A little local dairy history to celebrate National Dairy Month

So how are YOU celebrating National Dairy Month in June?

Down at the Little White School Museum, we’re doing a special exhibit and I’ll be giving a short program on the community’s dairy history—which turns out to have been fairly extensive.

Here in northern Illinois, the counties up north and communities like Harvard have been known for their dairy farms for generations. But little Kendall County had a surprisingly robust dairy industry right up until World War II, and even for a few years thereafter.

In late April 1875. H.N. Wheeler, editor and publisher of the St. Charles Leader up in Kane County, tweaked Oswego about its dairy business: “Oswego claims to send a good deal of milk to Chicago. Well how much? It’s the first time we knew that the milk business, to any extent, had got that far south.” To which Kendall County Record publisher John R. Marshall shot back: “Come down the river some day, Wheeler, and we’ll show you. Yorkville ships a dozen, or 10 cans a day, also. You haven’t all the milk (or the coconut) up the river.”

Milk cows arrived in the Fox Valley with the earliest settlers in the 1830s, and by the 1850s, dairy farms in Kendall County were producing quite a bit of milk. The problem was what to do with it. Milk spoils easily and in 1850, it would be three more years until a rail line extended through Kendall County that could handle shipping easily spoiled products like milk. The roads of that era were little more than tracks across the prairie, nearly impassable after the spring thaw or at any other time of the year after heavy rains.

The solution was to turn milk into products such as butter and cheese that were less prone to spoilage and that would stand being shipped overland.

In 1850, less than a decade after Kendall County was established, the U.S. Farm Census reported there were 3,160 dairy cows in Kendall County. Further, the county had reported producing 180,000 pounds of butter and 27,000 pounds of cheese that year. Most of those products were produced on individual farms or in homes in town for sale locally, but a fair amount was shipped east to the nearest railhead where it could reach the Chicago market.

Seely’s “old stone machine shop” at the west end of the Oswego Bridge housed the village’s first creamery. (Little White School Museum collection)

It wasn’t until 1867, that Oswego’s first commercial dairy operation opened. As reported in the Record on July 25 that year: “Oswego is still making improvements and among them is a new cheese factory on the west side of the river. The old stone machine shop has been fitted up by Messrs Roe & Seely into a neat and thorough factory for the manufacture of cheese. These gentlemen are both from that renowned dairy district, Orange County, N.Y. Mr. Roe has been 12 years in the milk and cheese business and understand it in all its branches. On Tuesday we called on him and he showed the operations of the factory and gave us much general information in regard to dairies, etc. The factory commenced operation on the 6th day of May last and has been constantly at work since. They use 1,500 quarts of milk a day from about 175 cows. They do not work on shares as some factories do, but buy the milk for cash.”

That “old stone machine shop” at the west end of the Oswego Bridge is still standing as a private residence, and is known today as Turtle Rock.

By 1860, the number of milk cows in the county had more than doubled to just over 7,000 and the amount of butter produced had skyrocketed to 602,000 lbs., while the amount of cheese manufactured on farms and in homes had not quite doubled to 46,000 lbs.

In 1870, the number of milk cows in the county had decreased a bit, just like the county’s population, but the amount of butter produced had again increased. And also that year, Oswego, Yorkville, and several other towns up and down the Fox River finally got a direct rail connection. That meant dairy products—including raw milk—could be more easily shipped to distant markets. But the rapaciousness of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad and its monopoly on rail transport meant shipping dairy products to market was an expensive proposition. Oswego general store owner David M. Haight went so far as to propose shipping milk and other dairy products by road to the Chicago market, but the condition of those roads remained terrible.

Instead, businessmen and farmers’ cooperatives decided the best course was to open local creameries where farmers could sell their milk that could then be processed into butter and cheese. By the late 1800s, most communities in Kendall County could boast their own creamery. Oswego, for several years, had two creameries, the first a commercial operation in an abandoned brewery along modern Ill. Route 25, and the other a farmers’ cooperative located in the area of the Oswego grain elevator.

McConnell’s Oswego Butter and Cheese Factory located in a former brewery on Ill. Route 25 just north of North Street and east of North Adams Street. (Aurora Historical Society collection)

The March 1, 1877 Record reported that “W.H. McConnell & Co. are doing an excellent business for a new business at the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory (the old brewery), and have stopped in a measure the shipment of milk to Chicago by the farmers in that vicinity. Mr. G. Roe takes his milk to that factory and many others are preparing to do so. The firm means business, and dairymen should give them a try.”

Those creameries produced huge volumes of dairy products. By 1878 McConnell’s Oswego creamery alone was processing 14,000 lbs. (almost 1,630 gallons) of milk a day. On May 16 that year, the Record reported: “The creamery is now producing 2,600 pounds of butter per week and is furnishing the Grand Pacific Hotel 20 gallons of cream daily.”

Local dairy production was not limited to farms during that era, either. Most houses in town boasted a small barn on their property where the family kept a few chickens, the family cow, and a driving horse, with a buggy and, for the winter months, a sleigh. The problem, of course, is that town lots don’t have any space to pasture a cow. So for much of the 19th Century, cows in small towns like Oswego and Yorkville were allowed to roam at large. As you might guess, this caused frequent problems.

On March 21, 1867, Marshall complained in the Record that: “Farmers coming into Yorkville to trade are annoyed beyond patience by the cows running in the street, that make their way to a wagon as soon as it is left by the owner, and forage the hay, straw, apples, potatoes, or whatever there is eatable therein. Nothing is save from their ravages and at the coming town meeting something should be done to abate the nuisance.”

Oswego’s “Barn Alley” between Monroe and Madison streets had one of the village’s best collections of town barns. (Little White School Museum collection)

Towns soon passed laws forbidding cows to roaming at large. But that didn’t go down well with some residents. On May 20, 1869, under the headline “The Great Cow Rebellion,” Lawrence Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “The great sensation of Oswego last week was the cow rebellion. It happened this way: The corporation powers that be [the village board] ordained that all cattle should be prohibited from running at large in the village streets. A lot of cows soon were in the pound. Cow owners were filled with indignation, denouncing it as a piece of highhanded legislation, a crushing down of the poor, etc. The government backed down. The cows are now enjoying the liberty of the streets. As for myself in that struggle, I was on the side of the cow; am too much of a calf, that is, like milk too well to go back on her.”

Eventually, because of the destruction they kept causing, Oswego’s cows, like those in Yorkville, were ordered restrained from running at large, no matter how indignant their owners became.

How many cows were in town? I couldn’t find any figures from the 19th Century, but in 1910, the U.S. Farm Census reported how many cattle were being kept on farms as well as in town. It turned out there were half again as many cattle as people in Kendall County on farms that year. Plus there were 230 head of cattle—likely all or most being milk cows—kept in town, a fairly sizable number for a small county with a population of just over 10,000.

In 1890, Kendall County hit its peak dairy cow population, with 9,500 cows in the county. That year, at least a dozen creameries were operating in Kendall County, most of them farmer cooperatives.

The production of dairy products was high during that era, too. In 1885, the Illinois Agriculture Department had reported that during the previous year, Kendall County farms and businesses reported selling huge amounts of dairy products. According to the state, Kendall County farms sold 433,599 gallons of milk; 18,241 gallons of cream; 282,495 pounds of butter; and 24,500 pounds of cheese during 1884.

In the 1930s, Clarence Schickler operated a farm dairy from the basement of his large farm home along Ill. Route 31 just north of Oswego. Ironically, his father had been arrested for operating large bootlegging operation out of the same space a decade before. (Little White School Museum collection)

From that high point, however, dairy production in Kendall County began to decline. The shear work dairy farming entails, along with the steady consolidation into ever-larger dairy farming operations and increasing health regulations began squeezing out, not only smaller dairy farm operations but also the small local creameries that processed their production. By the end of World War I, all the local creameries were gone.

By 1959, the number of dairy cows in the county had dropped below the count in 1850, and it, along with the number of dairy farms, declined even more sharply after that.

As late as 1950, 694 farms in Kendall County reported having at least one milk cow on the place and the number of dairy cattle was reported at 4,569. By 1964, the number of farms with a dairy cow on the place had dropped to just 133, and the number of dairy cows in the county had decreased to 1,751. In 1997, just nine dairy farms reported having only 246 head of dairy cattle and by 2002, there were only two dairy farms left in the county, the number of cows so low it wasn’t recorded by the farm census.

While the dairy farming and dairy products businesses were consolidating, so were the companies that provided milk to consumers. Very early on, farmers would actually go door-to-door in towns and sell milk to householders and businesses by the bucket. George Henry Lester patented the first glass milk container, the ungainly Lester Milk Jar, in 1878. He started selling milk in his jars in 1879, but it wasn’t until 1884 that really practical milk bottles hit the scene. The invention of practical milk bottles, along with the home icebox allowed small dairies to pop up all over the country—and not just in towns.

A milk and a cream bottle from Oswego’s Schickler Dairy will be among artifacts on exhibit during “Milk and More: Discovering Oswego’s Dairy Industry” at Oswego’s Little White School Museum on Saturday, June 12.

Here in Oswego, the community was served by two farm-based dairies. The Roberts Dairy was based on Charles Roberts’ farm south of the Oswego Bridge on modern U.S. Route 34, while the Schickler Dairy was located on the Clarence Schickler farm on modern Route 31 north of the bridge. They served the community during the 1920s and 1930s.

After World War II, larger dairies in Aurora were able to undercut the prices of the smaller local farm-based operations. Oswego was served mostly by Aurora’s Oatman’s Dairy in the 1950s. Oatman’s provided both home delivery by milkman Les Weis and also provided milk to Oswego’s schools for those government-subsidized daily milk breaks. At first school milk was served in small half-pint glass bottles, but those were soon replaced by waxed cardboard half-pint cartons.

Milkmen, in turn, were displaced in the home milk supply business in the 1960s when gas station owners discovered milk was a great customer draw. Grocery stores had by then begun selling more milk as well, but the hours of stores of that era were far more limited than gas stations. Gas station owners found the investment in a glass-doored milk cooler attracted many more customers than their old, limited product line. And thus was invented, after a few years of evolution, the mini mart that dominates so much of today’s retail landscape.

On Saturday afternoon, starting at 1:30 p.m. at the Little White School Museum, I’ll be recounting these stories along with a few others (such as the one about how Clarence Schickler’s father operated a huge illegal bootleg still out of the same space as his milk bottling operation occupied) during a program that’s part of our salute to National Dairy Month. We’re also assembling some fun exhibits of dairy-related materials from our museum collections—glass Schickler and Oatman’s milk bottles, a hand butter churn, milk and cream cans, and a lot more. Admission to the program at 1:30 is $5, with proceeds benefiting the museum. For more information, call the museum at 630-554-2999 or visit their web site at https://littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

Hope to see you Saturday!

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Filed under Aurora, Business, Environment, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Technology, Transportation

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