Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Butter Was Hard To Make

by Norris Chambers

   In the old days butter did not come from the super market. The stores did have it to sell, but we old farm families didn't buy it - we made our own, and sometimes even had an extra pound or two to sell to the stores. Most customers preferred home churned butter to the "creamery butter" that was prepared and distributed commercially.

  Butter making required two things - sour cream and agitation. There were several ways of getting sour cream from milk. This is the way we did it: we placed the milk in two gallon crock jars in the cooler and left them for two or three days, depending on the temperature.

  I might explain the milk cooler was a large metal pan that held water. A cloth covered the cans and jars and was immersed in the water. The water kept the cloth damp and as it evaporated it cooled the inside. The hotter and drier the weather, the better the cooler worked. The big square pans were stacked above each other in a metal frame and provided considerable cool storage area.

  The cream would rise to the top and the milk would curd. This thickened condition of the milk was called clabber. The cream that had risen to the top was skimmed off with a large spoon and put in the cream jar. Cream was accumulated for several days until a half gallon or more was in the jar.

  The clabber could be used to make a cheese similar to cottage cheese. This was done by putting it in a cloth sack and hanging it up in the smoke house to cure. The clabber was mixed with a sour liquid called "whey". Some folks liked the taste of whey and drank it, but most of us didn't. The whey drained out of the clabber through the cloth during the curing process. Sometimes salt was added before it was hung up and sometimes after it was ready to eat. Clabber was also a good food. It was poured into a large glass or bowl and eaten with a spoon. When we had more clabber than we needed, we fed it to the hogs. They really liked it.

  But back to the butter making - the ordinary churn was a crock or wooden container that would hold about three or four gallons.. The lid fit loosely in an indentation on the top and had a hole in the middle. A contraption called a "dasher" went through this hole. The dasher handle was about the size of a broom stick and the bottom was fitted with a wooden cross made of one by two inch pieces of lumber about five inches in length . A half gallon to a full gallon of sour cream was put in and agitated by the up and down motion. The person doing the churning sat in a chair with the churn between his legs and worked the dasher up and down. This operation usually took from thirty minutes to an hour....sometimes longer.

  The temperature of the cream seemed to determine how long it took. It was usually too hot or too cold. We tried adding hot water and cool water.

  When the job was finally finished, there were chunks of butter mixed with buttermilk floating on the top of the mixture. These were gathered with the large spoon and put in a big bowl. The same spoon or a specially prepared butter paddle was used to work the butter back and forth until all the liquid was removed. If the butter was to be sold, it was packed in a butter mold. The mold was a rectangular box about the size of a pound of butter with a removable bottom. The top had a knob handle and fit closely inside the box. By pressing down on the top the butter was compacted in the box and was removed by opening the bottom and sliding the box off of it. We now had a nice block of butter that we wrapped in wax paper and placed in a can in the milk cooler. If the butter was for our own use, we put it in a bowl and pressed it down.

  When I was still quite young, I was given the job of churning. It was a tiresome and monotonous job.

  The dasher churn was not the only method of churning. There were mechanical machines that could be bought with a crank to turn. This action rotated a paddle in the mixture and eventually separated the butter from the cream. These churns came in various sizes form one to five gallons.

  Another method of churning was used when there was less than a half gallon on cream. It was poured in a half gallon glass jar and the lid was screwed on tight. The jar was then roughly chugged up and down or back and forth until the butter was separated. This, too, was a tiresome process and might last for a long time.

  A few years later, after I began plowing, I devised a power churn on the planter. I bolted a wooden cam to the axle, which turned continuously when the planter was in motion. The cam raised a platform slowly and let it fall abruptly. I strapped the half gallon jar to this and as the machine moved up and down the rows, the churning was accomplished. Time was not important now, since the horses were doing the churning.

  Clifton didn't plow, since his dad had a garage in the little settlement we called a town. But they did have a couple of cows and churning was a problem there, too. We adapted the invention to use an oil field rod line that was within a half mile of their home. A rod line is a steel rod that runs from a power house to an oil well and moves back and forth to activate a pump jack for coaxing the oil out of the well. These go in all directions from the power house to wells that are to be pumped. It was a simple matter to clamp our device on this line and have it raise and drop the jar. While it was churning he could chase grass hoppers for fish bait or shoot birds with a frog shooter. Or maybe just sit back against a big tree and enjoy the shade. If it were winter time he could build a big fire close to the jar and keep warm. The fire would also keep the cream from getting too cold.

  There were at least two other ways of separating cream from milk. Some farms had a cream separator. This machine was powered by turning a crank. Cream was forced out of the milk by centrifical force, it being lighter than the milk. This was a tiring job, and was ordinarily given to a convenient kid. The cream produced in this manner was sweet cream, and was kept for a day or two until it soured. then it could be churned into butter.

  The other separator was a tall round metal tank with a glass window up and down one side. Milk was poured in this can and an equal quantity of water was added. In about twelve hours the cream would rise to the top of the liquid. A valve on the bottom drained the milk mixture out until the operator could see the cream, then the cream was drained into another vessel. This type of cream had to be kept until it soured. This system was not feasible when the whole milk was to be saved, but worked well when the milk and water solution was fed to the pigs. They loved it!

  If you didn't churn and sell butter, you could save the sour cream for weeks until you got enough to take to town, and there was a good market for it. Stores that bought cream would test it with a small centrifuge which told the percentage of butter fat, and the price paid per pound depended on the amount of fat in the batch. They sold it to the big processors who made butter and other products from it.

  I am not recommending this system for anyone wanting to go into the butter business.

  The first rule of going into business is to make it FUN, and it might take a little ingenuity to make this fun!


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