I read an article by John Sumwalt, a friend of mine about his recollections of milking on his father's farm (See John Sumwalt's Article) and it brought back my own memories. My grandfather was a dairy farmer. He never milked over 30 cows on his small one-hundred acre farm in the hills of Richland County. In the 1940's, 50's, and the early 60’s a family could live on such a farm. I only lived with him for short periods when I was a child, but for many years we lived in a small town a mile and a half away and spent a lot of time on the farm. I never milked, but I was often up and in the barn as grandpa, later aided by his sons, milked. I remember, as my friend John does, the seemingly universal call "come boss!…, come boss…!" that echoed across the valley to call the cows in for milking. I remember the warm steamy atmosphere, tainted with the smell of cow urine and manure that greeted me on those super cold winter days when I entered the barn. I remember the smell of hay, feed and silage.
In those days, grandfather used a milking machine. Before the early 1950’s the milking had been done by hand. The milking machine was attached to the udders and hung by a strap thrown over the animal. There was no pipeline for the milk. When the cow was “milked out” a lid was raised off a strainer sitting on a milk can, and the milker's contents were poured in. When the can was full, it was taken to the milk house using a milk cart, a one wheeled device with two handles, something like a wheelbarrow. A hook between the handles went through one of the can handles to hold it in place. The cans were lowered into a tub of cold water to wait the coming of the milk truck.
Grandpa was a religious man; a patient man who loved his family, but a skittish cow could raise his ire. He used a home made milking stool when he kneeled down beside a cow to place the milking machine or "milk out" the cow by hand. This stool was square with an extension for a pail to sit on, off the floor. He had a powerful grip, as all hand Milker's did. My great grandfather who ran the farm first, milked by hand his entire life. He was in his 90’s when I was about ten, and the ritual when children visited was to line up and shake his hand. His grip was still powerful and the experience of shaking his hand was excruciating, though he did not mean to hurt us. When a cow was jumpy and kicked my grandfather, or swished it's dirty tail into his face he would sometimes become angry and shout "you dirty cur!" To us this epithet carried all the power of a filthy mouthed Marine drill instructor at boot camp. Such language was best used infrequently to emphasize one's depth of emotion. Today the vilest swearing is used by many younger folks as filler in friendly conversations. I can't understand why these moderns bother to swear at all when the words carry no more weight than "and" and "the."
My mother remembers her life on the farm in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Before 1941 the late milking was done on winter nights by the light of one or two kerosene lamps hung in the center of the barn between the rows of stalls. In that shadowy darkness the milking was done by all the family members old enough to work. Each milker had a three legged stool. My grandfather’s first two children were girls, so my mother, who was the oldest, was put to work milking at about age eight. Her younger sister followed a few years later. Both of the children had to rise early, milk four cows each by hand while their parents milked the rest, then run to the house, wash and dress for school. After school they walked back home, fed the animals, which included two work horses and eat dinner. Then it was back to the barn to milk. The walk to school was a mile and a half. The walking ended in May 1947 when 8 year old Georgia Jean Weckler disappeared on her walk home from school near Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Her body was never found. From then on grandpa found time to drive his girls to and from school. In 1941 the farm saw several big changes. Electrical service came to the farm, and grandfather got his first tractor. Though the horses were still used for many years, life was becoming easier.
I am recounting the story if my grandfather’s farm and milking because I believe it is typical of the experiences of Wisconsin’s rural dairy farmers. Some may have modernized sooner, some later, but the generation now in their later years were workers from an early age.