Editor’s note: This is the eighth installment of stories about Fulton Families. The monthly series will tell the stories of families that have either lived in Fulton for ages or perhaps only a short while — but the common bond will be they love the city and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. If you know of a family we should highlight, please email Ashley M. Casey, Valley News assistant editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Ashley M. Casey
It began with a cow.
Elon K. Rowlee and his bride, Gertrude Candee, received the small cow from Elon’s parents as a wedding present in 1917. Four years later, that cow inspired the start of the Fulton Dairy Farms Co., which lasted more than four decades.
In addition to his success in the dairy business, Elon went on to serve on the Fulton Common Council and was elected mayor for seven terms.
Today, the Rowlee name appears across the city of Fulton: Rowlee Beach Park, Rowlee Road in Volney, Rowlee Avenue in the city, the now-gone Rowlee Elementary School, and Elon’s grandson’s business, Rowlee Construction — not to mention the numerous Rowlee descendants who still populate the city.
Of the seven Rowlee children, four of the five remaining siblings call the city of Fulton home. They may not be as active in public life as their parents, but their devotion to the city endures.
‘The best bottle of milk’
Elon Rowlee and Fred Vant went into business together in 1921, equipping a milk house on Emery Street and contracting tenant farmers in Volney to provide milk.
“Dad was the first to homogenize milk in Fulton,” said Elaine Knight, the Rowlees’ daughter.
Fulton Dairy Farms worked with Sealright in the 1940s and ‘50s to perfect milk containers and packaging. Sealright made bottle caps and paper hoods for glass milk bottles.
Another Rowlee daughter, Judy Howard, said her father started out with six customers to whom he delivered milk on bicycle. She wrote in “Fulton: The Stories from Our Past that Inspire Our Future” that Elon “believed that no customer was too small or too far away to serve.”
As Fulton Dairy Farms grew, many people worked as peddlers and bottlers for the Rowlees. Elaine and Judy both recalled many men who were headed to the service stopping by to say goodbye to the Rowlees.
“They’d knock on the kitchen door to come say goodbye to my mother and father,” Elaine said. “It was always very touching. It was a sad time. Mom and Dad always said a prayer for them.”
During the war, Elon Rowlee didn’t forget these soldiers’ wives. Judy said old women still approach her with stories of Elon coming around on collection day, looking in his book and saying, “Let’s see … says here you’re all paid up.”
“Dad wouldn’t charge some of these war wives for their deliveries,” Judy said. “He just reached out to the community in that way to many, many people.”
Janice and Bill Fay, Elon’s daughter and son-in-law, opened their home to migrant African-American ministers who participated in the Fulton Council of Churches’ Migrant Education Program. Bill coached a baseball team made up of black Southern workers, outfitting them in white pants from Fulton Dairy Farms and jerseys from B&T Sport Shop.
Janice, who passed away in 2009, recounted this story in 1997 in her Fulton Patriot column “That reminds me.” She printed a letter from her daughter, Trudy Duisenberg: “It wasn’t until much, much later that I truly realized you and Dad were taking a firm and loving stand for civil rights.”
Elon expected his seven children to help out with the dairy and around the house as well. The children washed bottles and peddled milk.
Elaine and Judy both recalled the harsh winters of the 1940s and how dairy farmers would deliver milk to the processing plant in sleighs pulled by great Belgians, Percherons and Clydesdales.
“They’d snort the steam out their nostrils. They’d wake you up in the morning when they pulled in the drive,” Elaine said.
“As a youngster, I got up lots of times and bundled up and went with my father to peddle milk,” she added. “Everybody always called out to him — ‘Hey, mayor! Hello, mayor!’”
In the public eye
In the 1930s, Elon Rowlee served as alderman of the Fourth Ward. He was elected to seven terms as mayor of Fulton in the 1940s and the 1960s. He also served on the Oswego County Republican Committee and the Oswego County Board of Supervisors.
Gertrude was involved in the Fulton Women’s Club and Shakespeare Club, and Elon participated in Rotary and the Masons. They encouraged their children to get involved in the community, but didn’t pressure them to emulate Elon’s political career.
“It was a requirement that we maintained decent homes and be faithful to our work,” Judy said. “They let us grow in the areas we preferred to grow in. They didn’t expect us or require us to do anything except be good citizens.”
“The hardest part growing up because your father was mayor (was) people you didn’t even know disliked you,” Elaine said. “That’s hard on a kid, but you get a stiff back.”
Judy said her late brother, Clyde, and his wife, Dawn, were “happy at home.”
“Our life was very public because our dad was a mayor and a businessman, so our house was very busy,” she said. “I think Clyde stepped back from that. When he came back from World War II, he went right to work at the milk plant.”
Clyde was a tank commander in Europe during the Battle of the Bulge. He also helped liberate concentration camp prisoners. Judy said Clyde “was never able to talk about the horror he experienced.”
Clyde also helped his son, Larry, develop his business, Rowlee Construction. Larry’s company built the Pizza Hut, Kinney Drugs and several housing developments in Fulton. Founded in 1969, Rowlee Construction has worked as far north as Plattsburgh, New York, and as far south as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Larry’s sons, Ted and Taber Rowlee, have followed him into the construction business.
‘Honor thy father and mother’
Judy said “people think you’re slacking off” if you don’t participate in community politics or clubs, but she’s happy with her family and her church. She attends Mount Pleasant Methodist Church, and a sermon there inspired her to get involved in preserving some of her family history.
When local author Jim Farfaglia held the Fulton Memoirs Project, the other Rowlee sisters begged Judy to write about Fulton Dairy Farms. They said they didn’t have time to sit down and write the story of the Rowlees, and Judy said she didn’t either.
“I was totally out of my comfort zone. … I guess I’m shy. I was so nervous to go into strange waters for me, to attend a class,” she said.
After six weeks of urging, one Friday night Jane Rowlee Shaver called Judy to plead with her once more. Judy refused.
“I hung up and I felt truly bad,” she said. “Mom and Dad never said no or turned away anyone who knocked on our door … it hit me: ‘honor thy father and thy mother.’”
Judy recalled a recent sermon at church urging people not to ignore the Holy Spirit’s suggestions, even if they didn’t think they had the time or energy to do it.
“In that instant, I said, ‘OK, Lord, I will do it, but you know I can’t. I don’t have the time or the information. If you’re telling me to do this, I’ll leave it in your lap,’” Judy said.
Later that weekend, as Judy was preparing for a large dinner party, her friend Marilyn Datz — Fred Vant’s daughter — called with a genealogy question. Judy had the answer Marilyn needed, and Marilyn had a May 30, 1935, clipping of The Fulton Patriot: an article about Fulton Dairy Farms.
Judy took it as a sign. She joined Jim Farfaglia’s class and wrote the story of her father’s business. Her memoir — “The Story of a Little Giant: A Biography of Elon K. Rowlee” — makes up one chapter of “Fulton: The Stories from Our Past that Inspire Our Future,” which is sold at the Fulton Public Library.
“From the moment I walked into that room at the library and saw old acquaintances — Vince Caravan, Fran Sullivan … my goodness, it was wonderful reliving our experiences of growing up in Fulton and being part of our families in town,” Judy said.
“If you didn’t really know the person, you knew the name,” Elaine said of Fulton. “ Fulton was just a very handy, hearty kind of town to grow up in. You’d expect Mickey Rooney to be walking down the street. You didn’t know it at the time, but I felt lucky to have grown up here.”