Got milk?

Getting milk from cow to kitchen has changed over the years, and an exhibit at Washington County Rural Heritage Museum shows how

Getting milk from cow to kitchen has changed over the years, and an exhibit at Washington County Rural Heritage Museum shows how

April 11, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

John Schnebly's family has been dairy farming for seven generations on his 170-acre Crown Stone Farm in Clear Spring.

"All my life," is how long the 47-year-old father of three has been engaged in the family operation.

Schnebly milks 42 purebred Guernsey cows - five at a time, twice a day. He has Guernseys because his father had Guernseys.

There's a lot of dairy history at the farm that's been in Schnebly's family since 1845.

And there's a lot of dairy history at Washington County Rural Heritage Museum. An exhibit on display through Sunday, July 11, takes a look back at dairy farming in Washington County.

There are milking stools, cow bells, butter churns and a whole lot more.

Washington County was settled largely by German immigrants beginning about 1730, Mary Michael wrote in her 1993 local history, "The Story of Washington County." The book includes several illustrations of people and occupations of "long ago." Pictured are women spinning wool and flax, a farmer plowing, a woman in her garden, a woman making butter, and a man milking a cow.


"Almost everybody had a cow," said Jeff Semler, extension educator for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

Changes in dairying came after the Industrial Revolution changed the world in the early 1800s - when people began migrating to cities, Semler said.

"Early dairying was a family enterprise consisting of small herds capable of serving only local communities," reads a sign at the museum display.

The growing urban population needed more fresh milk, cream, butter, cheese and other dairy products.

Operations became more specialized, Semler said. Dairy farmers sold milk to other farmers. Dairy farming also was changed by technological advances, including pasteurization - sterilizing milk by heating it - the introduction of the cream separator and electricity.

The exhibit includes examples of hand-cranked milkers and a foot-powered vacuum milker invented in 1891 and still available for purchase in 1921. The device is a low seat connected to tubes that are attached to the cow's udder. The operator worked pedals similar to a bicycle's to create the vacuum that would milk the cow.

How long does it take to milk a cow?

"Depends on the cow," deadpanned Frank "Buck" Artz, who was a dairy farmer for more than 60 years. Kidding aside, he said milking took about five minutes with an electric milker, adding that he could do it about that fast by hand.

Early in the 20th century, commercial dairies started buying milk in bulk from farmers and reselling it - after processing - to consumers, according to the exhibit. There is information and there are photos of Eldridge Dairy Company Inc., founded in 1911. Called Crystal Spring Dairy, it was located in a small spring house on Frederick Street in Hagerstown behind what now is the Potterfield Pool.

The museum display includes equipment used for testing milk's butterfat content, and there are photos of Hedwig "Hedi" Heinemann Belz, the first woman milk tester in Maryland.

Now a Clear Spring resident, she became a dairy herd improvement supervisor in October 1944. She drove from farm to farm in Anne Arundel County in her 1937 olive green Chevy coupe. Gasoline cost 15 cents a gallon, she said.

Belz stayed with the family at each dairy farm she visited - shared meals with them. She described her time as a milk tester as the two happiest years of her life - "because of all the families I became a part of."

In the evenings, she recorded information about how many pounds of hay, grain and silage each cow was fed. After the morning milking, she'd take her equipment to the milkhouse, gather samples and test it to determine the percentage of butterfat. Her job was to learn the profitability of each cow and the herd in general.

Belz had grown up on a Washington County dairy farm.

"I milked by hand. I milked by lantern light," she said. There was a three-mile stretch along U.S. 40 in Clear Spring that didn't get electricity until 1944, she explained with a laugh.

Technology changed dairy farming.

Although some farmers keep a bull for the "hard breeders" - cows who have trouble conceiving - small farms no longer have their own bulls, Semler said.

Artificial insemination is in wide practice: Semen can be shipped from almost anywhere in the world and cows impregnated. The bulls are genetically selected to sire cows with a variety of desirable characteristics - good feet, good legs, cows that produce large quantities of milk.

Another dramatic change is that bottling no longer is done locally, Semler said. In earlier times, milk was "jugged" on the farm.

Today, most milk produced in Washington County goes to Laurel, Md., either to a "jugging plant," where it is processed and ends up in grocery stores in the Washington, D.C., area, or to a "butter and powder plant," Semler said.

"Factory" dairy farms have not come to Washington County. Local farms, small on a national scale, average 166 acres and about 85 cows. There are larger dairy farms west of the Mississippi River, operations with 3,000 to 5,000 cows, operations that are milking 24 hours a day. Semler has visited a 14,000-cow farm in Oklahoma.

All Washington County dairy farms are still family farms, Semler said, and 65 percent of them are Mennonite-owned, he added.

Family is one of the reasons John Schnebly is a dairy farmer. He wouldn't want to raise his kids anyplace else.

Although it's a hard life, it's a great life, he said.

"It's in my blood," he said.

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