Til The Cows Come Home

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Joe PedroMilk bottles

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As any iron monger worth his rust knows, a collection is constantly changing and evolving, and so for Dairy Month, Farm Collector visited with an old friend to see how his dairy collection was taking shape. Joe Pedro, Visalia, Calif., is a die-hard dairyman. He grew up on a dairy farm near the Los Angeles area, and (except for a brief stint in the service) has been in the business ever since. Did he always intend to go back to the farm?

'I had a girl friend,' he replies honestly. Isn't that always how it starts?

'I had a good opportunity in the service, but I wanted to get married, and what did I know how to do? Milk cows.' His uncle helped him get started on a dairy farm in July 1956, where he and his wife still live today. As for the collecting bug, it was there from the beginning, but time was a factor.

'I had a few things that I had bought in '56, when we moved to the farm, but I just didn't have the time for it,' Joe says. 'I picked up a few things here and there over the years, but it was about 12 or 13 years ago that I started really setting up the displays, and getting into it.' He does displays at several different places throughout the year; one at the cheese factory close to his farm, at two banks during Dairy Month, and at the California Antique Farm Equipment Show at Tulare, Calif., where Farm Collector first saw a small part of his collection three years ago. His focus at the 1999 display was the milking machines that he collects, but his two-story building holds the rest of the tale.

Two glass cases house the smaller items. In the open, there are cream separators, cheese cutters, butter cutters, signs - anything you can think of that's 'dairy.' And yet, Joe modestly claims to have one of the smaller collections.

'My friend Joe Gomes, he's the real collector,' Joe says proudly. 'He has, I'd say, the biggest dairy collection any where.'

In spite of Joe's claims, further probing indicates that his collection may have grown more than he realizes in the last few years. He is still involved with his dairy farm, but does less and less of the decision-making. 'I don't call that many shots out there any more,' he says seemingly without regret. His son and another man run the dairy, while Joe enjoys his collection.

'Mostly I work in the open garage,' he explains. 'I sit out there and work on whatever, and people, when they see that, will stop in and want to take a look.' He shows them around his collections, explaining the different machines, what they were used for, and how they worked. He prefers polishing to painting, and the rows of his collection gleam brightly. 'I've been told I don't have the biggest collection,  but I have the cleanest, 'he says with a laugh. Joe has put a lot of cleaning and polishing time in on the most recent addition to the family, a milk bottle filler, which debuted at the Tulare show in April. Discovered at an auction, the item was in a lot. He already had several of items that came with it, but he's proud of this new-old toy.

'This one is different, because it fills four bottles, and then caps all four bottles at one time,' he says. His other milk bottle fillers fill varying numbers of bottles, but only cap one at a time.

The original milk bottle fillers were simply funnels that the owner moved from one bottle to the next. Then came the tank fillers, and then the tub fillers. Joe has some of the funnels, but tries to stay away from the larger fillers, and large items in general, gravitating toward more easily stored items, like milk bottles.

'I stay away from the bigger stuff, like cream separators, for the most part,' he explains. 'I have a few, but they take up too much room. That's why I went over to milk bottles.'

Some pieces, like milking machines are getting hard to find, making the bottles more attractive as well. Joe now has hundreds of bottles, and prefers California pieces. Most bottling plants had their own bottles, and some are quite rare. 'California Milk' by Don E. Lord, helps Joe with his collecting. 'Don is a good friend of mine,' he chuckles, 'and is actually my milk inspector.' Don runs an antique store and travels extensively to add to his own milk bottle collection.

How does Joe determine the age of his bottles? Evidently, there are no tried and true methods.

'I've been told that if it has a '23' stamped on the bottom, it is a California bottle, but I know that's not true because I bought one, and it wasn't a California bottle,' he says. 'But if there's a '47' or something else stamped on the bottom, I've been told that's the date. The early, early ones don't have any of that.' He's currently  looking for a Land O' Lakes bottle, since his dairy ships its milk there. The bottle is a rare one, and hard to find.

'If you find one,' he warns me, 'Hold onto your hat. It's gonna be expensive. I guess they just didn't make that many.'

Babcock items are another thing he's always on the look out for. In 1890, Dr. Stephen Babcock at the University of Wisconsin, perfected a machine for testing milk to determine how much butterfat was present. This was important, as price was deter mined by fat content. Babcock refused to patent the testing process or the machine, and donated the entire process to the dairy industry, Joe explains with pride. He has several Babcock centrifuges, and some advertising medals as well. One of the centrifuges is probably his oldest piece, but is missing some parts. He also has a certificate from a California animal husbandry college bearing Dr. Babcock's signature.

Milk stools are one more of Joe's interests, the hand-carved ones in particular.

'They had one peg-leg, and you would strap them on.' The availability of these items is limited. 'They tell me there was one old man in the area, that's all he did. He'd carve some milking stools and then go sell them. But they are hard to find,' Joe says. There are many different manufactured stools as well, but they are also difficult to track down. Some, like the Holland stool in Joe's collection, come from big dairy countries overseas.

Joe Pedro's collection isn't likely to stop growing any time soon. A some what taciturn man at first, get him started on his collection, and his voice takes on a fervor for the dairy items he loves to collect. This building full of machines and memorabilia isn't just a collection: For Joe, and most other collectors, it's a link to a time that is gone, but never forgotten.

For more information, contact foe Pedro, 26946 Rd. 108, Visalia, CA 93277.