When the Cream Separators and Dairy Collectibles group met recently for their annual meeting, the only thing missing was the ice cream. Otherwise, the 100 or so collectors who gathered at the National Agricultural Center at Bonner Springs, Kan., had the entire dairy scene covered: cream separators, milking machines, butter churns and a barn full of memorabilia were on display.
That reflects an ever-increasing interest, said collector Kent Gordon, Palestine, Texas.
"The number of dairy collectors keeps getting bigger all the time," he said.
Technology, though, is changing the hunt, said Johnny Shultz, Platte City, Mo. Johnny and Larry Gibbons, Independence, Mo., helped organize the Bonner Springs gathering.
"I think you can still find a lot of really nice items," Johnny said. "There's still a lot out there, although separators are getting a little tougher to find. But the internet is making this stuff easier to find. There's always 40 dairy items for sale on Ebay. And when the rare items are on, everybody's bidding."
Johnny started collecting before electronic auctions got underway, and remembers fondly the days of trooping through antique stores and writing to book dealers. Hunting for antiques on the Internet is more time efficient, he said, but less entertaining.
"It does take some of the fun out," he admits. "I spent five years looking for a 1906 DeLaval cookbook. Two weeks after I got on the internet, one came up. It makes it easier, but you just sit in front of the computer. And you have to be disciplined. Sometimes there's so much there."
Online auctions may have changed the hunt for some collectors, but there's still plenty of fun in gatherings like the one at Bonner Springs.
Sam Stephens, Warminster, Penn., has been a regular at the dairy collectors annual meeting for several years now.
"I like the fellowship of the group here," he said. "You make friendships over the years. The story telling, it's almost like old men sitting by a stove at the general store. That's the same feeling I get here."
Sam and his wife, Barbara, collect mainly Sharpies Separator Company items: Pocket watches, watch fobs, metal signs, calendars, posters, paper, and postcards. They also collect cream separators, milking machines, and butter churns.
The couple is at work on a book covering advertising from cream separator and milking machine companies.
"We're going to try to list all the cream separator and milking machine companies," he said, "and try to provide an example of everything produced that was colorful."
They even built an addition on to their house to create room for their collection, but the extra space filled up fast.
"The collection is creeping into the living room and dining room," Sam said with a sheepish look.
A seasoned collector, Sam is also an active member of Milk Route, an association for collectors of milk bottles.
"They have a three-day show, and they'll rent a Holiday Inn," he said. "Most of the dairy items are small enough that you can show them in motel rooms. You walk down the halls, and if there's a door open, you walk in. There's stuff on the beds, on the sink, on the TV ... everywhere. You don't know when a door will be open, so you've got to keep on the go, or you'll be left out. But it's a wonderful group of people."
Like many collectors, Sam loves not only the collectibles, but also the history they represent.
"I like to see how many things there were, and I like to record it, so people will know about the history," he said.
"He's the kind of person who should have been born 100 years ago," Barbara said. "He likes to preserve this stuff."
But he doesn't snap up just anything.
"Does it have real strong appeal to you? Is the condition very good, or better, or close to mint? Is it extremely rare? Can you buy it at $500, and sell it tomorrow for more? If answer to three of those four questions is 'yes'," he said, "you should buy it."
Sometimes, he said, a collector has to swallow hard and hand over the money.
"Don't go down the road and mope for hours about the antique you didn't buy," he said. "I've learned that lesson. I'd rather pay too much than have that sorry feeling."
The flip side?
"I don't have to have it all," he said. "I sell stuff, and use the money to feed my habit. I'm like a drug dealer."
"They're all just like little kids," Barbara said fondly. "They come running back, saying 'Look what I got! Look what I got!'"
Jerry and Barb Surbrook, Rives Junction, Mich., collect butter churns. They started when they happened on to a Dazey in a Texas antique store. It was identical to one his grandmother had used. Thirty years later, their collection has spread to nearly 400 churns, including at least 200 different Dazeys.
"We don't have a complete set of everything," Jerry said, "but we're coming close."
The Surbrooks run a dairy with their son and grandson (the latter is the seventh generation to work on the family farm). Their collection is a natural fit to their occupation.
"We have churns, separators, cheese dishes, butter pats, cottage cheese crocks, milk bottles, Elsie Borden stuff, milkers, ice cream makers, pails and stools," Jerry said with a smile. "Everybody needs a hobby."
But it always goes back to the lowly butter churn.
"What's fascinating about the butter churn is that all you have to do is take cream and do something with it," he said. "Shake it, swing it, rock it, stir it ... just agitate it in some way, and you've got butter."
The early churns go well back to the 1800s.
"Before 1900, most churns were made of wood," Jerry said. "Cedar mainly, or hard maple. Later, they were made of tin and glass."
Prices for rare pieces are still on the rise, he said. A one-quart Dazey churn, he said, sold recently for $3,000 (not all Dazeys will bring that price, he cautioned: the one-quart, with a small capacity, was particularly rare).
For a collector, it always comes back to quality.
"Junk will always be junk," Jerry said.
"Educate yourself first," he said. "Don't go buy the first thing you see. Talk to your friends, to other collectors. Stick with quality. Condition is very important. And it's better to have 10 really rare pieces than 50 common ones." FC
For more information on the Cream Separator and Dairy Collectibles group, contact Dr. Paul's Lab, P.O. Box 32, Arcadia, WI 54612; online at www.hbacgroup.com/dairycollectiblesorg; e-mail
This year's convention, which was partially underwritten by DeLaval (with North American headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.) and the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame, Banner Springs, included a swap meet and consignment auction.