Former Pine State Creamery president dies at 81

ajames@newsobserver.comFebruary 25, 2013 




— Before store-bought milk came in a variety of flavors, with a range of fat percentages, there was home-delivered milk. And in 20th-century Raleigh that usually involved Ben Kilgore and Pine State Creamery.

Former company president Benjamin Wesley Kilgore III died Friday after a long career in business and community service. He was 81.

Along with delivering milk door todoor, Pine State Creamery provided milk to more than 30 public school systems across the state.

People who were elementary school students in the 1950s remember scooping Pine State ice cream out of small cups with a wooden spoon.

“(Ben) gave excellent service to the schools and he was a blessing to the community,” said former Wake County school board member J.C. Knowles.

Kilgore was born in Louisville, Ky. He graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1954 with a degree in agriculture. A student in the Army’s Reserve Officers Training Corps, he entered the Army for two years and was discharged as an infantry first lieutenant. During the summers he would come to Raleigh to work at Pine State Creamery. The company, in what is now Glenwood South, was established in 1919 by his grandfather, Benjamin Kilgore, once the state chemist.

The creamery building remains a landmark but is now home to a variety of commercial and food-service businesses.

Path to success

Pine State’s origins date to World War I, when the Army asked N.C. State to provide pasteurized milk for Camp Polk, a tank corps training center in Raleigh.

Despite the family connection, Kilgore’s path to president was hard-earned. He began his career at the company washing milk bottles. He later became a route salesman, making deliveries out of a truck, and then an area salesman. He was named president of the company in 1970.

Kilgore loved business. In 1976, he was named Tar Heel of the Week in The News & Observer.

Then 45-year-old Kilgore told the N&O reporter that when he was in college, he would make sandwiches at night with a couple of classmates. They would sell them to fraternities, sororities and dormitories.

“We did real well with that sandwich business,” he said.

Pine State, which began with eight employees, grew into a regional processor with hundreds of workers. It supplied milk, ice cream and other products across a three-state area that stretched from Greensboro to the coast and from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to South Hill, Va. For many, Pine State was part of the fabric of daily life.

“When I was growing up here in Raleigh, our family was pretty much a Pine State family,” said Raleigh native Marshall Wyatt, who grew up during the 1950s.

He said their milkman, Mr. Lee, would arrive at breakfast time in the company’s signature bright orange truck.

“He would come on in the front door, come on back to the breakfast room, then he’d greet everybody by name and go back to the kitchen and stick the milk in the refrigerator.” If the family was having a morning devotional when he arrived, the milk-man would bow his head, wait until the family said “Amen,” then put the milk away.

After 77 years in business, Pine State closed in 1996 because of financial struggles. While other dairy producers were selling out to huge chains, Pine State fought hard to remain independent. Troubles first surfaced in 1992 when Kilgore pleaded guilty to a price-fixing scheme involving rigged bids for milk. Kilgore’s lawyer at the time said the school milk contracts were unprofitable and that Kilgore was acting to save employees’ jobs at the struggling company.

Outside of work

Kilgore’s leadership was appreciated in other industries as well. He was an innovator in public transportation. In 1975, he helped transform the city’s failing bus system. As chairman of the Raleigh Transit Authority, he decided to give away free bus rides for a couple of days.

After the free-ride period, several hundred people started taking the bus.

In a 1976 interview, he said, “We are trying to break habits developed since Henry Ford brought on his automobile.”

He helped promote the cost-savings for a family that used public transportation rather than automobiles, and the benefit for low-income families that may not have other options.

Kilgore was an active member of the community. In 2004, he was inducted in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Wake County Hall of Fame following years of serving on the board of the nonprofit. Under Kilgore’s guidance, the organization began a day camping program at Camp Charles M. Griffin and built the new Boys Club.

He was also president of the Kiwanis Club of Raleigh in 1967.

Kilgore was the past president of the Rex Hospital Foundation and past campaign chairman for the United Fund of Wake County.

He was a member of White Memorial Presbyterian Church for more than 50 years and served as a deacon and elder for the church.

Kilgore was also an active member of the Wolfpack Club for the past 44 years.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations placed in Kilgore’s honor to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Wake County, 701 North Raleigh Blvd., Raleigh, NC 27610.

James: 919-553-7234

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