Minnesota family builds comprehensive collection of dairy farm equipment.
Dennis Nickerson has never really milked cows, nor especially liked the concept, so it's surprising to discover that he collects milking machines and related accessories. "When my brother-in-law hurt his back, I helped him, milking for a few days," says the Menahga, Minn., man. "And I've worked on dairy farms, but I avoided milking."
So how did he get interested in milking machines? Through his interest in gasoline engines. In 1983, Dennis added a 1947 International Harvester LB engine to his collection. When he went to the seller's farm to retrieve the engine, "we found it still hooked to a vacuum pump."
The seller offered a variety of milking-related items: a vacuum pump, two stainless steel IH buckets, a lye crock, vacuum gauge, regulator and other fittings, and a manual. "That got me started in the hobby," Dennis says, "and looking for engines and vacuum pumps for milking machines. I thought it would be interesting to have old milking machines and vacuum pumps that ran, so I kept on picking up older ones." Eventually Dennis' sons, Warren and Arlan, took up the hobby with him.
The next milking machine the trio acquired was a 1937 IH McCormick-Deering with a 1-1/2 hp engine, one of McCormick-Deering's first engines. Dennis bought it at an auction, but without the vacuum pump. "We found the pump at a flea market somewhere," he says.
Probably their most unusual milking machine is an Ideal. "We have a catalog on milking machines, Milking Machine Guide by Paul Dettloff DVM," Dennis says. "It says not much is known about Ideal milking machines, which means there probably weren't many made. It's just an oddball we picked up at a flea market in southern Minnesota. If I remember right, we paid $50 for that one."
Their oldest milking machine is a Pine Tree Pulsator, made by Babson Bros., Chicago. Dennis' favorite one is the one that started it all, the 1947 IH LB milking machine. "I always liked IH tractors, and we collect IH stuff," he says. "I guess you always have an attachment to the first of anything that you get."
Their Rite-Way Swing milking machine, originally from Kansas, was bought at a flea market. "It looks like a vacuum cleaner," Dennis says. "After we got to talking to the guy about it, he said Kansas State University was a test site for the Rite-Way milking machine." It was manufactured by the Rite-Way Product Co. in Chicago, and was connected to the Massey-Harris Co. of Racine, Wis., as well.
Another in their collection is the Empire Mechanical Milker, which, despite its fancy name, worked just like any other milking machine, Dennis says. "It has the cups and everything like all the rest," he says. "I think that was just a name they gave it to advertise it." The company's claim to fame was made in their ads, which stated that the Empire Mechanical Milker worked "just like a sucking calf." These were made by Empire Cream Separator Co. of Bloomfield, N.J.
The Clean-Easy was manufactured by one of the companies that had multiple places of business, Dennis says, made by Ben H. Anderson Manufacturing Co. of Clearwater, Fla., but also in Wisconsin. "The reason I remembered that was because in a previous issue of Farm Collector a woman asked if anyone had information about the Clean-Easy, and I copied the information out of the book and sent it to her. In her return letter she said she hadn't found out anything else about it."
A year ago the collection grew quickly when a man offered them three IH milking machines after a show. "He said, 'I'd rather see somebody use them than they just go to waste.' All we had to do was go and pick them up."
The milking machine Dennis has put the most work into is the Hinman Milking Machine made by a company of the same name in Minneapolis. "I fixed the vacuum pump once, but after I got it going at a show, it froze, and I had to take it all apart again."
A routine challenge in collecting milking equipment is finding a unit with a working vacuum compressor wheel. The wheels aren't difficult to fix, Dennis notes, but often need repair. "A series of little boards flip on an eccentric shaft when the shaft goes around," he says. "Those boards get stuck from dirt and gunk caked in there." He removes the boards, which are made of Bakelite but look like wood, cleans them and the slots they fit into, and puts everything back together. He's salvaged boards from duplicates or the occasional beyond-repair unit.
The Nickersons have 16 different milking machines in their collection, plus a few duplicates. "When it comes to Surge, for instance, there are many different kinds," Dennis says. "There are upright buckets, hanging stainless steel aluminum buckets, and so on, and the same goes for De Laval."
In the old days, dairy farmers rarely milked more than two cows at one time, lifting or pulling the milking machine down the center of the barn and attaching teat cups to a cow on each side. "Really," Dennis says, "how many cows you could milk depended on the buckets you had. If you had an upright bucket, you could only milk two cows at one time into one bucket. Today you have so many multiple milkers, but they don't milk into a bucket. Today they can milk many cows at once because the pipeline dumps the milk back into a cooler that holds hundreds and hundreds of gallons. The limiting factor in the old days was the size of the bucket."
Reactions to the family's collection - which includes milking machines and cream separators - are enthusiastic. At farm-related shows, old dairy farmers often show up. "The men usually talk about milking machines, and the women about cream separators," Dennis says. "They say, 'This sure brings back memories,' or 'We used to have one just like this.'"
Outside the farm show circuit, the collection gets different reactions. "When we were at the Minnesota Zoo last year, kids were just amazed by the machines," Dennis recalls. "They all stuck their fingers in the cups and felt the vacuum."
The most unusual reaction came from a middle-aged woman who said she was "a city girl" unfamiliar with the equipment. After they explained the milking process, the Nickersons suggested she come to the back of the building, where a milking machine was running, for a demonstration. But she wasn't interested in that much reality. "She said, 'I don't think so,'" Dennis says.
Hauling the milking machines to different shows was hard work, but the trio has simplified the process with a trailer-mounted display. "This is the first year we've had it," Dennis says. "The advantage is that we don't have to unload anything after we get home. We just park the trailer until we go to the next show." They generally exhibit at about five shows a year in and near Minnesota.
Though there isn't a huge number of milk machine collectors, Dennis says he has found a few, and they get together occasionally to swap things and tell stories. "We get into some serious milking discussions," Dennis says with a laugh.
- For more information: Dennis Nickerson, 1021 Fern Ave. S.E., Menagha, MN 56464; e-mail: email@example.com
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org