Butter Production in Vermont
1850 12 million pounds
1851 15.9 million pounds
1886 25 million pounds
1899 35 million pounds
1917 11 million pounds
1927 4 million pounds
According to records, after the decline of the Merino Sheep industry, the movement to commercial butter production did not happen overnight, (see Annual Reports of State Board of Agriculture). Butter and cheese had always been made on the farm. This was a skill passed down from one generation to the next. There was no special breed of cow used for milk…it was just one that was used for many tasks on the farm. Butter and cheese were consumed in the house, and what was left over was often bartered for other products that were needed by the family but could not be produced on the farm. “ The herds were milked in the open yard; the curds were worked in tubs and log presses. Everything was done by guess and there was no order, no system, and with no science.” In fact, dairy was incidental to other things grown on the farm until about 1840 when the tide began to turn. As the urban areas and cities grew, merchants reached out for these products, the majority of which were still produced on the farm before the 1880’s. How important the women were to this process is cited in the First Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture, “…there are several essential elements necessary to the making of good butter...good cows, good feed, good salt, a good churn, and a good women; and it is said by some that the possession of the last would insure the first four.” Some expressed the opinion that the dairymen should be adept at making butter too so that they could manufacture it independent of female help. Butter making, however, was considered to be a fine art that was passed down from generation to generation. As stated by one individual, “butter making is a fine art. There are probably more good poets, painters, and sculptors in the world than there are first-class butter makers.”(Fourth Report State Board of Agriculture, 1877).
As the demand for butter increased, farmers responded, but not as quickly as some thought they should and not with the best cattle. Some claimed, “if one-half as much thought was given to the dairy business as was given to sheep raising…. the dairy production would be doubled.” Others contended that at least one fourth of the cows used in making milk were worthless. “Everyone went into business hap-hazard. Everything in the shape of a cow was brought into dairy…no thought or care was given to the production of milk with the animal.” (Eleventh Vt. Agricultural Report, State Board of Agriculture, 1889-90.) Attempts were made to increase the quality of butter on the farm with education. For example, in 1870 the Vermont Dairymen’s Association was formed, the first such association in the United States. Gradually attempts were made to bring better cattle genetics into milk production on the farm. An example of this is the work of Fredrick Billings in his efforts to import cattle from the Isle of Jersey in 1871. He realized there was more to the making of butter than just milking the family cow. The quality of the milk was important and so by 1890, the Billings Farm, using the imported breed, was producing 5,000 pounds of butter annually.
As demand grew, creameries sprang up in many towns and communities around the State. Historical Societies’ and other documents give information on many of these creameries. For example, Stowe, Vermont had one, as did Colchester, Brattleboro, Cabot, and many other communities. By 1900 there were 186 creameries and 66 cheese factories in the State of Vermont, and twenty-four of these creameries were located in Chittenden County. These creameries were able to establish higher milk quality standards than previously existed. For example when the creamery in Brattleboro was built in about 1887 (village people took most of the stock), they raised the price of butter by 12 to 14 cents per pound. They could do this by increasing the quality of their butter. One way this was done was by demanding total cleanliness on the farm. To insure this the farms were inspected continually. After the cheese and butter were made the whey was returned to the farmer to feed the pigs and other livestock. This way nothing was wasted.
Industries Grow to Support Butter Shipping:
Butter was shipped in tubs and thus the manufacture of these became an industry in itself in Vermont. Stowe had such an industry, run by water, near its creamery. One of Vermont’s major butter tub factories was located in Montgomery, Vermont. There were four factories there that employed 100 men and used 4 million board feet of spruce lumber each year. It is said that these factories, under one ownership, made 295,000 tubs each year in three sizes; 20, 30, and 50 pounds as well as a butter box for the family of 5-10 pounds each. Farmers and creameries took great pride in the packing of butter for shipment. Many had their own emblem that distinguished their butter from the butter of other farms.
St. Albans Becomes the Butter Capital of the World in the 1880’s:
St. Albans was a natural location for producing butter since it was located near many of the large farms and is situated along Lake Champlain’s shore where the butter could be shipped by water. Before the railroads, butter shipments from the bay were said to take place, but it was not until the advent of the railroads that significant butter commerce began. In 1854 the Vermont Central Railroad started running a butter train with ice from St. Albans once each week to Boston. It is said that “Tuesday was market day and the streets were thronged with as many as 300 teams around the cold storage building which was located on the main line of the railroad with side tracks to the refrigerated doors of the building.” Buyers from as far away as New York and Boston were provided a special room in the building to conduct their business. St. Albans became a very convenient location for shipping since products could reach leading cities in just a few hours by train. By 1880, one-fourth of the butter in the State was from Franklin County.
Vermonter’s Take Pride in Their Butter:
Vermont butter became known for its quality. For example, the Green Mountain Stock Farm at West Randolph won the Gold Medal for the best butter in the world. Nevertheless, there still remained concern about quality standards with some claiming that although Vermont made some of the best butter, it made some of the worst as well. Only by producing the best and with the best milk, many contended, would Vermont be able to sustain its place, and thus obtain a higher price for its farmers. Milk quality continued to be an issue, and in 1906 the State Board of Health began testing milk samples. Of the 140 samples collected, only 39% met sanitary standards. These results brought about significant efforts to increase these standards on the farm.
Importance of Technology:
Two major advancements helped to move butter production forward. One was the Babcock Test for cream. This test made it possible for farmers to be paid according to a real measure of cream shipped to the creamery. The other innovation was the cream separator, made in Sweden. These are models that could be used either on the farm or at the creamery. By 1890 there were approximately sixty-five mechanical separators being used at the creamery in St. Albans. One of the Vermont manufacturers of these separators was located in Bellows Falls, Vermont.
Interesting Facts Related to Butter Production:
1. In 1850, 19 tons of butter was made in farmhouses in Duxbury.
2. In 1888, the Mt. Mansfield Creamery was the first established in Lamoille County.
3. The Cabot Creamery was established in 1893, and later purchased by 94 farmers at a cost of $5.00 per cow and a cord of wood for the boiler.
4. Beginning in 1806, Boson traders conducted extensive commerce in enormous blocks of Artic ice, and towed it to destinations all over the Atlantic world.
Butter became an important specialized industry for Vermont in the latter part of the 1800’s. Spurred on by the needs of the growing cities and by new means of transportation, commerce in butter trade increased. Support industries sprang up to support this trade. In next week’s blog I will discuss the reasons for the decline of this specialized industry.
Note: While this posting discusses the rise of dairy specialization in butter making in the mid to late 1800’s, another agricultural specialization was also taking place after the Civil War when commercial apple orchards were established in Northern Vermont. These orchards were planted near the lake in order to take advantage of the climate and the soil. By the late 1800’s, Vermont was considered one of the most important apple producing regions in the U.S., and its products were shipped throughout the U.S., as well as to South America, Europe, and Canada. (see The History of the Vermont Apple Industry, from The Season of Apples by the Vermont Department of Agriculture).
Background and References for this blog posting:
· First Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1872
· Third Biennial Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1875-76
· Eleventh Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1889-90
· Fifteenth Vermont Agricultural Report, State Board of Agriculture, 1895
· Twentieth Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1900
· Twenty-six Annual Report, State Board of Agriculture, 1906
· Agriculture of Vermont, Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, 1915
· Mother Earth News, Guernsey Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds, Janet Vorwald Dohner, June 2010
· A Centennial History of St. Albans Vermont
· Vermont Barn Census, Chittenden County Student Research Project, 2010. A Brief Agricultural History of Colchester, Vermont by Elizabeth Warburton
· “Butter through the Ages”
· Vermont Historical Society, War and Industry, 1860-1910, “Butter is King.”
· Cabot of Vermont, The History of the World’s Best Cheddar.
· Town of Stowe History
· Town of Warren History
· Town of Milton History, Milton in the Beginning
· Billings Farm and Museum, History of the Farm
· Duxbury, Vermont History, Then and Now by Alice DeLong, 1991
· Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future, The Vermont Commission on Country Life, Burlington 1931
New Trivia question: What product competed with butter and what action was taken to try to prevent the trade of this product?
Edition 6, April 13, 2010