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Local Column

Schrader: Memories pour from an old milk bottle

The Hays family (front from left) young Donny, Bernice and Tommy, who were at the columnist’s parents’ 25th wedding anniversary in 1953. Standing in back are celebrants Vernon and Margaret Schrader.
The Hays family (front from left) young Donny, Bernice and Tommy, who were at the columnist’s parents’ 25th wedding anniversary in 1953. Standing in back are celebrants Vernon and Margaret Schrader.

For years I have wanted a milk bottle as a memento from the Hays Dairy in Waterman, since my folks were good friends with Tommy and Bernice Hays back in the 1940s and 50s. Recently, two young friends Michael Ball and Kerya Jewett surprised me with a 2-quart bottle with the Hays name on it. Now, I can share the story of the dairy and the family behind it.

Tommy and Bernice Hays owned a farm south of Waterman and had five children –
W. Gene, Jackie, Jill, Connie and Don. Only Don, Connie and Jackie still are around.

Tommy went into the dairy business in the late 1930s and at first partnered with his brother-in-law Hershel Douglas to buy the Earlville Butter business, then moved it to Waterman in 1939, when it became Hays Dairy. For 27 years, Tommy operated the creamery and even added a chain of drive-thru dairies around northern Illinois called Milk-O-Ramas. He sold the business in 1966 and passed away two years later.

Many Waterman folks my age may remember home milk delivery when Hays brought bottles in racks to your doorstep. My favorite was the half-pint bottle of cream that really made your corn flakes taste rich. They also produced their own butter and cottage cheese.

My folks always said the Hays family was considered wealthy by Waterman standards. Bernice had a taste for fine antiques, which you would see throughout their spacious farm home. The older siblings had their own thoroughbred horses and could be seen riding around their property along Preserve Road.

Bernice had the idea to open a fancy home furnishings store with designer dresses and chose Main Street in Waterman, opening The 30 Shop in 1952. Local people referred to it as a “little Marshall Fields.” Most of her clientele came from the Chicago suburbs and counties to the east. In 1955, she decided to expand and added an upscale eating area called The Kopper Kettle. Her daughter Jackie worked there and recalls Bernice’s signature dessert was her cheesecake. Bernice was the chef with some help in the kitchen. My mother used to visit Bernice and have lunch there, commenting it was a bit pricey for Waterman.

There is more to tell about the family. Their oldest son, W. Gene, was an accomplished musician, studying at the same Chicago music school as Lionel Hampton and knew him well. W. Gene played five instruments, but was best known for the marimba and vibraharp. I remember he could really make beautiful music with the those mallets using two, four or six at a time. He formed a musical ensemble, the VibraTones, that played all over northern Illinois.

When he was drafted during the Korean War and stationed in South Korea, the Army shipped his instruments over there so he could entertain the troops as part of USO shows. He played on the same stages as Bob Hope and Marilyn Monroe, as well as other stars too numerous to mention.

His younger brother Don also was musically gifted and formed his own group, The Cavaliers, which included two other Waterman boys, Rod Challand and Gerry Sawyer.

The Hays brothers went on to become entrepreneurs in the doughnut and chicken businesses. After operating his dad’s drive-thru dairies for a while, W. Gene bought the Hole-In-One doughnut franchise for Illinois and Indiana. Don partnered with him in Indiana and then was joined by another Waterman native, Paul Joranlien, to operate one in northern Florida. But for much of his career, Don has been in the food business, supplying major food outlets with chickens and restaurant equipment, including soft-serve ice cream makers. His business Southern Food Systems is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

So it is quite a family success story, and I was really pleased to reach both Don and Jackie by phone to catch up on old times.

• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at barry815@sbcgloabl.net or through P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. An archive of his past columns can be found on his website www.dekalbcountylife.com.

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