Separators, Churns Milking Machines


| May 2004



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automated milking machine

Few devices had more direct impact on family farms than those developed to manipulate milk. Machines built to milk cows, separate cream and turn it into marketable butter helped many families eke out a living on the land. Today, cream separators and butter churns are highly collectible, but few outside the hobby understand how those handy farm devices were first developed.

Rising to the top

Before the widespread use of cream separators, numerous methods were used to remove butterfat from whole milk. The oldest way was to set the milk in crocks or tin pans in a cool place and wait patiently for the cream to rise to the surface. A later method involved placing milk in tall, narrow cans submerged in cool, running water or a vat of ice water until the cream rose to the top. A third method involved separating the cream, or a portion of it, by diluting the whole milk with a large quantity of cold water.

Many farmers simply loaded their wagons with cans of warm milk and headed to the railroad station, where it was shipped to wholesale customers. Others hauled raw milk to a nearby creamery to be skimmed by a power separator. Then farmers usually sold the butterfat to the creamery and hauled the skimmed milk back to the farm where it was fed to chickens, calves, pigs and other livestock as a highly nutritional food, rich in sugar, protein and other bone- and muscle-building ingredients.

Unlike tractors and other farm machinery, European engineers beat American inventors to the market with the earliest mechanical cream separators during the 1870s. The German-made Lefeldt separator was introduced in 1877, and Dr. De Laval's highly successful machine followed in 1878.

The Iowa Dairy Separator Co. - the first of several Waterloo-based manufacturers - began producing its milk-skimming machine in the early 1880s. It was designed around a series of hard-to-clean internal discs, as were most American-made cream separators manufactured before World War I. One exception was the popular Sharpies brand separator, a simple tubular design dating back to the 1880s.

The first cream separators were designed for large dairy operations, not for home use - and they were expensive. The Backstrom, an 800-pound-per-hour separator made in 1888, sold for $195, which was the equivalent of three months' farm wages.