Our Rural Heritage: Cream of the crop, or really milking it

The restored Monee Creamery
The restored Monee Creamery

By Sandy Vasko

Being a dairy farmer is no romp in the woods; it’s a 24/7 job. Being a lover of dairy products myself, I thank them for their dedication.

Imagine now what being a dairy farmer in the 19th century was like. The biggest problem was that without refrigeration, milk starts to spoil almost immediately, especially in summer. Yes, there were spring houses to keep it cool, which worked for the needs of one family. But if you are in the milk business, it is just too small.
Converting milk into butter and cheese was the solution, but not the only one.

In the 1850s, Mr. Gale Borden invented condensed milk. It was an immediate success, especially in the cities where folks did not have their own cow. During the Civil War, it was part of a soldier’s ration. In Wilmington we read, “A Milk condensing establishment is about being started here, provided a sufficient quantity of milk can at present be secured to warrant the enterprise.

No manufactory could be of more lasting benefit to our farmers than this. Farmers, send in your offers to supply to Rev. Mr. De Wolf, and secure the establishment of a milk depot here. Milk may be sent in any time during the day, and no extra work by way of hurry or early rising is asked.”

In the Illinois Centennial Book printed in 1876 we read; “The modern dairy industry of northern Illinois had its beginning in the Civil War era. Even during the fifties Chicago had come more and more to draw upon outlying towns for its supply of milk; in 1859 Elgin, with about twenty export dairymen, shipped 227,047 gallons of milk to Chicago. Eight years later though, with competition from Kane and neighboring counties, the shipment from Elgin had increased only to 196,197 gallons, yet its value had risen from nine to sixteen cents a gallon.

“Meantime, the dairy industry had become far more complex. A heavy butter trade developed; the little town of Wilmington in 1866 in addition to freight shipments sent out by express 16,912 pounds of butter in a single week. Butter sold at 25 ($5.13) to 35 (7.18) cents a pound and was often in such demand as to leave unsupplied the local trade.”

I’m afraid that the writer of the above was a little short on his estimate of Wilmington. We read on June 19, 1866 in the Joliet Signal “Forty-five tons of butter – the Wilmington Independent says that 90,000 pounds of butter were shipped from Wilmington for the week ending June the 9th. Our neighboring young city must be a slippery place these days.”

By the 1870s, every small town had a creamery or butter factory. Monee is very lucky that hers was saved for posterity. They were usually built of very thick stone, which helped to keep the interior cool. The main floor was elevated to facilitate the unloading of the milk cans from the wagons.

Driving the milk to the creamery was an almost daily chore. Sometimes it also ended in disaster. From the June 23, 1878 Wilmington Advocate:
“The idea of racing with loaded milk wagons ain’t always just the thing. So argues Mr. Hawley of Horse Creek, anyhow. You see, he was coming to town on Monday morning, bright and early with his milk.

Now, time is money with Mr. Hawkey, and he thought he’d get to the creamery and unload before some other parties, who were equidistant and bound for the same destination.

Both parties plied their whips vigorously, and into town they came, hellity split. The inevitable collision came, upsetting Howard Johnston’s cow and demolishing Hawley’s wagon, while oceans of milk flowed free as beer after a granger caucus. However; Mr. Hawley has the proud consolation of having kept his word, for he did unload first and that without weighing.”

An alternative to driving a wagon was available for farmers on the Kankakee. In 1878 we read, “Wm. Fitzgerald, of Custer, informs us that he will have a small steamboat on the Kankakee in about three weeks from date. Its principle business will be to convey milk to the creameries in this city daily. Mr. F. is to be commended for his enterprise.”
Others were also looking into making money in Wilmington, “Mayor Elwood, of Joliet, was in this city on Monday, with a view to putting the little steamer “Vinette” on the river above this city, to ply in the interest of the milk trade. The boat is to be here this morning. She is capable of great speed and carrying 10,000 pounds of milk easily; and by slight alteration her capacity can be made much greater.”

Eventually, two creameries were in business in Wilmington, both doing great business and putting money into the local economy. We read of one of them, “About $1500 ($46,700) was paid out to farmers on Wednesday morning by Allen’s creamery. Pay day occurs on the 20th of each month.”

By September, the entire region was in competition, “Both creameries in Wilmington paid 45 cents per hundred for July milk. At Wright’s creamery, in Wesley, 41 cents was paid, while at the Braidwood creamery it is said that 52 cents was the amount.”
After the turn of the century, small creameries started going out of business.

In Beecher, we read, “Eight of the milk shippers and probably more in the near future will quit the Beecher Creamery Company. To forsake the creamery would greatly decrease business in town, dairy products, especially butter would lower in prices.

“The shippers are therefore kindly requested to patronize the home factory. Laziness is probably the principal cause of shipping their cream to Chicago, and making butter as the howler don’t have to do the work, he depends upon the folks at home. The Creamery is more accommodating in many ways. They have also helped Beecher and vicinity in many things which should cause the patrons to stay with them instead of starting a stampede.”

But the writing was on the wall, for all of Will County.



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