Take a bunch of dairy collectibles, throw in vintage hay equipment and related pieces, encourage the kind of cross-pollination collectors specialize in and what do you get? A remarkable assortment of antique farm tools and equipment.
That's exactly what transpired in early June near Iowa City, Iowa, when the 21st annual national convention of the North American Dairy Foundation was held in conjunction with the second annual Hay Tool Swap Meet and Show (for more on hay tools, see Farm Collector, August 2006). While the two groups have no plans to merge, the dual event was a reflection of undeniable realities.
"Our group is not growing," admits Dr. Paul Dettloff, editor of the dairy foundation's quarterly member publication, the Cream Separator & Dairy Newsletter. "But collectors are collectors. Some of the dairy collectors have hay items, and the hay tool collectors are showing interest in dairy things. There's a little-known gene called 'packrat' and we've got it!"
The hay tool collectors group, just two years old, has no formal means of blanket communication other than mailings. Like good neighbors, the dairy collectors offered space in their publication. Today, the newsletter goes to about 140 dairy collectors and about 40 hay tool collectors, and contains information of interest to each group. "I think the dairy collectors have welcomed the hay people," Paul says. "There's a kind of camaraderie. It's been kind of spontaneous. They help us and we help them."
The hay tool collectors group is loosely structured. As yet, the group has little interest in official trappings like bylaws, minutes or officers. But you can't argue with success: The group's mailing list is at 225 and growing; about 100 members attended the dual show.
About 25 members attended the groups annual meeting in June. "They're almost like a family," Paul says. "They come from all over the country." The group puts a priority on preserving dairy antiques … and on fun. "We usually have a display, swap meet and auction," Paul says. "We've had conventions where we separated milk and made butter. We've run Babcock testers at conventions."
Collection runs the gamut
David Evans, Litchfield, Mich., knows all about Babcock testers. David is interested in almost anything related to the dairy, and that includes spin-offs like ice harvesting.
"I started by collecting Michigan milk bottles," he says. "Then I branched out to dairy items in general. But refrigeration was critical to the dairy industry, so I got into ice harvesting." A century ago, David notes, as much as 25 tons of ice a year was harvested from rivers in the northeastern U.S. "It took 113 days to get it from New York to the Far East," he says, "and on arrival, 70 percent of it was still frozen solid."
Like many collectors, David soaks up the history related to his treasures. "I think about the work it took at the turn of the century just to get a bottle of milk from the dairy to the city," he says. "It had to be packed in ice, put in crates, crates loaded and hauled, packed in ice again, then loaded into a truck or wagon or a train. In the city, milk was delivered by wagon one block at a time.
"The dairy would unload the milk for the entire neighborhood on one corner. They'd insulate it and cover it up. The delivery man would go to that corner, pick up milk for customers on one side of the block, deliver all that, then drop off the empties and load up again. Later, the wagon would come and pick up all the empty bottles and wash them all. And after all that, milk only sold for 3 cents a quart and the cows were all milked by hand."
David grew up on a farm (including 48 cows in a stanchion barn). Decades later, he still milks a herd of 24. He's been collecting dairy items for nearly 20 years. "I don't look for things on the internet," he says. "I love to travel. I go to antique shows and malls. If I find something I don't have and have never seen, my day is made."
His collection stretches into every corner of the category, including ice cream collectibles. He has an ice cream freezer dating to the 1850s, an ice cream sandwich maker and two cases of scoops. Still on his wish list: a rocking chair churn. "With one of those, the wife could rock, shell peas, hold the baby and churn butter," he says with a grin. "Someday, somehow, I'm going to find one."
Recalling dairy traditions
Keith Oltrogge, Denver, Iowa, has collected dairy items for two decades. "I was raised on a dairy farm," he says, "and I can just barely remember cream separators in use." Like many, he notes wryly, "We milked until I left home."
His collection includes Massey-Harris tractors, milking machines, separators and separator oil cans. "Every separator had its own oil," he says. He showed two unusual pieces at the Iowa show, both related to Massey-Harris: a Perfection milker sold by Massey-Harris Ferguson Ltd., Toronto, and a Massey cream separator.
And what would a dairy collectibles show be without at least one butter churn? Dennis Nickerson, Menahga, Minn., displayed what he believed to be a 1-quart Dandy churn. He remembers a similar model in use in his home when he was a boy. "Everybody took turns shaking it or you didn't eat breakfast," he recalls with a smile.
Dennis and his sons are active collectors of milking machines and cream separators. They attend several shows each summer, often displaying gas engines. "It's always more fun to have an engine running something than to just sit there," Dennis says. FC