How We Got Started
In the early 1920s, Charles C. Dawe, a young man known as “C. C.”, was the manager of a few Piggly Wiggly grocery stores in Denver, Colorado. Looking for better opportunities, C. C. heard about a business based on buttermilk, the liquid remaining after cream was churned into butter.
Before the First World War, most buttermilk was simply poured into sewers. After the war, some buttermilk was fed in its liquid form to farm animals.
In 1926, C. C. bought a milk-drying plant in Denver, and began to dry buttermilk on a large, heated roller. The drying process drove water off the buttermilk, resulting in a better preserved product that was relatively rich in Vitamin A and B-complex vitamins. Because it was concentrated, the dried product could be shipped more economically, and it blended more uniformly into corn and soybean meal, the major components of animal feed.
Cod liver oil, a good source of Vitamin D, was another feed ingredient first used in the early 1920s. It too was poured directly into the feed mixer. Multiple sources of vitamins such as cod liver oil and buttermilk had not yet been combined successfully into a single, efficient multi-vitamin supplement.
One day a customer, a local cattle rancher, came into C. C.’s buttermilk-drying plant and said, “C. C., my daughter’s always been sickly. A while back, the doctor told us to spoon feed her this awful smelling stuff and it’s really perked her up. It’s cod liver oil. Might be good for cattle, too. How about mixing some cod liver oil into that dried buttermilk?”
Now C. C. Dawe was an intrepid entrepreneur. It was in his nature to say, “I can do that.” But while C. C. knew the rancher had a good idea, he also realized this would be quite a challenge: How could a viscous liquid like cod liver oil ever blend uniformly with so dry a powder? The whole thing might well ball up in a mess (this was years before emulsifiers were developed on an industrial scale).
And, indeed, C. C.’s first attempts at mixing cod liver oil directly into dried buttermilk resulted in just the mess he expected. So, by trial and error, he premixed cod liver oil into various absorbents. Finally, after trying several options, he developed a cod liver oil premix that would blend evenly throughout a batch of dried buttermilk. The resulting combination was free-flowing, an absolute necessity for further processing with corn and soybean meal in a feed mixer.
C. C. called his product “VITAMELK”. It was truly innovative: Never before had different sources of fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins been blended together successfully. The rancher’s cattle thrived and C. C. Dawe’s business took a big step forward. His invention of a multi-vitamin mixture made animal nutrition more comprehensive, accessible and affordable.
C. C.’s son, Vernon, was in high school at the time. It was his chore to clean out the mixer after the week’s batches of VITAMELK were blended and bagged off. Armed with a scraper, Vernon would jump down into the cavernous mixer. Once, as he recalled with pleasure decades later, Vernon fell asleep inside. That wouldn’t have been possible had that foul-smelling cod liver oil gummed up the floor and the walls of the mixer.
During the next 10 years, C. C. devised techniques to further concentrate many natural sources of vitamins, and to combine them while they were still liquids.
By 1936, the plant had grown from that first roller and mixer into a warren of tanks, pasteurizers, filters, condensers, vacuum pumps, expeller machines, and solvent extraction equipment.
Company headquarters moved to Chicago, where Vernon was managing the marketing department. Soon sales offices opened in Portland, Philadelphia, and London.