David Brooks, co-owner of Ligon & Bobo Funeral Home in Lebanon, and Mark Ezell, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, have never crossed paths but share a common thirst for a natural, creamy white beverage.
They are milk men.
The commissioner, a fourth-generation member of his family to work in the dairy business, became president and CEO of Purity Dairies in 2001 following in the shoes of his grandfather, Miles Ezell, who started Ezell’s Dairy in 1925.
For Brooks, it’s simply that he likes milk and milk bottles. In fact, he has amassed a collection of 200 or so milk bottles, representing now-defunct dairies that once delivered milk directly to the doorsteps of tens of thousands of Middle Tennessee milk drinkers.
The men are sharing their enthusiasm for the lacteous liquid in the form of two displays that debut during Granville’s Heritage Day at the grand opening of the From the Farm to Your Table Agriculture Museum at 10 a.m. Saturday.
The Ezell family has gifted Granville with a 1942 Ezell’s Dairy Mack milk delivery truck, while Brooks has loaned the museum 30 gleaming milk bottles from Midstate dairies including several from Wilson and Smith counties.
“I started about 10 years ago. The first one was probably a Johnson’s Dairy bottle,” Brooks said of what was once a prominent Lebanon dairy. “I would go to antique stores and see a bottle and say, ‘I don’t have that bottle.’ I didn’t realize there were that many.”
After filling a showcase at the funeral home, he began bringing the bottles home.
“Some of them are rare. Those bottles will bring several hundred dollars. The square ones were the last ones they made. Before that they were round. They quit making glass milk bottles in the ‘50s. Then they went to cartons,” said Brooks, noting there is a National Milk Bottle Collectors Association.
About his glass menagerie, he said he found most of them in antique stores and at flea markets.
“The majority are Tennessee bottles, and most of mine are local from Wilson County and the surrounding counties. I have one from Oakwood Dairies in Watertown and an Alexander Dairy bottle from Hartsville. You don’t see many of them. The Alexander family was in the funeral business too, so that’s another reason I like that bottle,” he said.
While Perfection and Johnson Dairies were the most prominent in Wilson County in the mid-20th century (the Perfection Dairy building still stands on the corner of Forest Avenue and North Cumberland, while Johnson’s Dairy was located near the spot now occupied by Walgreens Pharmacy on West Main Street), Brooks has discovered that Lebanon also had an Eastover Dairy and Bingham Dairy, and there was a G.A. Harris Dairy in Gladeville.
Milk from the ground up
A native of Carthage, Brooks began his career with Sanderson Funeral Home in his hometown while in the eighth grade. In 1993, he and his friend Clark McKinney, also from Carthage, purchased Ligon & Bobo Funeral Home, which is in the 1828 Caruthers House on West Main Street.
Mark Ezell’s involvement in milky ways came through the family. His grandfather began Ezell’s Dairy in 1925 when there were 200 licensed dairies operating in Davidson County. Previously, his great-grandfather had gone broke in the dairy business.
Said Ezell, “Pop (his grandfather) started his own dairy trying to support his brothers and sisters because his daddy had lost everything. My grandpa never had enough money to own his own farm. In 1925 on West Meade Farm, Dr. Ben Cowden rented him the cows and gave him a loan for $450 for rent on the farm. He was so poor he even had to rent the equipment and trucks.”
Miles Ezell later merged with several other Nashville dairy families including the Gasser brothers. The group changed the name to Purity Dairies (as Miles loved the name Purity for a milk company) in 1945 and finished building the newest and nicest plant in Davidson County. The Ezell family sold the business in 1998. The Purity brand name remains a brand leader today in the Middle Tennessee region.
Mark worked his way from entry-level to eventually serve in a range of senior roles at Purity Dairies as well as Dean Foods, a Fortune 500 Company, where he focused on brand development. He earned national recognition for his work on campaigns including the memorable “Milk Mustache – Got Milk?” campaign.
A graduate of Lipscomb University, he reminisced saying, “After graduate school at Tennessee Tech, I ran a home delivery milk route for a year-plus in the early ‘80s and was able to learn a lot about selling Purity products. We had home delivery longer than anybody in the state of Tennessee and stopped in the mid-2000s.”
While he never drove the 1945 Ezell Mack dairy truck that’s been put out to pasture, he divulged why the family decided to pass it along to the community that calls itself “Tennessee’s Mayberry Town.”
“When I got up here, it was my first trip to Granville and outside of our major market, Nashville, although we had sold Purity products in the area, Granville to me seemed to have a little touch of Mayberry, and No. 2, they’re keepers of history. They really preserve history, and they try to tell stories in interesting way. I think folks here are warm and charming folks and we are honored to have our Purity delivery truck live here permanently,” said Ezell.
“They emphasize humble beginnings of communities, and that reminds me of the men my granddad, father and uncles were aspiring to be. It made sense to our family, ‘What if we preserve this truck as a legacy of when people were doing home delivery and how God blessed us as we went from that home delivery beginning with Pop to becoming a top regional company.’”
At Granville Heritage Day on Saturday, July 11, the From the Farm to Your Table Ag Museum grand opening will be held at 10 a.m. There will be a celebration of Middle Tennessee Dairies and the dedication of the Ezell’s Dairy milk truck. The museum is located about 36 miles from downtown Lebanon in Jackson County. For information, go to granvilletn.com or call (931) 653-4151.