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

| June 2010

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.

David Gray
8/9/2011 7:18:17 AM

That was a great story. I never really thought about the balance or speed angle of the machine before. I simply remember getting up early before school back about 1950 on our Michigan farm and hand milking the few cows that we had. I'd lug the heavy buckets of milk up the hill from the basement of the barn where the cattle were housed to the big house and then down into the basement there. I was pretty young at the time and needed help pouring the milk through the cheese cloth into the top of the separator. Finally, I'd grab the crank and wind it up. It took some muscle to get going like cranking in molasses listening to the little bell. When I got it going fast enough, the bell quit and it just clicked away while the heavy cream came from one spout and the milk came from another. My mother had the tough job of taking it apart and cleaning it after each use. Great invention.