Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: The Great Barrington case of watered milk

Our Berkshires

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GREAT BARRINGTON — It was a rather skim day in Superior Court in Pittsfield on Jan. 19, 1920, Judge Nelson P. Brown presiding. Fred W. Barris was foreman of the three-Pittsfield-men jury.

In the first case of the morning, Frederick L. Marion of Winchester, a state inspector, took the witness box. He related how he had obtained a sample of milk suspected of having too much water content. He said that before tests were made "it was customary to turn the milk over a couple of times in order that it might mix properly. Cream, as is well known, rises to the top of the lacteal liquid and in order to make a fair test, this would all be mixed in before specimens are extracted," The Berkshire Eagle reported.

Marion called the conveyance in which accused farmer Andrew Barbieri took his milk to the James W. Noonan place in Great Barrington a "democrat wagon" or "democrat carriage" — terms he said were the only ways he knew to describe such an antiquated cart.

Defense attorney Thomas F. Cassidy wondered if he meant Prohibition wagon. This brought chuckles from jurors.

Marion suggested there was from 25 to 30 percent too much water in the sample.

Charles A. Wells, a veteran milk tester with three years' experience, testified as to the results of an evaporation test.

Barbieri scribbled a note to his legal representative huffing that the tests were unfair and that "no stray water had found its way into the milk he delivered to Noonan."

Wells hedged his testimony. He said he didn't want to go into specifics with the defendant within earshot. When pressed by Cassidy, Wells said he found in one sample 43 100ths of 1 percent added water.

On redirect by District Attorney Frank H. Wright, Wells said the sample was 89 percent water, compared with a normal 88 percent.


On the stand in his own defense, Barbieri said he had eight cows and he never watered his milk, the newspaper told readers.

Wright quizzed if the cows were healthy.

"So far as I know."

"You know a cow when you see one, don't you?" Wright pressed.

"Yes, sir."

"That is, you know the difference between a cow and a bull."

"Yes, sir."

"This case is largely `bull,'" interjected Cassidy.

Barbieri said he was paid 8 cents a quart for milk.

The farmer's son, 12-year-old Andrew John Barbieri, said the milk was not watered. He said he delivered the morning and afternoon milk to Noonan on Oct. 12, as usual, at 5 p.m. He said he carried 40 12- and 16-quart cans.

He said the tester took a sample from one of the Noonan cans, not a Barbieri can.

Noonan in his turn on the stand said he had poured some of the Barbieri milk into another can. He said it was some of the morning's milk. He said he received milk from five dairies besides his own.

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Barbieri's wife, Nora, who did most of the milking, was so hoarse, Cassidy suggested answers and she nodded. She, too, insisted no water had been added to the milk.

The judge recalled Wells.

"You said this milk was sub-standard?" he asked.

"What was that, your honor?" Wright responded.


"I don't quite get the word."

"Sub-standard," the judge repeated. "You have studied Latin?"

"Yes, your honor, but I didn't quite get the word."

The milk was sub-standard, Wells finally said.

He said the state allowance was 88 percent milk. He said there was no way to distinguish between natural and added water in milk.

"How much milk was there in that water?" Cassidy queried.

"How much water in the milk, you mean, do you not?" Wright asked.

"Yes, how much water was in that milk — that is the point we are trying to get at," Cassidy replied.

Marrion said a test a few days prior had proved acceptable.

Testimony ended. Counsels restated their positions. Cassidy asked the jury to send Barbieri home "innocent of wrong." Wright argued, "It matters not who put the water in there — the wife, the boy, the star boarder, or who. Was the water there? It was the business of the defendant to keep the water out. That was his job ."


Barbieri (1885-1939), born in Toceno, Italy, conducted the Cravatz Farm on Muddy Brook Road in Monument Valley. For many years he was foreman for the George A. Stevens Lumber Co. His son, Laurence Barbieri, became a well-known lumberman and real estate investor in town. His grandson, James Barbieri, had a sawmill in one of the old Waubeek mill buildings in Housatonic.

Noonan (1890-1941), a native of Marlboro, Mass., operated Bonaventure farm on State Road and conducted a retail milk trade. He was a well-known bowler.

The judge gave his charge, specifying that the issue was whether Barbieri tried to sell watered milk — not that he might have watered milk at his farm.

The jury deliberated for two hours.

Some no doubt wondered if the can Noonan poured the Barbieri milk into had just been washed and still had some residual water.

Given the doubt, the verdict was not guilty.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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