It’s Father’s Day – the day we honor and remember our fathers. You probably already know Milbank claims Jeremiah Milbank as its father. But did you know Milbank might not have been called Milbank if not for milk? Condensed milk to be exact.
It all started with a train ride, as did just about everything in Milbank. But this train ride happened in 1856, long before Milbank became a town. Gail Borden, an inventor, was traveling by train. Borden was struggling with keeping his dream alive. He had received a patent to condense milk and knew he could revolutionize the way milk was processed, preserved, and shipped to prevent spoilage. Years of experimentation had left Borden with a great idea, but also a mountain of debt and no way to build the plant he needed to manufacture his product.
That day, he happened to get a seat by Jeremiah Milbank, a moderately successful financier. Milbank was a speculator in Texas territorial bonds, a manufacturer, a railroad investor, and a partner in the wholesale food distributor I. & R. Milbank & Co. Milbank listened to Borden’s concept and agreed to fund the business in return for 50 percent of the stock in the company. The Gail Borden Condensed Milk Company became the New York Condensed Milk Company, and later the Borden Company.
When the Civil War started, condensed milk became a vital commodity for the military, and the Union Army became their biggest customer. When the war was over, Borden began selling the product to consumers under the name Eagle Brand condensed milk – a product you probably still buy today. Incidentally, Borden pioneered the use of glass milk bottles in 1885, the year after Jeremiah died. Before his death, though, Jeremiah blazed other trails.
Which takes us back to the railroad. Mr. Milbank had amassed a fortune with Borden and his other most successful endeavor, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad. He sat on the executive board and was director (a fancy word for largest investor) for the Hastings Division. Until 1880, the railroad’s tracks only went as far west as Ortonville, Minnesota. Jeremiah Milbank was instrumental in extending the tracks into South Dakota and the railroad named the new town after him – Milbank Junction. (Legend has it, he won the right to name the city after himself in a poker game held in a train car as it rumbled down the track.)
According to Arlo Levisen of the Grant County Historical Society, Jeremiah Milbank also gave the fledgling town of Milbank $15,000 to construct a non-denominational church and sent an architect from New York City to design it. The church was christened in 1883, and later became the First Congregational Church that still stands at 407 East 3rd Avenue in Milbank.
But the city of Milbank was not Jeremiah’s only child. He had a son, Joseph, and a daughter, Elizabeth. Joseph honored his father by naming his son Jeremiah Milbank. By that time, the Milbank family had amassed serious wealth and Fortune magazine described them as “one of the oldest, richest, most proper, and least publicized families of the American business community.”
Jeremiah Sr. – as he was later known – commuted between his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, to Manhattan on his 75-foot cruiser yacht, sent his children to the best schools, and held lavish galas and debutante balls. But, although the family was amongst the wealthiest of the time, the Milbanks were subdued, religious, and charitable. His grandfather – the original Jeremiah Milbank – started the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, and was a trustee of the Baptist Rochester Theological Seminary.
Jeremiah Sr. helped spread his faith in more modern way. Cecil B. DeMille approached him to invest in a motion picture company he hoped to start. Scott Eyman, in his biography of Jeremiah Milbank Sr., says ” Milbank was evincing only polite interest in investing in the proposed company until DeMille mentioned his greatest dream was to make a movie about the life of Christ.”
DeMille was later quoted as saying, “The only thing that moved JM to put his resources behind me was that first mention of the King of Kings.” Milbank invested, and DeMille, went on to become the father of the Hollywood movie industry. DeMille produced the movie, The King of Kings, as a silent film, and it was eventually seen by 800 million viewers. Samson and Delilah made in 1949 and The Ten Commandments created in 1956, were also box office champions.
Jeremiah Sr., founded the Jeremiah Milbank Foundation in 1924 to honor of his grandfather – “the milkman.” The foundation aimed to reintegrate into American life those who suffered disabilities during World War I. In 1917, Milbank, together with the Red Cross, had co-founded the International Center for the Disabled. The foundation continued that work and also funded studies to aid in the eradication of infant paralysis.
In the political arena, Jeremiah Sr. was a proponent of limited government and supported activities to foster self-sufficiency, personal responsibility, and private initiative. Together with his friend Herbert Hoover, he created the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Mr. Milbank served as the organization’s treasurer for 25 years.
Jeremiah Milbank, Jr. was born in Manhattan in March 1920. According to an interview he gave to the Greenwich Time, he said after he graduated from Yale and Harvard, and was stationed in the Pacific theater during World War II, he realized “the best thing that could happen to me would be to work with my dad.”
Known as Jerry, Jeremiah Jr. founded and led the Milbank Foundation for Rehabilitation to promote independence and a high quality of life for the physically and mentally disabled. “The eventual goal is to determine what our clients are capable of doing best, whether it’s handling a computer or becoming involved in food service,” he said, during the same interview with the Greenwich Time in 1991. “Then we train them, get them a job, and follow them to make sure it was the right opportunity for them.” Jerry, like his father, gave generously to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and served as their president and chairman. He was also president of the International Center for the Disabled and the Jeremiah Milbank Foundation.
Jeremiah Milbank III, has worked for over 30 years in investment businesses. He, too, serves as president of the Jeremiah Milbank Foundation and sits on the board of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
If you are celebrating Fathers Day today and your father didn’t start a railroad, have a city named after him, or leave you a million dollars, don’t be disappointed. As the late Billy Graham said, “The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children is not money or material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.”