By Brad Reynolds
Small businesses come and go. Communities evolve. Markets ebb and flow. Either local enterprises continue to grow, or they succumb to the sands of time.
But—some businesses, through shuttered doors, continue to make an impact. So tightly entwined in a community are these that they live on in the minds and hearts of the citizenry.
The Ayrshire Dairy is one such local business. From 1908 to 1973, on the southern outskirts of Great Falls, the company developed into a major industry, employing hundreds of Montanans and providing thousands more with delicious, farm-fresh milk. More than that, however, the Ayrshire Dairy became a symbol. It was the company that kept families clothed and fed through the Depression. It was where children rode their bikes in the summer to play on the swings and enjoy a cool drink. In the morning, when you awoke to the clip-clopping of mule hooves, you could look forward to a fresh bottle of milk with breakfast. And at night, when you opened the paper or turned on the T.V., you could expect to find a local tot grinning ear to ear with a glass of Ayrshire Dairy milk.
“Many people know where the Ayrshire Dairy is. It’s been here all their lives,” says Harry Mitchell, the third and current owner of the local business.
He looks out from the porch of what was once his father’s house, joined by his daughters, Leslie, Jessie, and Fran. The land, which once supported 200 Ayrshire cows, now facilitates a different type of agriculture—leased to a farmer, a rancher, and several horse owners (for boarding). Still, the Ayrshire Dairy has remained mostly intact for the 114 years Harry’s family has owned this property.
And they’ll carry its legacy for many years more.
“People to this day come out to relive their memories of the Ayrshire Dairy,” says Harry, who carries a lifetime of his own memories.
“For many, it’s a happy place,” says Fran.
In the Land of Milk and Honey
The story of Ayrshire Dairy begins (as American tales so often do) across the Atlantic Ocean.
Harry’s grandfather, H.B. Mitchell, was eleven when he set sail for the U.S. in 1880. His family had operated a farm in their native village of Laurencekirk, Scotland, but some poor investments in railroad stock left them bankrupt and forced them from their land. Neighbors collected donations
in response to the family’s crisis. Their pooled resources allowed H.B., his parents, and his ten siblings to start a new life in America.
H.B.’s formal schooling ended in eighth grade, but he continued to educate himself throughout his adolescence and adulthood. A job laying railroad pointed him west, and in Minnesota he learned the printing trade. This served him well when, in 1900, he took a job as the business manager and political correspondent for the Great Falls Tribune.
By the end of the decade, everyone in the Electric City knew H.B. Mitchell—the newspaperman, the politician, and the entrepreneur.
“[My grandfather] bought the property for the dairy in 1906,” Harry recalls. “He never lived here. He was what you would call a ‘gentleman farmer.’ He bought a farm because he could afford to buy a farm.”
In fact, the only reason H.B. Mitchell purchased land south of Great Falls was to support another enterprise. His ice cream shop, the Bon Ton, required a steady supply of fresh cream. H.B. bought one cow and one bull, both Ayrshires (a breed native to Scotland, which produces milk with a high fat content), and thus began the Ayrshire Dairy.
“At that time, a lot of people in town owned their own cows,” Harry explains. “By the Teens, people got tired of milking them. It was easier to have the milk delivered.”
Ayrshire Dairy home delivery began right around 1910 with a mule-drawn cart full of milk that had to be ladled from cans into customers’ own containers. Rudimentary though it was, the convenience and reliability of Ayrshire Dairy’s service far surpassed the alternatives.
“There was a lot of bad milk on the market at that time,” Harry says. “My dad used to tell this story; they bought out a competitor who was caught putting formaldehyde in their milk.”
By 1925, the Ayrshire Dairy bottling plant was in full operation, supplanting the cans and ladle. The mules, however, retained some usefulness. During World War II, when rations were placed on gasoline, Great Falls enjoyed a brief renaissance of the mule-drawn cart.
“Those mules knew the routes even better than the drivers,” Harry chuckles.
Year after year, the reputation of the Ayrshire Dairy grew—as did the reputation of H.B. Mitchell.
In 1916, H.B. made a run at Congress. He was a staunch Democrat, and his wife, Mary, was a vocal suffragette.
So, when the Republican Party nominated Jeanette Rankin
as their candidate for Congress, it placed H.B. in a compromising position.
“How could my grandfather openly oppose Jeanette when she stood to advance the movement?” Harry questions. “He narrowly lost the election to her, but they became good friends afterward. In fact, I met Jeanette in 1972 before she passed. She vividly remembered that race. She said my grandfather was such a gentleman.”
H.B. lost the House seat but not public favor. He was elected Mayor of Great Falls in 1923 and served three consecutive terms. In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed H.B. Mitchell as the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission. He served for eighteen years, making him the second longest-running presidential appointee in history.
As H.B.’s political career continued to grow, so too did the Ayrshire Dairy. Management of the enterprise was handed down to H.B.’s oldest son, Fergus, who would become the second-generation owner.
Ayrshire Dairy, Montana
With Fergus at the helm, the Ayrshire Dairy developed into its own community. Like a military fort, it managed its entire infrastructure, which included a bunkhouse, a cookhouse, fields and barns, a production facility, and a water system exclusive to the property.
In 1926, Fergus and his bride, Harriet built their home on the property—a $5,000 investment, constructed by a blacksmith rather than a carpenter.
“It shows,” laughs Fran, who resides in the house today.
At one time, as many as 30 employees lived and worked at the dairy. Some tended fields, others milked cows or processed the milk, and then there were the delivery crews. A full-time carpenter and a full-time mechanic kept the buildings and equipment tip-top. A full-time gardener tended the grounds. And the full-time cook, of course, was of vital importance.
“The cook would ring the bell, and everybody stopped,” Leslie remembers. “There were several long benches and tables that the employees sat at.”
“There was a huge cookie jar at the cookhouse,” Fran remembers. “When you left, you always took a cookie.”
These simple joys were always appreciated by the Ayrshire Dairy workers. Employees, by and large, seemed happy.
During the Depression, Fergus and Harriet cut everyone’s pay in half—including their own. It wasn’t ideal, but far better than the alternative; it allowed workers to maintain an income.
“They were treated well,” says Jessie. “That’s what people remember most.”
While his daughters reminisce about their grandparents, Harry recalls another time his family displayed compassion.
“This is First Peoples country,” he explains. “When I was a boy, there would be teepees down by the river. [Fergus] took them milk. It was their land too.”
H.B.—cast from the family farm in Scotland, only to be gifted a new life in America—held neighbors in high regard. And he understood the value of having a place to call one’s own. For generations, his family has made a sincere effort to “pay it forward.” Ayrshire Dairy was a charitable enterprise, giving to the community—particularly, the children of Great Falls.
It didn’t take much to get the kids of Great Falls hooked on Ayrshire milk. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, local school children took field trips to the dairy, where they got to see the cows, play on the playground, and drink a half-pint of chocolate milk. Youngsters who rode their bikes out in the summertime often earned refreshments for the effort. But perhaps what made Ayrshire Dairy most attractive to the children of Great Falls was the promise of fame.
“My mother really pushed advertising. She was ahead of her time,” says Harry. “Friends would call; they wanted their kids on TV. So you’d be watching the news, and there’d be a local kid with a little table and a glass of Ayrshire milk.”
“Nana always wanted them to have milk mustaches,” Fran chimes in. “It predated ‘Got Milk?’ by years.”
Kids, who had seen their friends in the paper and on TV, had strong opinions about what brand of milk their parents bought.
“Those ads sold a lot of milk,” Harry chuckles.
Harry’s own children appeared in some of the marketing. Leslie remembers one ad in particular where she was serving Fran a glass of milk in a supermarket. It was staged to look like a demonstration, with a shelf full of Ayrshire Dairy milk cartons.
The sisters laugh as they share their memories. The life of a dairy kid was one of exuberance—though, not without effort.
“We knew how to work,” says Jessie, recalling a time where she and her brother, Scott, helped show 15-20 head of Ayrshire cattle at the Montana State Fair, in addition to their duties on the farm. “I loved it, but I was so tired. I’d sleep right there on the straw bales.”
Fran adds to her sister’s point, “Everyone loves to reminisce about the dairy, but it’s important to remember that a lot of hard work went into it too. Something like this doesn’t just happen.”
Everyone reflects on that for a moment. Then, in his deep and sensible voice, Harry pipes up.
“The truth of the matter,” he says, “is that bringing a child up on a farm is a form of child abuse.”
The daughters join their father in a laugh.
In 1973, the Ayrshire Dairy sold to Vita-Rich Dairy of Havre. Harry says it was a wise decision, difficult as it was. Vita-Rich was twice their size. Small family dairies, like small family farms, were becoming unsustainable.
“It’s a classic example, in my opinion, of what has happened to American agriculture,” says Harry. “In the Fifties, there were five processing dairies in Great Falls. Today, only two companies in the whole state make up about ninety percent of the distribution. The industry has shrunk, spelling the demise for the small dairy.”
Vita-Rich processed milk on the Ayrshire Dairy property until 1978. Milking operations on the farm stopped in 1990.
Through all of this, the Mitchell family retained ownership of the property.
“It’s not like a lot of farms that have been chopped up and sold off,” says Leslie. “It’s still a working farm.”
Several tenants make good use of the property. Harry, Fran, and her husband, Mike, live onsite and oversee the daily operations. The family is glad to keep the farm in one piece—more or less.
In 2017, the original milking arn, the most iconic structure on the property, was taken down. It had become too expensive to maintain, and several pillars had been damaged in a recent earthquake.
Prior to its deconstruction, the family invited the community out for a sale of old mementos salvaged from the barn. They expected a good turnout. They never imagined how good it would be.
“For three magnificent days people came out to reminisce,” says Fran.
Great Falls residents wandered about and shared stories. The son of a former mule cart driver stopped by to say hello. The family visited with folks they hadn’t seen in years.
Many mementos were purchased—mostly cow tags and milk crates—but the sale quickly turned into the celebration of a community landmark. In effect, it was an Ayrshire Dairy reunion.
“There were so many memories of this place,” says Leslie in awe.
People still come across old promotional items and newspaper clippings featuring Ayrshire Dairy slogans, like “Always a Treat and a Treat for All!” But the most touching is probably: “Your Good Neighbor Since 1908,” a simple phrase that captures the life and legacy of this beloved Great Falls institution.
The Ayrshire Dairy is much quieter these days, but far from idle. Tenants go about their business. Vehicles slow as they pass the faded dairy sign. Visitors stop to look about and, occasionally, inquire about leasing a good building.
“If you want a business in a historic place, come see us,” says Fran.
The Ayrshire Dairy is accepting new tenants. Only good neighbors need apply.