie” (1876-1959); Grace (1879-1946); and Charles (1882-1959).  Emma stressed the importance of education to her children. May Sennitt was a member of the first graduating class of Plainfield High School in 1891. Following her local education, Carrie Sennitt continued her collegiate studies in Chicago.

John Sennitt served as Plainfield postmaster for three separate terms (1869-1886, 1889-1894 and 1898-1901). His postal career spanned 50 years, serving 40 consecutive years as either postmaster or deputy postmaster.  Sennitt was postmaster in February 1898, when fire broke out in the Opera House building.   With the aid of his daughter, May, and neighbor Mr. Beggs, Postmaster Sennitt saved stamps, account books and mail bags from the blaze.  For months afterward, Sennitt operated the post office out of the parlor of the Sennitt home on Ottawa Street. 

In addition to managing the local post office, John Sennitt established a small dairy farm around 1885.  The 10-acre Sennitt pasture occupied the west bank of the DuPage River until 1903, when it was purchased for the creation of Electric Park. At that time, 73 year old John Sennitt reduced his dairying operation and relocated it along present-day Wood Farm Road.  

Prior to their father’s death, Grace Sennitt had married Wheatland Township farmer Thomas Clow in 1902. Carrie Sennitt had married Plainfield Township farmer Joshua Wales Munroe in 1904.  May, a music teacher, and Charles “Charlie” Sennitt continued to live in the family home with their mother.

After serving as a railway clerk, Charlie Sennitt assumed operation of his father’s modest dairy operation in 1905. Occupying just a few acres west of the DuPage River, the Sennitt Dairy supported Charlie, May and their elderly mother. The family’s business continued through a turbulent time. 

Milk in the Early Twentieth Century

For generations, a fairly common illness among people of all ages was “milksick,” which was attributed to milk kept in unsanitary conditions. Also, raw milk fed to infants caused gastro-intestinal diseases that, often, led to death.  

In the days before gallon containers and convenience stores, milk peddlers delivered fresh or “raw” milk to non-farm households across America. Milk peddlers were an independent lot. They milked in the darkness of early morning and, afterward, travelled from house to house, selling their milk daily. 

Through the 1920s, men and women delivered milk on foot, by horse-drawn wagon and—like Charlie Sennitt—by bicycle.  Residents would provide their own pan or jug to the curb or alley, where peddlers ladled the milk from open milk cans or pails into the residents’ containers.  Often the milk was unrefrigerated.  In a time when sanitation was becoming more understood, milk peddlers’ hands were, typically, unwashed. Most often, neither the peddlers’ nor the residents’ containers were sterilized.

Some unscrupulous peddlers “adulterated” milk with chalk or gypsum so it appeared “more white.”  Other peddlers were accused of watering down their milk to realize a larger profit.  Some milk was kept “fresher” with the addition of formaldehyde, marketed as “milksweet” and “freezine.”

These reports made life difficult for many small-town, independent milk peddlers who were largely unregulated.  Increasing numbers of Americans began purchasing their milk only from larger dairies. While most milk peddlers were hard working and honest, larger cities resorted to hiring milk inspectors to track down dishonest peddlers.  

In response to government inspection, milk peddlers in larger cities unionized in 1903.  As many cities passed ordinances to limit peddler activities, the unionized peddlers fought back. Among their many initiatives, unionized peddlers fought to end Sunday deliveries.  Within a decade, milk peddlers were required to distribute their milk only in labeled cans or bottles. By 1916, Michigan was first state to require that all milk be pasteurized. About that time, milk peddlers became known as “milkmen.” By the mid-1920s, the consumption of “raw” or non-pasteurized milk was virtually prohibited across the United States.  

The Great Depression and Milk Strikes 

Shortly after milk pasteurization became common practice, the American economy spiraled downward.  As the Great Depression loomed ever larger, milk prices collapsed.  The cost of production often exceeded the price paid to farmers. In an effort to raise prices, many dairy farmers frequently went “out on strike” during the 1930s.  Undercompensated dairymen refused to deliver milk to larger milk processing corporations. They dumped their fresh milk on the ground rather than sell it at a loss.  

The milk dumping, which at times was subsidized by the government, became so pervasive that the phrase “don’t cry over spilled milk” became popular.   

However, many independent dairymen refused to go along with the “milk strikes” because they needed the income derived from their small operations to support their families.  

Between 1930 and 1939, many Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin independent dairy farmers were ruthlessly “burned out” in an attempt to force compliance. Their wood-framed dairy barns were burned to the ground, resulting in the loss of both equipment and livestock.  Some independent dairymen quit; others became more resolute.

A Suspicious Fire 

Charlie Sennitt did not join the milk strikes.  The income from the small dairy supported not only Charlie, a bachelor, but his spinster sister, May, as well.  Additionally, the income paid for the gas to operate the delivery truck that Sennitt now used for local deliveries. 

Charlie and May Sennitt bottled their milk in their home on Chicago Street.  There, May washed, boiled and sterilized the re-usable, one pint glass bottles that bore the embossed “Chas. Sennitt Pure Milk Plainfield, Ill.” label.

On a Monday night in 1932, a Lincoln Highway traveler reported a fire at Charlie Sennitt’s dairy barn, just north of the roadway.  The wooden barn and silo were destroyed along with the Sennitt’s “dairy implements, cooling vats, feed, straw and supplies.”  However, a dozen cows were saved.  The total loss was estimated at $3,000; however, the Sennitts carried only $1,000 of insurance coverage.

Innovation Out of Adversity

Vowing not to be burned out again, Charlie Sennitt rebuilt his dairy barns, utilizing concrete for the floors, walls and roof. In addition to the main dairy barn, Sennitt erected a concrete stave silo, a small corncrib and a separate, concrete milkhouse where cold, spring water cooled the fresh milk.

The new concrete barn and milkhouse were considered to be fireproof, preserving the Sennitt Dairy from additional heavy-handed coercion.  More importantly, the structures were models of sanitary dairying in their time.  Sennitt installed an innovative “dairy parlor” arrangement within his barn. The recently-developed dairy parlor concept assured a more sanitary method of milking and a more comfortable milking environment.  Separated from the barn, the milkhouse resulted in more sanitary handling of cow’s milk. 

Small dairying operations, such as that of Plainfield’s Sennitt family, were not uncommon across America.  However, as the Great Depression wore on, larger dairies bought out the smaller dairies.  With increased competition and aggressive marketing by large bottling companies, many independent dairies—including the Sennitt Dairy—closed as they became increasingly less profitable.

Today, only two buildings remain of the Sennitt Dairy farm: the Dairy Barn and Milkhouse. The concrete foundations of the corncrib were buried when landscaping of the LifeSpring Church property was completed in 2011. The concrete-stave silo collapsed years ago when the property was the site of a junkyard.  Although no longer fenced, the one-time cow pasture occupied the area east and north of the remaining structures.  The long-range plans of the Plainfield Historical Society include the restoration and interpretation of these intriguing buildings.

Next Column:  Plainfield’s Universalist Society

Have a question about Plainfield’s history?  Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch. 

© 2012 Michael A. Lambert.  All Rights Reserved

Droncz87 November 29, 2012 at 01:11 PM
Awesome! Thank you for posting this.
Nicole November 29, 2012 at 02:52 PM
Thank you! I had long wondered about that building, thinking it was Plainfield's first jail... and when I asked at the Plainfield Historic Museum, no one seemed to know the complete story, just that it wasn't a jail area.
Town November 29, 2012 at 03:31 PM
Michael, Thank you for a great story and for preserving Plainfield's history.
Olddeegee November 29, 2012 at 03:47 PM
Great story as usual! Very informative. Have you considered doing a Geoffrey Baer style documentary ever? The costs to produce a high quality program are drastically cheaper than even a few years ago. I'm sure that there are qualified volunteers for such a show.
Amy's Organics November 29, 2012 at 07:13 PM
Fascinating stuff, love it!
Vicki Pawlowski Dallmann November 29, 2012 at 07:17 PM
Always love reading this column and will second Olddeegee's suggestion on making a video documentary. Plainfield has so much to tell! There is no affiliation between this dairy and the one on James St?
Tim November 29, 2012 at 07:33 PM
Right, and Plainfield 'invented' the ice cream sundae too... Nice story, but not exactly accurate. Which is fine for stories of fiction, but not for history. 'Dont cry over spilt milk' was a popular phrase almost 300 years before what is being claimed here. http://www.funtrivia.com/askft/Question14436.html The earliest instance with the words 'cry' and 'spilt' in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Swift's 'Polite Conversation', first published in 1738, the quotation being ''Tis folly to cry for spilt milk'. Swift's work is a humorous work that pokes fun at cliche-ridden talk, and the phrase must therefore have been well established by that time. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs has 'No weeping for shed milk', quoted in a collection of proverbs by James Howell, published in 1638.
Michael Lambert November 29, 2012 at 09:58 PM
As much as "Tim" strives for accuracy, I would hope that he knows the differeence between "coined" and "popularized." During the 1930s the phrase "Don't cry over spilled milk" became popularized in the everyday language of Americans. In no way did I suggest that the term was "coined" during the 1930s...no more than Lincoln "coined" the phrase often attributed to him: "A house divided cannot stand." As a historian, I realize that I can never know the entire truth behind any story, but I do my best to sort out the facts surrounding certain events and identify historical trends of a given period. Too, I have tried to put "the Plainfield story" within a context of regional and national events so that they are better understood within the historical setitng in which the event occurred.
Michael Lambert November 29, 2012 at 09:58 PM
"Tim" can harp continually about the Plainfield connection to the ice cream sundae The documentarians are the ones who are trying to sort out the origins of the ice cream sundae...research proves a connection, but I will let them tell the story they have discovered through additional research beyond the hearsay and facts known prior to their investigation. It is a more interesting story than I had imagined, at first.
Michael Lambert November 29, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Similarly, I would like to honor "Tim's" request for a story about the KKK in a 20th centurt Plainfield, but my research shows no national or communal trends with those more recent events as was evident in the 1920s. Idividual hate crimes will always persist, unfortunately. In his numerous posts, "Tim" has identified all there seems to be known about the racist attacks other than the fact that the perpetrator(s) behind the acts was never conclusively identified and no organized planning or cohesive planning seemed to motivate the attacks. If someone knows more than this and can enlighten me, I would be glad to look for a historical trend and write about it. Until then, I am reminded of what "Tim" wrote in February 2012: "It is nice to see an editor here at the Plainfield Patch that does not rely on censorship to support their claims, and instead uses facts. When seeing incorrect assumptions being posted, seeing the correct answers being posted in response is refreshing, as opposed to the simple-minded deletion of them to avoid any thought or discussion on the subject that may contradict the angle in the story. Well done Mr. Lambert. I hope your ethics and professionalism rub off on other editors here."
Michael Lambert November 29, 2012 at 10:32 PM
That is too bad that you weren't given better information when you inquired. The Plainfield Historical Society museum is served by many very knowledgeable volunteers who do their very best to answer questions about the Plainfield community!
Michael Lambert November 29, 2012 at 10:33 PM
Yes, I have been asked and have considered it...just need the resources to fund the project and the talented production people to help make it happen!
Michael Lambert November 29, 2012 at 10:34 PM
You're welcome. I know that you have been waiting a long time for me to get to this story...
Michael Lambert November 29, 2012 at 10:40 PM
No affiliation. The Lockwood Dairy began in 1909 by the unexpectedly widowed Estella Lockwood who was joined in the work by her two young boys, Zerrell and Cecil. The dairy farm was located on the land where the present distribution facility is located. However, the Lockwood Dairy story mirrors some of the same developmental events and national issues as the Sennitt Dairy.
Ron November 29, 2012 at 10:53 PM
Short answer - Charles Sonntag was born in 1869, his shop opened no earlier than 1893. There is documented evidence of the ice cream sundae already being sold in 1892, at least one year earlier than Sonntags shop even existed, in Ithaca, NY. Was Charles Sonntag a time-traveler? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sundae#Ithaca.2C_New_York_in_1892 Here is a story right here on Patch, that you wrote by the way, that lays out more details of the timeline; http://plainfield.patch.com/articles/lambert-plainfield-s-tie-to-1960s-television "However, the ice cream sundae was sold at Two Rivers, Wisconsin as early as 1881; at Evanston, Illinois in 1890; and at Ithaca, New York by May 1892. " Did you forget your own writings of local history for the purposes of plugging an upcoming show that you are in?
Michael Lambert November 29, 2012 at 11:03 PM
@ "Ron" / "Tim" Short answers are rarely complete answers. And, no...I did not forget my own writing. However, as I have stated above and many times in the past, it is impossible to know all of the details of history, so it is a continual pursuit for facts. Based on the information I had on hand, I wrote about what I knew or was able to discern at that point in time. However, once approached by the documentarians, and was exposed to some of their research, a few more connections--between the first sales of ice cream sundaes, the backgrounds of the men to whom the sundae has been accredited, and the common traits between the 4 towns that lay claim to the sundae stories--appeared to have some validity. The answers may not be as simple as they once appeared...which is one of the most fun things about history: discovering new information that amplifies the previously-known facts. Since the story was written and the documentarians visited Plainfield, I have discovered and learned more about Charles Sonntag and his drug store / confectionary as well as his successors than I had ever known before. It is a very interesting story that may show up in this column one day. Personally, I can hardly wait for the documentary to be completed.
Michael Lambert November 29, 2012 at 11:06 PM
BTW: Wikipedia??? REALLY???!!! A good place to begin an informal search but hardly a scholarly source of reliable, researched or accurate information.
Kevin S November 30, 2012 at 12:52 AM
Thanks Mike! Another great Plainfield history lesson. I drive past those buildings every day and have even played in them, walking past with my neice and nephew. We never knew what they had been used for. My neice said they were "creepy" because of the barred windows and dank conditions. As a devout animal lover, she will be happy to learn of their historical purpose. Even though we can't play in them anymore, I look forward to their restoration and interpretation.
Michael Lambert November 30, 2012 at 02:36 PM
You are welcome. Glad that you enjoy Plainfield's interesting history.
Michael Lambert November 30, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Thanks, Kevin. I hope that you and others will continue to be interested in the preservation of the Sennitt Dairy Barn and Milkhouse. I hope this story provides a better feeling about the structures to your daughter. The Plainfield Historical Society (of which I am an active member) certainly appreciates the interest and support of the community's residents in its efforts to preserve Plainfield history!
Joel Craig November 30, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Maybe we can entice Don and his video cam out of retirement, eh? Some other things we've discussed are self-guided history tours with accompanying materials, and possibly even creating a podcast that folks can carry around on their iPhone/iPod with directions and short histories of the various places in town. The downtown tours that are a part of the 3rd Grade local history curriculum that the Society collaborated on with Dist. 202 have been a highlight of the school year, and we think we can spread that enthusiasm for Plainfield's history to a larger audience. I think the positive response to Michael's columns has proven that. But like he says, it takes time, talent, and resources, something a small volunteer-driven organization is always looking for.

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