Cream Separators Paid: Antique Dairy Collectibles Example of Innovation on the Farm

The advent of the modern cream separator allowed many farms access to new revenue

Kent Gordon surrounds himself with his favorite dairy collectibles, on permanent display in his home. 'I have more than 40 separators in the house,' he says. 'It's kind of cramped, but we make do.'

Kent Gordon surrounds himself with his favorite dairy collectibles, on permanent display in his home. "I have more than 40 separators in the house," he says. "It's kind of cramped, but we make do."

Courtesy of Kent Gordon

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The motivation behind Kent Gordon’s collection of cream separators has nothing to do with the good old days, and everything to do with early technology.

“The mechanics of the cream separator really interest me,” he says, “the fact that something invented in 1878 could spin at 5,000 or 6,000 rpm. To turn that fast, the separator really had to be perfectly balanced. It’d be a real feat to build that, to get the gearing and balance all just right.”

Kent grew up on a farm but it was not a dairy operation. “There wasn’t a cream separator on the place,” he says. After college, he worked for International Harvester. While helping conduct a dealership inventory in the early 1970s, he saw an IHC 3S cream separator, still in the crate, tucked into a dark corner.

“It had never been sold, and at that point, International had been out of the separator business for 20 years,” he says. He wanted it, but the dealer held on to it. Kent walked away telling himself, “one of these days I’m going to own one of those.”

About 10 years later, he dropped in on First Monday Trades Day, a huge swap meet in Canton, Texas, determined to buy an IH separator. The first thing he saw was a DeLaval separator; he bought it. Continuing through the swap meet, he saw a Montgomery Ward table-top model. “I bought it,” he says. Finally he stumbled on to an International separator. “So I bought it too,” he admits. “I bought three separators on the same day!”

Thirty years later, his collection numbers in the hundreds. “Separators are just kind of neat,” he says. “When I started collecting, they were cheap. I didn’t have space for, say, 500 tractors, and I couldn’t afford 500 tractors, but I could make room for 500 separators.”

Evolving technology

In the 1800s, cream was a valuable commodity used in butter production. Early methods of separating cream from milk were slow, inefficient and often resulted in spoilage. Basically, milk was poured into pans or containers, allowed to sit for a day or two, and then hand-skimmed to remove cream. Later methods such as immersion of tall cans in tanks of cold water (gravity separators) and dilution (accelerating the separation process by adding water to milk) were only marginal improvements.

Implementation of centrifugal separation in the 1870s was a major step forward, allowing much more efficient processing. Raw milk is poured down through the center of the spinning separator bowl, which acts as a centrifuge. Cream – which is lighter than skim milk – rises through the top spout. The heavier skim milk is hurled to the far surfaces of the bowl’s interior and exits through a lower spout. “By the late 1800s, centrifuges were used for pharmaceuticals and in brewing,” Kent says. “Basically, any time they wanted to separate solids from liquids, they used a centrifuge.”

Gustav de Laval of Sweden patented a centrifugal separator in England in 1878. His was not the first centrifugal separator, but it was the first to allow continuous operation: That is, cream could be removed without interrupting separator operation, maximizing output.

A paycheck every week

Invention of the modern separator was a hugely important development on the farm. Dairies suddenly had a way to process enormous amounts of milk. Just as important, any farm with a dairy cow had immediate access to a new revenue stream.

“Farmers could separate the cream, put it in cans and sell it once or twice a week,” Kent says, “and they’d feed the skim milk to their livestock. Even if you just had one cow, you’d have a separator. That’s why there were so many of them: Everybody had one.” Ads for the Wm. Galloway Co., a Waterloo, Iowa, manufacturer of separators, noted that, “the dairy is the only department on the farm which brings in a paycheck every week of the year.” (Read more about the William Galloway Co. in Sam Moore’s column “Mail Order Magnate” from the March 2009 issue of Farm Collector.) 

Early models were hand-cranked. Later, some were steam powered, but most separators were powered by stationary gas engines (often on a line shaft). As rural electrification swept the country in the 1930s, electric separators became common (many separators were equipped with a countershaft, allowing the machine to be operated by either gas or electric engine). By the 1940s, with widespread refrigeration and improved transportation, separator sales slid in a steep decline.

Instant market

Manufacturers were quick to enter the market in the years following de Laval’s invention. The first American-made separator was produced by the Sharples Separator Co. in the early 1880s. “There were more than 200 separator manufacturers from the late 19th century on,” Kent notes, “but a lot of them were very short-lived.” The industry delivered a dizzying number of styles and models to a seemingly limitless market. By 1915, writes C.H. Wendel in Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements and Antiques, “there were more than 2 million cream separators in daily use, with continuing sales of more than 200,000 per year.”
“DeLaval was probably the biggest manufacturer,” Kent says, “but International probably sold as many, owing to the size of the company’s dealer organization.” DeLaval separators were considered the best available and were priced accordingly. Other leading manufacturers in the highly competitive industry included Sears, Roebuck & Co., Montgomery Ward and Sharples.

Kent’s collection includes some unique models. “One is a Lanz, made by a German company later connected to Deere & Co.,” he says. “It has a real unique drive mechanism. I also have an old, old open-chain-drive model, with a completely different shape than what you’d expect when you visualize a cream separator: It probably dates to 1910.”

Other standouts in his collection include an Albaugh-Dover Butterfly (Albaugh-Dover also manufactured the famed Square Turn tractor with Nebraska roots, see Farm Collector July 2009 ), and two from the earliest days of the International Harvester organization. “I have an International Dairy Maid and an International Bluebell dating from 1907 or ’08,” Kent says. “International had two lines of separators until about 1915.”

Several tractor manufacturers got into the cream separator business, including B.F. Avery, Cockshutt, Massey-Harris, Rock Island Plow Co. and Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. (manufacturer of the Waterloo Boy tractor).

Building a collection

Most of Kent’s separators are in original condition. “I’ve restored a few that had no paint left,” he says. “But generally I leave them in their work clothes.” He maintains a parts inventory, and contacts other collectors for pieces he doesn’t have. “Every separator had a brass-plated spigot and that’s one main part that would get lost,” he says. “The nut on the bowl is also often missing.” Early separators tended to rust out, especially if they’d been stored in a barn. “A lot of people have the bowls re-tinned,” he says.

The hunt is the best part of the hobby for many collectors, Kent included. “You enjoy the piece once you find it,” he says, “but it’s the process of meeting people, going to conventions and getting together that really makes it.”

Today, Kent has begun the process of downsizing his collection. He plans dispersal by auction over the next several years.

It’s a collection that encompasses the entire dairy category. “Nearly every separator manufacturer sold their own oil,” he says, “so I collect oilcans. I probably have 400. I also have milk bottles, advertising pieces, signs (painted and porcelain), premiums, tins, watch fobs and a few milking machines.” His collection also includes a few cream skimmers and gravity separators. “You just don’t see so many of them,” he says, then reconsiders. “Actually, I’ve probably seen a thousand: I just didn’t know what I was looking at.”

He especially likes big capacity separators used in commercial creameries. “I stumbled on to one when I was in Dodge City, Kan., one time,” Kent recalls. “I noticed an old Fairmont creamery that had been vacant for years. They guy I was dealing with there got the key to the building and we found four big old separators on the second and third floors, but we didn’t have a forklift. We had a heck of a time loading those on the trailer!” FC

For more information:

– Kent Gordon, 211 ACR 375, Palestine, TX 75801; (903) 729-8349; e-mail: kgteinc@yahoo.com.

– The 23rd annual convention of the Cream Separator & Dairy Collectors will be held Aug. 13-15, 2010, in Chilton, Wis., in conjunction with the Wisconsin Steam Antique Engine Club show. For more information, contact Robert Blohm, (920) 533-8906. The event includes a swap meet, silent auction (3 p.m. Saturday) and a banquet (6 p.m. Friday). Non-members and interested persons are welcome to attend; no registration is required. For more information about the Cream Separator & Dairy Collectors, contact Paul Dettloff at (608) 323-3047.