Before newspaper “crusade,” tainted milk was killing Oregon babies

A 'modern' Oregon dairy farm

By Finn J.D. John

In the late summer of 1909, a dairy farmer near Portland started getting worried. His barn cats kept dying, and after a few days he’d figured out what was killing them: The milk from his cows.

This whole time, of course, he’d been shipping gallons of the same milk off to Portland to be fed to babies and young children.

So he went to the state dairy and food commissioner and asked what he should do.

The commissioner’s advice, in essence, was, “It’s just tuberculosis; don’t worry about it.”

 “Tuberculosis milk may kill cats,” the commish reassured the worried farmer, “but it will fatten babies.”

That didn’t sit right with the dairy man, so he stopped by the offices of the Portland Journal on his way home. And that was how the great Portland “pure milk crusade” was launched.

Two Journal reporters immediately set out for the offices of the dairy commissioner to learn the truth. When they got there, the older of the two, John Wilson, set the tone for the interview by calling the commissioner a “baby killer.”

The commissioner backpedaled, explained, denied, and finally demanded to know what business of the newspaper’s it was, anyway.

“You’re a liar,” Wilson shot back, and somebody threw a punch, and the fight was on. The other reporter -Marshall Dana, who was at the time brand-new on the job - had to physically separate the two before somebody got hurt.

The next day, Wilson quit his job at the newspaper. It’s not clear whether this was prompted by the scene in the commissioner’s office; getting into a fistfight with an interviewee would get a reporter canned in a heartbeat today, but 100 years ago the life of a newspaper guy was much less circumscribed.

 

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