BY ANDY TAYLOR
The death of music legend Patti Page on Jan. 1 reverberated in Coffeyville where the Oklahoma-born singer was once considered “almost a hometown gal.”
Page, who was born Clara Ann Fowler in Claremore, Okla., broke into music stardom after assuming the fictional persona Patti Page, who was a singer on early-day radio programs sponsored by the Page Milk Company. That company had its headquarters in Coffeyville as well as a plant in Tulsa. Little did Jim Page, the Page Milk Company president who lived in Coffeyville, know that Fowler and her crystalline vocals would soon find their way to a music label, where the alliterative “Patti Page” had a better phonetic ring to it than “Clara Fowler.”
“The way the story goes is that Clara was singing as the Patti Page on the radio shows sponsored by the Page Milk Company,” recalls Walter Page, the late Jim Page’s son, who now resides in Springdale, Ark. “So, when Mercury Records signed Clara to a contract, she wanted to continue to use the name Patti Page. She asked my dad for permission to use the name, and he said yes.”
So, Clara Ann Fowler of Oklahoma, who cut her teeth in the singing business by performing hillbilly and country music on a radio show sponsored by a milk company, was now Patti Page. And, that decision would pay dividends over many decades as Page would sell 100 million records in her lifetime and became the number one selling female in all music genres (country, pop, rock, and rhythm and blues).
Ironically, Page Milk Company never made a penny off Page’s stardom. There was no agreement between the singer and the Coffeyville-based Page Milk Company for using the company’s name in her newly-found music identity.
“My dad was a believer in helping out his fellow man, so it probably didn’t bother him at all that Patti Page would take the company name and apply it to her,” said Walter Page. “That’s just the type of guy he was.”
Walter recalls his father maintaining contact with Patti Page throughout her career. He even brought her to Coffeyville in 1952, shortly after her hit song “Tennessee Waltz” was the top song on the pop charts, for a reception in the Page home at 1220 W. Fourth and a concert at the Coffeyville Memorial Hall. Local media provided ample coverage of Patti Page’s visit to Coffeyville. One of the headlines in the Coffeyville Journal that told of the singer’s visit to the community laid claim to Patti Page’s connection to Coffeyville. “She’s almost a hometown gal,” said the headline.
According to news accounts, more than 2,000 people filled Memorial Hall to hear Page belt out the lyrics that made her the number one music star of that era.
That concert was sponsored by none other than Page Milk Company. And, according to an exhibit at the Dalton Defenders Museum in Coffeyville, the very milk company that gave Page her start had to pay the singer $1,500 as a performance fee.
Patti Page received a tour of the Page Milk Company plant in Coffeyville from Jim Page himself. And, at the start of Patti’s concert at the Coffeyville Memorial Hall, the industrialist Page also presented the Oklahoma singer with a scrapbook of her early career. That scrapbook contained Patti’s initial contract as a radio performer in the mid-1940s, advertising promotions for the Page Milk Company, and other memorabilia from her early career.
“I remember being just a small kid and running around the house in shorts when Patti Page was treated to a reception in my parents’ house in Coffeyville,” said Walter Page. “It was an awfully big deal for Coffeyville and for my dad.”
Page Milk Company was a marketing pioneer
The Coffeyville-based Page Milk Company can be directly linked to Patti Page, the music legend who died on Jan. 1 at the age of 85.
That milk production company was a pioneer in unique marketing techniques by using the radio airwaves to reach audiences across the midwest.
Page Milk Company, which was established in the mid-1930s in Coffeyville, sponsored hour-long, live musical shows, first on KGGF in Coffeyville and eventually into the growing Tulsa market. That’s where a young, teenage singer named Clara Ann Fowler, who was born in Claremore, Okla., and reared in Tulsa during her junior high and high school years, filled in for another singer on the Page Milk Company radio show. The female persona on that radio program was dubbed Patti Page.
Just who the previous Patti Page was and her whereabouts after she left the Page Milk Company radio show is lost to the ages. That’s because Clara Ann Fowler assumed the Patti Page name when she signed her first contract with Mercury Records.
The rest is history.
Walter Page, the son of Jim Page, who was the milk company’s president for most of his 40-plus years in Coffeyville, said he remembered Page Milk Company still touting its connection with musician Patti Page even when the songstress was singing chart-topping hits in the 1950s. Exhibits at the Dalton Defenders Museum show Page Milk Company advertising booklets with the renowned singer holding a carton of Page Milk while sipping from a cup of wholesome Coffeyville-produced milk.
One of the Page products was Plee-zing Evaported MIlk. The early-day Page Milk Company advertisements promoted the “three Ps: Plee-zing, Page and Patti.”
After Patti Page gained musical stardom, the Page Milk Company had to find other notables to endorse their products. Walter Page said he remembered his father signing a contract with professional baseball player Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees in the late 1950s. Like Patti Page, Mantle was a native Oklahoman (born in Commerce, Okla.) whose humble roots and country looks made him perfect endorsement material.
“I remember my dad taking me to Kansas City to see the Kansas City A’s play the Yankees,” said Walter. “Dad was able to connect with Mickey Mantle before the game. Mickey was probably the nation’s best-known name in sports at that time. So, to get Mickey’s name printed on Page Milk cartons was a huge boost for the company.”
Page Milk Company also owned a plant in Tulsa, Okla., that carried the Glencliff Ice Cream brand. Playing upon the local connect to Tulsa University, the Page company introduced a brand of ice cream called Golden Hurricane Ice Cream (using the university’s mascot in the name). To promote the new line of ice cream, the Page Milk Company brought in the Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills for an exhibition football game at Tulsa’s Skelly Stadium, remembers Walter Page.
“Those were the post-war years,” said Walter, referring to the era when people were no longer getting their milk straight from the farm. They were buying refrigerators and freezers, and purchasing their milk, cottage cheese and ice cream in stores. So, it was important to develop marketing campaigns to promote those dairy products
“I always thought Page Milk Company was kind of an early-day leader in dairy product promotion,” he said.
The Page family itself had a multiple-generation legacy to the dairy industry. The family heritage goes back to Charles and George Page, two brothers who started the Anglo-Swiss Milk Company in Switzerland. After the Civil War the brothers moved their operation to the United States, and the company eventually merged with the Nestlé Company.
The family settled in Merrill, Wis., where a Page dairy and milk plant was established.
The Pages continued their dairy operation in Wisconsin before the next generation of family members, which included brothers Jim, George and Bill, continued the company. Jim Page moved to Coffeyville in the mid-1930s while brother W.O. “Bill” Page managed the Page-owned ice cream company in Tulsa, Okla., that carried the Glencliff brand. Another brother, George Page, operated the Wisconsin-based dairy and milk company.
Page Milk Company in Coffeyville ceased in the mid-1970s, and the iconic company located on Coffeyville’s west side was dismantled shortly thereafter.