By Judd Hambrick Special to the Daily Journal
Tupelo, Miss., Feb. 1, 1927: Everything is perfect for building a new economic era in Tupelo and Northeast Mississippi. The new era is spelled C-A-R-N-A-T-I-O-N.
The best building site has been selected along the Frisco Railroad in Mill Village. “Uncle” Rich Oliver agreed to have his house of 34 years moved to another section of town at Tupelo’s expense to make way for the plant. Area farmers are eager to get a steady pay check by going into the dairy farming business. Some 100 local people are hoping to find full-time steady work at the plant. And the executives of the Carnation Milk Products Company itself say Tupelo is the best location for their plant. Tupelo has such good roads; this area has thousands of farmers agreeing to dairy farm; and the local population has a legendary work ethic. So, optimism ran high yesterday, at the official groundbreaking ceremony at the Carnation plant in the northwest corner of Mill Village. It is an exciting time to live in Tupelo.
Tupelo Mayor D.W. Robins and construction superintendent H.L. Griffin led the group of more than 100 who were on hand to see the first spade of dirt dug up at the ceremony.
“Uncle” Rich’s old wood frame house is still on the property but will be removed, probably sometime today. There’s not much time to waste.
The 36,000-square-foot reinforced concrete plant will be built in just 90 days. Construction crews will work a day shift and a night shift to complete the $225,000 structure on time (about $3 million today). Carnation says it wants to receive its first batch of milk from area dairy farms on Monday, May 2. Dairy farmers and everyone in Tupelo want the same thing.
In addition to the main plant, crews also have to construct a modern power plant, a water tower, and a 175-foot-tall smoke stack. Deep wells will have to be bored for water. Water is vital to creating evaporated milk; the only type milk produced by Carnation. The plant is expected to use 1,000 gallons of water per minute from the water wells when it goes into operation in May.
At full production, the plant will process 100,000 pounds of evaporated milk daily. This means 10,000 cows will be needed within a 50-mile radius on our area’s dairy farms to meet this huge level of daily demand.
In the future, Tupelo will, no doubt, have an industrial base, but, right now our economy is primarily agricultural. Our farmers desperately need this milk plant for money and so do our banks and merchants. In the fall of 1916, boll weevils destroyed our cotton crops. Since then, we’ve lost all manner of crops to bad weather. Our farmers need a source of financial stability. This Carnation Milk Product Plant is a godsend. So, work fast, construction crews; work fast. We really need economic stability here in what promises to be a glorious spring in 1927.
The Carnation Milk Plant missed its target date by only about two weeks. It opened Saturday, May 14, 1927. Tupelo threw an unprecedented celebratory parade and party, attended by some 15,000 to 20,000 people. It was a big day; it was a historic day.
For nearly all of the next 45 years, the Carnation Plant lived up to expectations. The dairy industry flourished in Northeast Mississippi. Thousands of dairy farmers enjoyed consistent income, even through the Great Depression. Two and a half generations of workers made the Carnation Plant a part of their memorable and proud careers. The aging plant finally closed its doors in 1972.
But because of its solid, well-built construction, the old building has been considered for many other uses since it was shuttered 39 years ago – a police department and jail, city offices and even a history museum.
There have been numerous studies and plans drawn up to move the Oren Dunn Museum into this once-proud but now-lonely building. Currently, however, those plans simply gather age and dust – just like the Carnation Plant itself. For now, it is remembered only for what it once was, not for what it could be again. The once-shining example of hope and promise in Tupelo 80 years ago simply grows old, both in reality and in all of our Southern Memories.