Growing Up on Muddy Creek:

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A Dairy Man Remembers

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The milk business is a three-tongued creature: production, processing and delivery. I have worn all three hats in my life. As a producer, the Piper Jerseys gave me a great deal of experience; too much, in some instances. In the winter, they seemed to drink an inordinate amount of water that had to be pumped by hand, after thawing out the pump. Then the bulls had to be watered in their box stalls, and that meant carrying the water to them, and then ditto the baby calves.

Then, come spring, all that hay and straw that had been fed to them, and used as bedding, had to be dug out and hauled into the field, and spread out by hand with a manure fork. There is an aroma surrounding a winter-long accumulation of cow manure that is never to be forgotten. Nor is the back-breaking work of digging out the thick, woody, sweet clover and timothy stems that have been cemented into a near-solid mat by the endless trampling of a 1,500-pound Jersey bull to be forgotten soon. At such times I was thankful that Dad had chosen Jerseys over the huge Holsteins as a milking breed.

The milking chore is not one to be slighted, either. In the days before milking machines became common, all milking was done by hand. Uncle Walter did most of our milking for several years, until the Piper clan grew big enough to assume the task. There was never a hand-milker who suffered from lack of strength in those digits. Dad used to say he could tell a fellow milker by the way he shook hands. I served my apprenticeship in the production phase of the dairy business with a dozen or so jerseys to milk before school. When one of the Jerseys stepped on my foot or into the milk pail, I was again grateful that Dad had selected the lighter breed. Why is it that a cow never, but never, sticks her foot in a half-full bucket of milk, but always waits until it is nearly full before doing her one-step dance? Then 'Kerplunk!' One old timer once told me 'I just strain the spilled milk through a dish cloth. The people in town drink it, we don't!' My, how some things have changed for the better.

For many years, the milk on Muddy Creek was separated, and the skim milk fed to the calves and the older kids. Only babies got whole milk. People think it strange that I never tasted whole milk until I left the farm, but the cream could be sold, or made into butter. Those things had cash value, and in those days, cash was a commodity in short supply.

Hauling milk was one of the facets of the milk business that I skipped. Later on, when Dad and a bunch of hardworking promoters got the creamery going, and it started to bottle milk under the Producers Creamery name, the milk was shipped in 10-gallon cans to Olney. Let me tell you, those milk haulers surely earned the two bits a hundred they got for taking that milk to the creamery. The milk cans weighed about 20 pounds, and 10 gallons of milk inside added another 86 pounds to the total. Heaving those cans out of a tank of water, and then tossing them onto a platform bed truck, was a real developer of muscle. One of the arts to the business was the ability to roll a full can of milk down the path with one hand. Some haulers got so good they could roll a full can with each hand.

The early trucks were just flat beds. Later on, canvases were thrown over the cans. About 1950, the van-type truck came into use, with the cans double-decked, and as many as 120 cans of milk hauled at one time. Then came the bulk coolers and the tanker trucks. In 1934, I became the field man for Farmers Creamery in Bloomington. One of my jobs was to attempt to improve the quality of milk being produced. I obtained a bunch of 55-gallon condensed-milk barrels, sawed them in half, and put one half under the pump, so that the farmer could cool his milk in the fresh water. The overflow then went into the horse tank or cow trough. I had a dickens of a time selling these half-barrels for a dollar a piece, and when the bulk coolers came along some 20 years later, with their $2,000 price tags, I just knew they wouldn't go over. Boy, was I wrong. It might be interesting to note that in 1945, I helped draw the blueprints to convert the Olney Prairie Farms plant from producing butter to fluid milk. I was instructed to plan on a maximum capacity of 2,500 gallons a day, an unheard of 10,000 quarts of milk. I have just been told that during the first week in December 1990, the plant produced over 120,000 gallons of milk per day. Wow!

But back to my part in the milk-delivery business. When I was in high school, in 1926, I delivered about a dozen quarts of milk to selected customers in Bridgeport every morning. In those days, when milk was unpasteurized, it was delivered twice a day, as most people didn't have ice boxes, and you had to have milk on their doorstep in time for breakfast in the morning. Since I only delivered in the morning, my customers got their night milk from some other milk man, probably from Judge Mading's Bridgeport Jersey Farm.

Later on, in the early 1930s, I delivered milk from a horse-drawn wagon for a large dairy in Bloomington, Ill. Now that was some experience. The horse was smarter than I was and certainly knew the route better. I started out at four in the morning, loaded, with ice piled over the cases to keep the milk cool. The only products a milk man carried then were the milk, (4 percent fat, or, as one dealer bragged 'Milk that is 96 percent fat-free'), chocolate milk and buttermilk, 22 percent coffee cream, 40 percent whipping cream, and cottage cheese.

Homogenized milk was still very new in the 1930s. People wanted to see the cream line. The milk bottle manufacturers came up with all sorts of gimmicks to stretch the neck of the bottle to make the cream line longer. The Cream Top bottle was invented, and merchandised with a special spoon that blocked off the lower part of the bottle, so that the cream could be poured off and whipped.

Decatur took 18 percent cream (the legal standard) and 3.5 percent milk, and mixed them half and half to get a 10.5 percent fortified 'cereal milk.' You couldn't call it cream, as it was too thin, and you couldn't call it milk, as it was too rich.

I had the privilege of supervising the production of the first 'Half and Half,' as we know it today. In those days, the 1930s and 1940s, the problems with coffee creams were such that I still have two file drawers full of notes on how to prevent defects in coffee cream. It was called feathering. The cream acted as if it were sour, but it wasn't. It reacted differently with each brand of coffee. A book could be written about the dairy man's problems with coffee cream over the years.

Homogenized milk is an interesting subject. It came about by accident when Dr. Tracy, at the university here in Indiana, was seeking a way to make milk more digestible. One of the projects I worked on as a F.E.R.A. student (Federal Educational Relief Act), for 33.3 cents per hour during the Depression, was testing milk for curd tension. We tried subjecting the milk to varying pressures, and developed a machine that actually broke up the fat globules into such small particles that they could no longer float to the top of the bottle. At the same time, the curd was softened, so that even babies could digest it. The soft-curd idea, though, was a long way ahead of its time, and didn't catch on. Later, however, people loved the milk that didn't need to be shaken, and now almost all milk is homogenized.

On of the arguments the non-homogenizing dairies of the time touted was that, with no cream line in view, there was no assurance that the milk had not been tampered with, and a part of the cream removed. 'Our milk is so rich, you can see the richness,' read one ad. Then came the paper bottle, but that's another story.

Back to my delivery days. Old Betsy, the horse, knew just how to run the route. In fact, when I drove her out of the plant yard, she took over. She knew what streets were stop streets, she took the right turns, and when the first customer was reached, she stopped. I placed what I thought the customer might need into a metal carrier, and ran (yes, ran) up to the porch. The housewife always placed the empty, washed bottle with a note in it if she wanted to change her order. She could also leave special instructions like 'Put two quarts in the ice box, but pour a bit out in the saucer for the cat,' or 'Leave no milk today, I had to go take care of Alice,' whoever that was.

A book could be written from the notes left for the milkman, come to think of it, although some of them were rumored to be a bit amorous and therefore unprintable.

The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His writings, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.