Milking and Churning

Milking and Churning

By Elton Camp

            “Bertha, go milk th’ cow.”  A sharp command was all Milas ever used with his children.  He never considered asking if they felt well even if it were obvious that they didn’t.  Fatigue, sickness, or even severe weather allowed no exception from necessary work.  Each person on a farm must carry his share of responsibility for the family welfare. 

            Bertha selected two metal pails, one large and one small.  The smaller she half-filled with spring water from the bucket that stood on a shelf near the side door.  The enamel dipper served as both scoop and communal drinking vessel for family and visitors.  The larger bucket would hold the milk.  She put on her white bonnet and headed toward the barn.   

            She enticed the cow into the milking stall with a galvanized bucket of brown feed. It smelled sweet from the molasses mixed into it.  As Ole Petunia, munched the feed, Bertha placed a sturdy wooden box at her side, near the udder.  Before she began to milk, she splashed clear water on the udder and rubbed it vigorously with her hands.  Intent on the feed, the cow didn’t seem to notice.  The milk bucket in place, she used both hands to squeeze the teats.  After a few seconds of delay, forceful streams of milk began to shoot downward. The rhythmic squirts were initially amplified as they struck the bottom and echoed in the empty pail.  As the bucket filled, the sounds became muted. 

            “Quit it,” Bertha directed as the cow flicked her tail to deter biting flies.  The swing had narrowly missed the teenager’s head.  She planted a sharp slap on the bovine’s flank. 

            Startled, the cow moved forward.  Only Bertha’s quick grab of the bucket prevented her foot from going inside.

            “You’d ’ave got me into hit, ole lady if you’d ’have ruint th’ milk.”  

            Loss of the daily milk would’ve brought a tongue-lashing.  Younger siblings would’ve gone lacking. 

            “Y’u kin have yore calf now,” Bertha said, glad that the daily task was complete. 

            She’d made certain to leave enough milk in the udder to placate the hungry calf.  It’d been confined in the barn all day to ensure that it didn’t “steal” its mother’s milk.  Bertha led the tan-colored cow to the pasture and returned to release the similarly marked calf.  It dashed to its mother and began to feed hungrily.  White foam appeared around its mouth.  Calf chow from the feed and seed store in town was a poor substitute for its natural food.  The calf switched its tail from side to side, but paused to butt the udder when the milk flow momentarily slowed.  Too hard a butt caused the cow to kick her hind foot angrily at her offspring. 

            When the milk was gone, the cow and calf strolled into the pasture.  They stopped to graze the best patches of grass. Both shook portions of their skins to scare away pesky flies, but it did little good.  The pests settled back into place within seconds.  The cow occasionally licked the calf with maternal care. Her rough tongue created damp, ruffled places in its coat.  

            When she returned to the house, Bertha placed a white cloth over an enamel bucket, pushed it slightly inward at the center, and slowly poured the milk onto it.  The liquid filtered through the cloth, but left a few specks of some unknown black material. 

            Country people never heard of Pasteurization.  If a cow became obviously sick, the milk was rejected as unsafe.  Simple, commonsense precautions were usually sufficient.  Few fell ill from contaminated milk. 

            Bitterweed was a sturdy, green plant with yellow blooms that was the last food choice of a grazing cow.  Since she removed competing weeds, it grew and spread vigorously to cover large parts of the pasture.  If necessary, she would eat it, but the resulting pungent milk, while safe, was too unpalatable to use.  That happened mainly in times of drought.  Even then, it was often possible to change the cow to another pasture not so full of bitterweed.  After a short while, the odious taste disappeared from the milk.  Most of the time, however, the milk was fine. 

            “Maw, I’m a goin’ t’ th’ sprang wif th’ milk so’s hit won’t git blinked,” Bertha called out.

            That description of ruined milk went back to the early 1600s, but was no longer used outside of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Bertha knew no other word to describe it. 

            Rural folks didn’t have any means of refrigeration aside from the spring.  Iceboxes existed, but required regular deliveries of heavy, square ice blocks.  Only town dwellers enjoyed that luxury.  Bertha poured the milk into a large glass jar and closed it with a heavy lid.  Careful to prevent an accident, she cradled the milk container next to her body and let the base rest on her bent left arm. 

            Her destination was a small spring, about fifty feet from the house that bubbled from underneath sandstone boulders.  The house had been built on that spot because of the spring.   She placed the jar on a level spot on a rock.  From a two-foot-deep water reservoir, she withdrew a similar jar with the remainder of the previous day’s milk.  It wasn’t wasted, but taken into the house to add to the stock being accumulated to have enough to justify the time and trouble of making butter. Only the cream that rose to the top was used for that purpose.  Into the spring went the current day’s milk.  The coolness of the water would preserve it overnight.  That was as long as necessary.  A new supply would be forthcoming. 

            To churn the butter was a task usually assigned to Mamie.  Accumulated milk had to be utilized more quickly in summer than in the cooler months.  It was an easy, but time-consuming and boring process.

            “Mamie, better git a goin’ on th’ butter,” Miranda suggested. “Make shore all th’ milk has turned.” 

            The second-oldest daughter tilted the containers slightly to be sure the milk had clabbered.  She then brought the churn and dasher from the corner of the kitchen and set it with a thump in the floor beside the eating table.  The churn was light tan ceramic with two blue lines encircling it for decoration.  The circular lid had a hole in the center.  Protruding through the opening was the upper part of the wooden handle of the dasher.  At its base, the dasher had paddles in the form of a cross.  It was called a “dasher” because it literally was dashed up and down in the cream. 

            Careful not to make a messy spill, Mamie poured the cream into the churn.  She inserted the dasher and slid the lid down from the top of the handle until it settled into place.  A cane-bottomed chair, deeply sunk in the center from long use, provided seating. She began the process of churning the butter. 

            “Up, down, up, down,” she repeated in keeping with the beat of the dasher. 

            The simple chant seemed to make the time pass more quickly.  Too vigorous a chug caused a spray of milk to shoot out the center of the lid.  The tepid liquid hit Mamie’s bare legs and ran down toward her feet.  At length, the butterfat began to combine into yellow lumps of butter.  Yet more churning was required.  Lots more.“Maw, I reckon hit’s ready,” Mamie finally called out. 

            Miranda took over from there. With a large wooden spoon, she removed the butter from the remaining liquid called “buttermilk.”  She placed the butter into a wooden bowl and began to work it so as to remove as much water as possible.  She, however, added water periodically until it worked out clear.  After the addition of salt, she pressed the butter into a round, wooden butter mold.  The solidified cake bore the impressed design of a flower from a corresponding form on the mold.  Miranda took considerable pride in her butter.  One churning produced two or three cakes.  As with the milk, it was stored in the spring so it wouldn’t spoil. 

            The family consumed some of the butter, but part of it she traded to the peddler who operated his business from a “rolling store.”  The mobile merchant came by once a week.  His horse-drawn wagon had a canvas top to protect the goods.  Farm families made occasional trips to town for supplies they couldn’t produce.  The rolling store provided welcome supplementary shopping. The ability to trade items was a bonus not available from town merchants.  The peddler kept an icebox for perishable items like eggs, meat, and butter.  He had cages to contain live chickens.  Small purchases he put into a “poke,” or brown paper bag.  The sack would be reused multiple times by the farm family. 

“I’m always glad t’ get yore, butter,” he said. “I git calls fer hit all th’ time.”  Miranda smiled with satisfaction.  She usually swapped for items the family needed, but occasionally received welcome cash that she could call her own.  Over time, the small amounts accumulated enough to allow her to make some special purchase without feeling that she must ask Milas’ permission. 

There are no messages yet
Short Story
writing Elton4562

Bookmark and Share

You must log in to rate.
This has not been rated.

Farm families in the Old South milked cows and made their own butter.