Farm Horizons, May 2003

Farm life before milking machines

By Joe Kieser

In the mid-to-late 1800s, small farms were being homesteaded in this area. The main beasts of burden were the oxen that were imported from Asia and Europe.

The heavy-bodied oxen supplied meat, milk, and leather for the local farm and city families.

When the horse replaced the oxen as the main pulling animal, the oxen took on more domestic duties. The resulting quantity of milk cows soon increased to the point where each farm had six or eight animals.

Ten gallons of milk supplied just enough milk, cream, and butter for growing families.

Refrigeration did not exist, so the cans of milk were placed in a tank of water or lowered into a cistern. When the cream rose to the top, it was skimmed off.

Many hours were spent plunging the wooden dasher up and down in the butter churn to make enough butter for a couple of days. Butter was a staple in all meals and was also used as a medication for burns and dressing for their hair.

The invention of the cream separator in 1877 by Carl Gustat de Laval of Sweden really changed things. The prior skimming process left 30 percent of the cream in the milk.

Now, by turning a crank on the separator for one hour, you could extract all the cream from 150 pounds of milk.

The families needed income, so soon the herds began to increase to 15 to 20 cows. Creameries that needed to be within walking distance of two to three miles for a team of horses soon were being built.

Oster, Scherman, and Stockholm are just a few of the small country creameries. They soon took over the separation of cream from milk and also the butter and cheese-making.

The twice daily milking of cows by hand became a family affair. Mother and daughter, father and son each had five or six cows to milk. You just couldn't grab ahold when your hands were too cold. A firm handshake was a result of the milking process.

A gentle tap on the hind quarter of a cow was all that was necessary to get her to move over. A piece of board nailed to a block of wood or a three-legged stool and a pail were all that you needed to get to work.

With a teat in each hand and a squeezing process between your thumb and fingers, the milk was soon flowing.

Most of the cows were very gentle, but occasionally one had to step in the pail or send the half-full pail of milk flying across the aisle.

The kerosene lantern that hung from the manure carrier track gave enough light on a cold winter morning. Mother cat stood on her hind legs to catch a few directed squirts. You soon had enough milk to dump into the strainer that stood on top of the milk can.

Ed and Will Deidrick milked their cows right out in the woods and pasture. It may have had something to do with their musical abilities.

On a warm summer evening, you could watch and listen to them as they would sing to each of their very content cows. With a stool and a pail of milk, they would walk back to their barns.

Tony and Margaret Gueningsman were some of the last people to milk cows by hand in our area. Margaret's milking ability was second to no one.

We helped her milk a few times when the men were on a threshing route, and she would milk three cows to our one as we complained that our hands hurt.

One of my sisters had a wandering eye for a young man from our area. Leaving home to get married was out of the question until she could be replaced by something called a "milking machine!"

Even the sounds in the dairy barn were changing. The constant hum of the vacuum pump and motor along with the click, click, click of the pulsator on top of the machine was annoying to some.

Times were getting just a bit more hectic.

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