A beaming bovine in a daisy necklace, the Borden Co. mascot was the embodiment of fresh and wholesome. Her jovial likeness appeared in dairy cases and freezers across America.
In South Akron, Elsie gazed out from a red neon sign. The two-story Borden plant at 934 Grant St. was a major distribution center for the region.
Barberton resident Nick Sainato, 90, recalls how he quit his job as a coal miner in West Virginia to work for Borden in Akron. When he start
ed in 1945, the dairy still had a few stalls from the days of horse-drawn wagons.
''Those horses were so smart that they knew the whole route,'' he said. ''If the drivers wanted to stay and talk awhile, they'd find that horse and buggy at the next stop.''
Sainato left the pitch black of the mine for a bright white complex of processing vats, conveyor belts, observation platforms and refrigeration units.
''I started working in the stockroom where they kept the finished products of milk in the cooler,'' he said. ''You had to wear boots and wrap your feet up with rags. It was so cold.''
After two weeks, Sainato told his supervisors that he had to quit because the pay wasn't enough. The beginning wage was 75 cents an hour.
''When I threatened to leave, they said: 'We've got some good news for you. You can get 81 cents an hour.' ''
He remained at Borden for 33 years, retiring in 1978.
Originally known as the Peoples Dairy Co., the plant was founded a block away on Bellows Street. Proprietors Fred W. Fuchs and Charles P. Kennedy incorporated it for $75,000 in 1924 as a sister company to the Peoples Bottling Co., which operated at 880 Grant St.
Fresh milk arrived daily from nearly 400 farms in Northeast Ohio. It was tested, pasteurized and homogenized and fortified. The dairy won more than 20 blue ribbons at the Ohio State Fair. As business grew, the building gradually took over the block.
Summit County was teeming with dairies in the 1920s and 1930s. Among the names were Akron Pure Milk Co., Averill Dairy Co., Chestnut Ridge Dairy Co., Kesselring Dairy, Lawson's Milk Co. and Reiter Dairy.
In 1929, New York's Borden Co. threw its vat into the ring. It bought out Peoples and Averill, turning the Grant Street plant into a wholesale division and converting Averill's Five Points dairy into a retail unit.
Borden's labels soon appeared on shelves in Akron's grocery stores. Products included milk, cream, buttermilk, cottage cheese, whipping cream, ice cream, sour cream and eggnog.
Elsie made her advertising debut in 1938. Borden arranged for a real-life Jersey cow to appear at the 1939 World's Fair in New York — and soon created another character, Elmer the Bull, as Elsie's husband. Elmer's Glue, manufactured by Borden, was named for the bull. That's his image on the glue label.
By the early 1940s, the famous livestock welcomed offspring Beulah and Beauregard.
Sainato remembers when all four animals appeared in 1950 as Borden celebrated a $250,000 remodeling at the plant. Akron residents lined up for hours.
''They brought Elsie, Elmer, Beulah and Beauregard,'' he said. ''They had them all in this corner of the garage, and people could come and pet them or look at them.''
Sainato's own family soon crowded the Borden plant, too. His brother, Domnick Sainato, sons Tom, Frank and Jim Sainato, and brother-in-law Bob Farris all worked at the plant.
As a boy, Jim Sainato, 58, of Cuyahoga Falls, used to walk to the plant in the evening so his father wasn't alone on the trek home to Sherman Street.
''He'd grab a couple of extra pints of chocolate milk,'' he said. ''We always had plenty of chocolate milk at my house.''
Jim was a student at Hower Vocational School when Borden hired him in 1968. He began as a utility worker and washed trucks on the first day.
''When I started there, there were more than 50 home-delivery routes,'' he said.
Milk sales were different then, he said. There was no demand for 1 percent, 2 percent or skim milk. Customers wanted ''the heavy stuff.''
''Whole milk was the No. 1 thing and anything else was called 'specialty milk,' '' he said. ''Gail Borden's was the premium line. If milk was selling for 19 cents a quart, that was 24 cents. . . . It had extra ingredients and extra nutrients.''
The Borden plant was popular with tour groups, especially students and scout troops. Children marveled at the cool air and giant vats of dairy products.
''The kids never saw that much chocolate milk in their life,'' he said. ''At the end, they'd sit down at these tables and we'd give them a chocolate milk.''
Jim Sainato became an expert on ice cream while working in the Borden freezer, which had a capacity of 125,000 gallons. The temperature was kept around 26 below zero, but the blowers produced a wind chill of minus 40. Workers wore hats, gloves and protective suits.
During peak production, the plant sold more than 5 million gallons of ice cream a year. ''I recall a 21-hour day one time,'' he said. ''I thought it would never end. I was so tired when I got home that I couldn't sleep.''
Borden, which moved its headquarters to Columbus in the late 1960s, kept expanding its line of products. Some of the brands it acquired were Cracker Jacks, ReaLemon, Krazy Glue, Wyler's, Wise Foods, Creamette Pasta and Krylon Spray Paint.
''Borden went on a buying spree,'' he said. ''They overspent. Decisions were made to cut.''
The company closed plants in Cleveland, Canton and Toledo, and moved the work to Akron. The local plant served 26 counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
More cuts were demanded. The Akron plant, which employed about 150, began layoffs.
''So we knew our days were numbered,'' Sainato said.
During the final month in 1994, there were only a dozen workers left. The corporation had decided to exit the dairy business and sell out to a New York investment firm.
''The dairy was making money,'' he said. ''I know for a fact that the dairy made money up until the day we closed.''
Sainato, the distribution manager, was the last employee at the Akron plant. It was his responsibility to thaw out the freezer units and show the building to prospective buyers.
''It almost felt unreal at times,'' he said. ''You'd look in that freezer — there used to be a couple million gallons of ice cream — and all of a sudden, it was completely empty.''
He turned out the lights and closed the door.
H&H Machine Co. bought the complex, renovated it and leased it to smaller businesses.
Dairy Farmers of America Inc. still uses the Elsie logo to promote cheese, but the famous cow's visibility has diminished.
''Go down to Texas and you'll see Borden trucks everywhere,'' Sainato said. ''They're still big in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma.''
In Akron, though, Elsie the Cow has been put out to pasture.
Mark J. Price is a Beacon Journal copy editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send e-mail to email@example.com.