Immigrant family built a dairy empire
Though they came to the United States in 1910 -- newcomers by Shawnee's standards -- the Zarda family is perhaps one of the best-known in Shawnee.
New families know them because of their tremendous impact on economic development, but those who have lived in the Kansas City area for 20 years or more remember the Zardas for the Shawnee-based Zarda Dairy, the largest dairy in Kansas at the time the family sold the business.
Starting almost immediately upon their arrival in the country, the Zardas grew the dairy from three cows in Kansas City, Mo., to a company with nearly 1,000 employees, a manufacturing plant in Shawnee, facilities in Wichita and Junction City, and stores all over the Kansas City area.
Ben Zarda knows much about the history of dairies in Kansas City, having taken over the business his grandfather started with his brother, Tom. Ben Zarda can cover the story from when there were about 120 dairies in the area to the last years of Zarda Dairy in the 1980s, when family-owned dairies were few and far between. He knew the ins and outs of the business early on, by necessity.
"If you were born in a dairy family, you worked in a dairy family," Zarda said. "You didn't get your birthday off, and you didn't get Easter or any other holiday off."
There was one chore, however, that he somehow escaped.
"I never milked a cow," Zarda says. "I grew up on a dairy farm with up to 100 cows, and I never milked a cow."
Through the years, the business survived three wars, two droughts, a fire, the Great Depression, extortion and corporate attacks.
Positively going to America
The Zarda family came from the German state of Bavaria. It was in the early 1900s, with people starving to death and conditions worsening, that the family decided to move to America.
Frank and Mary Zarda had three boys, Frank, Paul and Joseph, and three girls, Mary, Anna and Pauline. Mary saved the money she got from having the children to sell butter, eggs and cheese in the nearby village of Passau, hoping to gather enough to get her family out of Germany.
"She'd seen the war clouds looming again," Ben Zarda said. "... It wasn't my grandfather's plan to come over. She said 'the children and I are going to America, and it's up to you if you want to come, but irregardless, the children and I are going.'"
The family had some relatives in Kansas City who helped them get to the United States in 1910, finding a house for them at 25th and Jarboe in Kansas City, Mo. The family quickly found work through the German community; Ben Zarda's father, Joseph, worked in a packing house, and one uncle worked in a furniture store and the other in a brewery.
"They went to work, I think, within two days of getting here," Ben Zarda said.
Meanwhile, their strong-willed mother took over running the family household.
"She kind of ruled," Ben Zarda said. "The boys would give her the cash; any change they had they could keep."
With the money her sons gave her, the Zardas eventually bought three cows -- the first in what would soon become a booming dairy business. They first pastured the cows in their back yard and took them to Loose Park to eat in the spring, yoking them so they didn't wander too far.
"A lot of people had a cow, and if they didn't, they bought (milk) from a neighbor, and this is kind of how the Zarda Dairy got started," Ben Zarda said.
Frank Zarda Sr. would take a two-wheeled cart with a barrel of milk and travel up and down the street in their Kansas City neighborhood, calling out for those who needed milk, before breakfast and before dinner. With a ladel, he would fill up the glasses neighbors would bring out, trading for food or, sometimes, for money.
Soon, the Zardas bought a few more cows, who were taking up too much space pasturing in the park.
"Business was growing, and the city people came out and told them they really couldn't do that," Ben Zarda said.
The family began to look for land on the Kansas side of the state line, since Southwest Boulevard turned into 10 Highway in Kansas and provided an easy route to the more populated areas.
In the 1920s, the family moved just outside Merriam and joined St. Joseph Catholic Church. They built a cow barn, with the herd growing to 30 or 40 cows. But in 1926, the barn burnt down when the family Model T shorted out and sparked a fire. Luckily, only one cow died, but the family was without a barn.
Ben Zarda says that's when a well-known Shawnee resident came to the rescue. Remi Caenen came to the Zarda home and invited them to put the cows in his barn and use his feed and hay. The two families shared the Caenen barn for most of the winter, until the Zardas rebuilt a barn.
"I don't know that Mr. Caenen ever charged them," Zarda said. "I believe to this day that that was just a neighborly gesture."
Building the business
Though they lived just a village apart in Germany, Zarda's father, Joseph, didn't meet his mother, Mary, until they were in America. His mother came to America after World War I due to the bad economic conditions in Germany, living with her sister in Westport.
They married in 1920, when Joe was 29 and Mary was 19. Joe proudly learned English in an effort to become Americanized, but Mary chose not to. So when their children went to school at St. Joseph, the nuns had to teach them English, along with many other children. Ben Zarda was the second eldest of their eight children, Joe, Edward, Mary, James, Tom, Florence and Helen.
Frank and Paul also married and had children, and the growing family helped immensely with the growing dairy, though there were several challenges. First, during World War I, Frank was drafted into the army. Then there was the Depression and droughts of the 1930s. Ben Zarda said it was a struggle to make it through the tough times.
"It was sheer determination; they wouldn't ask for help," he said. "My uncle wouldn't even take his World War I pension -- that was a hand out."
In 1941, Country Club Dairy, which would someday become Fairmount, had bought up many other dairies and tried to buy out the Zardas. But Ben Zarda said the family wouldn't take the offer.
"It would have been like quitting or giving up," he said. "They'd been through so much."
In fact, Paul even jokingly responded "I don't think we would like to sell, but would you guys like to sell?" -- a family joke because decades later, the Zardas actually did buy Fairmount.
When World War II rolled around, it brought a series of changes at the dairy. In 1942, Paul Jr. and Frank Jr. enlisted in the army. Ben Zarda says they enlisted rather than waiting to be drafted because they wanted to get away from the dairy cows. Frank Sr. developed cancer soon afterwards, and upon his death, Paul Sr. and Joseph bought his family's stock. Frank's descendants would go on to start Zarda Barbecue.
The war meant Ben Zarda, then a freshman in high school, and his brothers had to quit school to keep the business going. By the end of the war, Ben was 20 years old and didn't want to go back to high school, so he decided to stay in the milk business.
Then he and brothers Jim and Joe were drafted into the army during the Korean War, so Ed, Tom, Helen and their mother had to help run the dairy.
When Ben returned from the war, he married his wife, Betty VanDeBerghe, and bought his uncle Paul's stock in the business. The Zardas bought the ground along Shawnee Mission Parkway in eastern Shawnee, and after borrowing $65,000, started becoming the largest dairy in the area.
In 1954, the Zardas built a processing plant and got new equipment from another business that sold out.
"That's how we really got started in the upper tier of processing and selling," Ben Zarda said, adding that growing was largely a result of pinching pennies. "We went through tough times; sometimes, I couldn't even cash my own check."
Ben says this is why his cousins and most of his siblings got out of the business, until it was just he and Tom running the dairy.
"It was just a hard way to make a living, and those who got married along the way, it just wasn't enough to support them," Zarda said. "To work for the dairy, you almost had to sacrifice a decent wage."
But in the 1950s and 60s, the dairy began to grow, something Ben attributes to the Zardas' willingness to be innovative. The Zardas got contract to provide milk to multiple airlines, hospitals and hotels; they were the first dairy to process milk in tanks.
They bought up other dairies in Basehor, Lenexa, Wichita, Topeka and eventually the Fairmount Dairy, making them the largest in Kansas. And according to a survey done at the time, Zarda Dairy milk was in 60 percent of homes in the area.
Other major dairies tried to put the Zardas out of business, attempting to force them out of grocery stores. While the Zardas expanded their business to offer cottage cheese, sour cream and bread, others kept trying to close them down because the Zardas offered a gallon of milk for 10 cents less than their competitors.
"It became a real factor on the market, and as that grew through the 50s, the major dairies conspired to put us out of business, and they were convicted of it," Ben Zarda said.
After a 13-year lawsuit during the 1960s and 70s, the Zardas finally won out over the big companies.
The dairy was also a target of extortion. Once, a man called and said he would put arsenic in the Zarda milk at the stores, demanding $50,000. He was caught the next day and sentenced to five years in prison.
In the 1970s, the Zardas began making ice cream, coming up with special flavors like peppermint stick and white chocolate chip for hotels and restaurants. Zarda banana splits, made in the Shawnee store, were nearly world famous; they were written up in New Yorker magazine. The Zardas then added popcorn to their business and even got into the convenience store and gasoline business.
"If we were in the business, we were the biggest and the best," Ben Zarda said.
In 1987, the 78-year business came to an end when Mid-America Dairymen, Inc., purchased the business. At the time, with facilities in Wichita and Junction City, Kan., as well, between 800 and 1,000 people worked for the company.
In their semi-retirement, Tom and Ben Zarda have made another large mark on Shawnee with their developments. While they still owned the dairy, they began buying ground, most of it in Shawnee.
Now that ground has become developments like Perimeter Park Business Park and Shawnee Crossings, as well as Shawnee Memory Gardens cemetery.
"Whenever we see an opportunity, we seem to have the courage to jump in," Ben said. "Almost without exception, everything we did was profitable. We're very thankful, the city of Shawnee was still a country town."