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100 Things - Hoover’s Dairy

Why is a tiny mom-and-pop dairy in the Niagara County hamlet of Sanborn on our list of 100 things every Western New Yorker should do at least once? ¶ Because the cream rises to the top. ¶ So good is the eggnog from Hoover’s Dairy, rich and thick and kissed by nutmeg, that Hoover’s turns into a madhouse as Christmas nears. One Michigan businessman en route to Manhattan detours annually to Sanborn to buy it. ¶ “He does it every year and takes it with him to Manhattan,” marveled Rob Hoover, when we stopped in on Monday. ¶ Hoover’s Dairy is on Hoover Road. It is not to be confused with a store/restaurant the Hoovers opened in 2008 around the block on Ward Road. You can buy Hoover’s wares there, or at local farmers markets. ¶ But for that full-fledged, full-fat experience, turn on Hoover Road, and head toward that dairy. ¶ What year is this, 1950? The modest sign (“Hoover’s Dairy, Cash and Carry”) is easy to miss. A milk truck, with the slogan “From the Moo to You,” sits by the unprepossessing entrance. Hoover’s still delivers.

Hesitantly pushing open the dairy door, we found ourselves in a small customer area with price lists, bulletin boards and a little counter. Beyond the counter was a hive of noise and steam. I stood and stared.

Water covered the red tile floor. Workers sloshed around in the puddles, wearing big boots. One massive, clattering machine – Hoover told me later it dated to the 1960s – was sterilizing bottles. A machine next to it was whirring the bottles around on a carousel and splashing them full of chocolate milk. I thought of Willy Wonka’s factory.

“The chocolate milk is the best,” declared Andrew Martin of Niagara Falls, one of a steady trickle of customers that day. “My wife read the ingredients and said, ‘It’s just milk and syrup.’ ”

Hoover’s uses only glass bottles. Like the home delivery, it’s a throwback to the past.

“Maybe it’s psychological, but it seems to taste better from a glass bottle,” said Martin. “It’s fresh and cold.”

The milk the dairy processes comes from local suppliers. Hoover’s had cows years ago, though, and might again. Rob Hoover gets a glint in his eye when he talks about that.

He is a gentle man of few words, many of them dairy lingo. The milk is “flash-pasteurized,” which makes it taste fresher. The skim milk is “cold milk processed,” giving it more body. That handwritten list of milk deliveries? That’s a “load sheet.”

“I’m like sixth generation,” he said.

Hoover’s Dairy is 96 years old. But the Hoovers been farming around here since the 1840s. The milky way continues. Rob’s children, and the children of his brother, Tom, already help out. Every day at about 5 a.m., the old machines spring into action. Thousands of quarts of milk – plain, chocolate and strawberry – are packed weekly into hundreds of old wooden crates.

The crates! They were everywhere, stenciled with faded names: Walck, Heffler, Vetter.

“Different dairies went out of business, and we bought their cases,” Hoover explained.

Studying them, I grew nostalgic. I’d felt this way recently – but where? It dawned on me: At Voelker’s Lanes, another stop on our 100 Things tour. In that old Buffalo bowling alley, the collection of vintage bowling balls had told a similar story – about how where once there were many, now there are few.

Well, no use crying over spilled milk. Happily, after decades of homogenization, we are seeing a new appreciation of the unique, the historic, the artisan. Let’s drink a toast to that.