By Antionette Kerr
Photos provided by the Davidson County Historical Museum H. Lee Waters Collection
Businessman, farmer, and philanthropist George S. Coble’s dream to expand dairy farming in the Southeast came to fruition with a deal to purchase bankrupted Davidson County Creamery and Piedmont Dairy in 1934. By 1949, Lexington’s beloved dairyman was heralded as an innovative “Young Giant” by leaders across the state. At its peak, Coble’s dairy empire profoundly impacted industry naysayers by forming the largest farmers cooperative in the southeastern U.S.
In its glory years, Coble’s Dairy Products, Inc. operated seven dairy manufacturing plants, 11 dairy product distribution branches including Grade A liquid milk, dry milk, cheese, ice cream, and the Eskimo Pie franchise for the Carolinas. By 1950, Coble’s Dairy Products owned 21 receiving plants in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, as well as the Tar Heel state. The plants employed roughly 1,200 people and processed the milk supply from approximately 10,000 farmers. Throughout this expansion, George kept the home office in Lexington and played a major role in civic and philanthropic endeavors with a legacy continuing long after Coble closed its doors in 1995.
Dairy Farming Was In His Blood
George Coble came from a long line of Quaker farmers. While being interviewed for the August 29, 1942 edition of State Magazine, a weekly survey of North Carolina, Coble referred to himself as “just a country boy trying to make good.” The country boy was born on November 3, 1908 and grew up on a farm in Randolph County near what is now Guilford College. His parents were Samuel Eli and Georgiana Coble of Florida. The young family moved to North Carolina when George was five so his father could take a job at the agricultural county agency for Randolph County and maintain a farm of around 100 cattle. George tried his hand at a few different farming initiatives, including processing fertilizer, and worked many jobs around the farm after studying agriculture at what was at the time North Carolina State College in Raleigh, N.C. He received special training from a highly regarded professor, W. L. Clevenger, who was a nationally renowned dairyman in the Department of Animal Industry and a specialist for the Agricultural Extension Service.
George married Mae Coltrane, a local girl who grew up just down the street. The devoted Quakers met as young children and were wed at the Quakers Friends Church. They had three children, George Staley Coble, Jr. who died at birth, Edgar Coltrane Coble, and Georganne Coble Bingham.
After purchasing the Davidson dairy, the young couple built a beautiful home on the Maegeo (a name that combined Mae and George) Farm. It overlooks rolling hills where the Cobles raised hogs, poultry, and a herd of Holstein cattle. The 2,200-acre Maegeo farm’s dairy served as a model for all dairy farmers with the most modern equipment and practices.
Putting North Carolina on the Map for Dairy
Under Coble’s expert guidance, Coble’s Dairy experienced a fast and phenomenal growth and required George to extend outside of his Maegeo Farm. Thus, Coble began recruiting and training local small dairy farm producers across North Carolina. He was eager to prove that the Southeast was a prime area for dairy farming, even though large Midwestern farms were consistently pressuring farmers in order to control the market. When George founded Coble’s Dairy, North Carolina ranked 22nd in milk production and 25th in the number of cows. He brought in a cattle expert and fair judge, B.B. Brome, to negotiate the purchase of high quality Holstein, Guernsey, and Jersey dairy animals from Minnesota with the intent to breed and sell the cattle at cost to local farmers.
By 1940, Coble had set in place plant expansion outside of Davidson County, and the first milk receiving and processing plant was built for the sum of $250,000 in North Wilksboro in May of that same year. The plant was said to be one of the most modern of its time and included the first spray milk drying equipment in the state.
As regulations for Grade A milk were increasing, George believed that with the natural sectional dairying advantages, including a longer grazing season, the health of the livestock would benefit. He initially set his sights on expanding in N.C. and Virginia, believing these areas were well-suited to have much larger milk production. He helped to launch a new program (according to one company newsletter) that stated, in part “…many thousands of pounds of milk are annually shipped to our section from the northern dairy states to meet the demand for dairy products. If we save all dairy heifers and import fine milk-producing animals from the best dairy sections, the increased milk production will enable us to keep down the large amount of money paid for outside milk in our states. Orders for the heifers will be handled by county farm agents and Coble field men and we are confident that additional dairy cattle will bring prosperity to the people of both states.”
Growth in N.C. and Va. happened rapidly between 1934 and 1945. Production facilities sprang up in Wilkesboro in 1939, Walnut Cove and Lansing in 1940, Sugar Cove in 1941, Yanceyville in 1942, Ramseur and Guilford in 1943, Lincolnton and Kannapolis in 1944, and Appomattox, Murphy, Franklin, and Rockingham 1945 in order to meet war demands and the demands of the Southeastern market.
In November of 1945, George wrote to farmers about the expansion through The Coble Echo. “Throughout all of it, we are insisting on QUALITY,” he said. “The number of patrons who supply us with milk has been practically doubled since some of you were here. Yet, we have kept our group of supervisory field men continuously built up – in order that this milk is produced under the best possible sanitary conditions.”
The War Years
During World War II, farmers were being asked to produce much more food with fewer workers and, in addition, they had to comply with a whole new set of regulations. At this time, Coble’s Dairy benefited from large government contracts that included providing dry and frozen milk to WWII soldiers and hospitals. Its innovative Pure-Pak machine had the capacity to produce 32,000 quarts of frozen milk. The federal and state governments also provided the dairy with poultry specialists to begin powdering eggs on behalf of the war effort.
Meanwhile, Coble solicited help from the federal government for labor to build large gabled barns, also known as “milking parlors.” On April 12, 1945, German prisoners who were being held at a camp in Winston-Salem were brought to Davidson County to help with the construction of two new calf barns and install facilities. Those milking parlors still stand in the Cow Palace area of Davidson County.
Finding labor was challenging during the war years as many young men were being drafted from Davidson County. While they were away from their families, the Coble’s Dairy family solicited prayers and published greetings from soldiers in its monthly newsletter “The Coble-Patron Cow Bell.” Coble also assured that when local men returned home from the war they would have employment. “We, at Coble’s Dairy Products, are pleased not only to report that the jobs more than 150 of you left when you joined the Armed Forces are still waiting for you, but also, that these jobs represent even a bigger and better opportunity for you in the days ahead,” Coble wrote.
Examples of how much this meant are scattered throughout Coble’s publications during the war years with correspondence from soldiers like PFC Joseph D. Waitman, who wrote back to the boys, “I received my Coble Echo and was very glad to get it. It means a lot to get news from the company and fellows I used to work with. I am still driving a truck, but tell the boys I would be glad to trade with any of them.”
From Coble’s Dairy to Coble Dairy
According to George Smith, dairy farmer and president of the Davidson County Farm Bureau, Coble was directly responsible for the sustainability of local farms. Smith, who currently owns a portion of the land that once belonged to Coble, said his father was a charter member of the cooperative of farmers who went from owning stock in the company to eventually buying out George Coble in the 1950s. Smith said Coble was “financially a little ahead of his time.” He helped farmers who couldn’t afford the capital expenses like steel storage containers required by new regulations for dairy farmers and “dealt with the mom-and-pop shops.” Coble had been warned by financial analysts not to sell too much stock to the farmers, but he ignored those warnings. The farmers eventually came together to buy out Coble, and they changed the name slightly from Coble’s Dairy to Coble Dairy, but continued producing milk under the Coble name until being bought out by a larger dairy in 1995.
Coble realized at the outset that quality herds were the foundation of a sound milk-handling industry and the company always worked to improve the size and quality of herds, as well as educate small-scale farmers to use the most modern and sanitary methods of production. Farmers in the cooperative were able to use the latest technology and inspections were made of all herds producing milk for the company’s processing plants. The company also encouraged farmers to increase their supply and improve their herds.
Jerry Smith, a former company controller, was the last one to lock the doors on the Lexington office before it was purchased by Mid-America Farms and Coble Dairy closed its operations on July 4, 1995. Seeing the cooperative finally sold to a Midwestern group was bittersweet. “They were a huge cooperative and were trying to control the milk supply so they could control the prices of milk across the US, but I don’t think they accomplished that,” said Smith.
George Coble passed away on August 9, 1976, but the legacy of the man behind the once-thriving empire continues. “He did a lot of things for Davidson County. He helped the dairy farmers’ transition from the old metal cans that stored Grade C milk and personally helped finance field men to assist them with Grade A production,” said Jerry Smith. “He converted a lot from cans into stainless steel tanks when the health department got involved. Helped small dairy farmers get into tanks. He helped people get barns, Sears and Roebuck milking parlors — got them financed.”
George Smith, whose father was one of the founding members of the farmer’s cooperative, is one of the surviving dairy farmers in Davidson County. Smith owns and farms a portion of what was once Coble land and recognizes what George Coble contributed to local famers now more than ever.
“The industry has completely changed. My dad started with five cows back in 1954. In order to support a family, if you don’t have a niche market like organic [or] cheese, if you are selling to the public, you have to milk more cows,” he said, noting that they now milk 500 cows three times per day, seven days a week. Smith also pointed to the capital investment and the competing interest for land. “Today, the capital investment is phenomenal. You have to have a large land base and enough room for proper waste disposal which is monitored closely.” He said it costs about $2 million to start a dairy farm today. “You can’t hardly do it. That’s why so many farms have gone.”
And while Coble Dairy has gone away, fruits of its founder’s civic and philanthropic endeavors remain. From what his granddaughter, Staley Nance, and her husband Jim call “sophisticated” fundraising his efforts for what would become Lexington Memorial Hospital during the war years, to helping build the Kiwanis Kiddie Camp, to using his appointment chairmanship on the N.C. Highway Commission to push for highways across the state and right here in Davidson County, Coble’s demand for health care access and economic improvement went well beyond the dairy.
His daughter, Georganne Coble Bingham, remained close to her father, even after he moved to Florida following the sale of Coble’s Dairy. She fondly recalls riding around with her father while visiting the famers and their families and remembers one of his favorite pastimes was having breakfast at other farmers’ houses.
“My father was a humanitarian and he did a lot of things for families that people didn’t know about,” she explained. “A lot of the men my father worked with have passed on, but I heard from one a few years back. Every year at Christmas my father gave silver dollars to each of the employees based on how many years they worked for him. He would also give them a lesson on savings. One of them contacted me to tell me how much they were worth today. He had saved them all of those years and planned to leave them to his children. My father would have loved that story,” said Bingham.
On more than one occasion the Randolph County farm boy George Coble was told his dreams were ahead of his time, and perhaps they were. But we can let his legendary innovation and the willingness to take a chance on Davidson County serve as an inspiration to us all.