CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Homer Lanham started working at the old Valley Bell dairy plant on Charleston’s West Side in 1942. When he retired 44 years later in 1986, Homer handed the reins to his son Bruce, who monitors the pasteurization process at the dairy.

Today, at what is now the United Dairy plant, Bruce is showing his son, Matt, the ropes.

If all goes according to plan, by the time Matt is ready to retire someday, the family will have invested more than a century in the same dairy business.

“It’s been good. It’s a good job,” Bruce said. “Good benefits, and all that. That’s a good thing to pass on.”

It’s not easy work, though. The machines are loud, too loud for easy conversation, and they require a certain amount of dark, thick grease to run smoothly. Condensation drops from the ceiling and the metal pipes, making the cement floor slippery.

Bruce and his coworkers wear white jumpsuits covered with inevitable smudges and stains, and slip-resistant boots to keep from falling. He pauses to wipe the sweat from his brow and checks the levels on a giant tank.

Matt, he said, has proven himself to be a hard worker and a quick learner.

“The best quote I ever heard from him, he came home after three or four weeks of working with me and told my daughter, he said, ‘Dad’s really smarter than I ever thought he was,'” Bruce said.

He smiles proudly at the memory.

“I knew I had him then.”

It’s a legacy that’s important and valuable to his family as well as to his employers.

The dairy processes 1 million 8-ounce bottles of milk for school children in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia each week. It also processes another 500,000 gallons of milk each week, trucking in the product from farms and co-ops for miles around. On site the raw milk is pasteurized, homogenized and separated into skim, 1-percent, 2-percent and whole milk, and some of it is turned into chocolate and strawberry milk.

The liquid is kept in holding tanks, then transferred to coolers. At the same time, vats full of thick liquid plastic are being poured into molds, shaped into gallon jugs and carried down conveyor belts where they are slapped with labels and filled.

Still more machines put lids on the jugs and twist them to seal. Eventually they are loaded onto pallets, transported onto trucks and shipped to stores and grocery shelves.

It takes a staff of 53, working around the clock six days a week, to pull it off.

“It’s very hard to staff,” said Charlie Egnor, plant manager.

“We have a lot of good employees, but it’s a demanding business. It’s long hours, it’s hard work,” he added. “Sometimes you go through two or three people before you get to somebody who wants to stay a long time and make a career of it.”

By the time someone has been on staff for five years or more, they’ve learned to troubleshoot, to prevent problems and to act quickly if something goes wrong.

That’s the point at which a worker really becomes important to the task at hand, said Scott Womack, the plant’s quality assurance manager.

“They learn the business. They know what it takes to get it done. It’s a great relief to be able to depend on those guys,” he said.

Homer Lanham died the day after Thanksgiving last year, shortly before his grandson Matt was hired at United Dairy. In a way, though, Homer’s legacy lives on.

Bruce is a grandfather now. His daughter, a teacher, gave birth to twins just a few weeks ago, and Matt has a little girl named Peyton, who is 18 months old. Whatever Peyton and her new cousins decide to do with their lives, Bruce imagines the work ethic his father instilled in him, and that he instilled in his children, will eventually find its way to the next generation.

“It think it’s very important to teach kids … If you don’t teach ’em to work, they don’t know how to work,” Bruce said. “If parents show a good work ethic, it gets passed down to their kids.”

That, he said, is the real sign of a job well done.


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.