There was a time in the not-so-distant past when most farmsteads, ranches and many city folks kept livestock and poultry to supplement their family food needs. Most of us forget about the benefits of this practice and remember only the tedium of chores to be attended at the start and finish of each day.
Inventors and manufacturers took advantage of 'the milk cow blues' syndrome and worked hard to provide handy devices that made chores easier and faster. Every mail-order catalog featured a thick section showcasing the latest chore gadgets, and each country store displayed the items right up front for all to see.
Most of these new inventions were slick, painted-up versions of a homemade item cobbled together in a farm shop at the whim of a needful farmer. Hard use provided the testing needed to develop the idea into a final working device. At some point, an ambitious user or an alert manufacturer would refine the design and, by using better materials and equipment, start building the device for sale to the public.
Milking cows seems to have been the most dreaded chore remembered by the elders. Arising from a deep sleep, stumbling around in the cold darkness, sorting livestock, wrestling hungry calves, and all the while tying to ignore the odorous atmosphere was not a pleasant way to start a day. All help was genuinely appreciated, and probably more tools and gadgets were sold to help with milking time than any other chores.
Among the handy helpers were kick-restrainers or 'cow kickers' as most called them. The wide metal hooks on each end of an adjustable chain hobbled the cow's back legs to prevent kicking, or just stepping into a bucket of nice, warm, fresh milk. Kickers often helped the attitude of the milkers as well. Today, many country kitchens use kickers to hold rolling pins and paper towels.
Farmstead milk cows also were notorious for passing through fences into forbidden places. Yokes, attached around the cow's neck, contained hooks on top and bottom to catch in the barbed wire, and 'prickers' to punish the cow if she persisted in her bad habits. Hundreds of patented neck yokes were marketed and sold, however out along the back roads, a neck yoke made from twisted barbed wire was both economical and successful. These items -some very rare - also are sought by decorators of country homes.
The most rare cow gadget I know - I have only seen one - is a double-yoked device with spacers between the bands to keep a cow from turning her head back in order to nurse herself. The problem was not unusual but the devices are hard to find.
Hungry calves were the most exasperating problem encountered at milking time. They always were starving, and the cows would not give their milk down until after the calves had nursed for a minute or two. Using halters or neck ropes, the farmers had to pull the calves away and tie them up until the milk could be harvested. As the calves grew in size, so did the job, creating many a barnyard rodeo.
Once the calf was a little older, it had to be weaned so the mother could give birth to the next generation. If a strong pen could not be provided for the calves during this ordeal, various weaning devices called 'blabs' were used to keep the calves from nursing. One theory produced a blab that pricked the cow, making her kick the calf away. Another provided a blab that pricked the calf upon contact with the cow, making the calf back away.
Some prickers were attached to a halter; others were clipped into the nostrils of the calf and hung down over the nose. This allowed the wearer to eat and drink but not nurse.
Most of these 'milking improvement' devices cost as little as 15 cents and were worth the money, especially if one wasn't fond of chores. Today, country collectors search the back roads for these authentic items - often over looked at clean-up time by farmers themselves - and easily pay from $5 to $25 for them at auctions.
-Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed TX 79002.