Our History is a regular column submitted by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, Director of Education and Programs at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history and some related displays at the museum.
Virginia Smith Crowell, a teacher in the region and long-time museum volunteer, remembers making butter when she was a child and singing the little work song for the task:
Come butter, come. Come, butter, come.
Grandmother’s at the gate;
waiting for a butter cake.
Come butter, come. Come butter, come.
She gave the family churn to the museum where it is on display in the Early Settlement Gallery. It belonged to her mother’s sister, Virginia Banner Vestal, one of nine children born to Wiltshire and Cordelia Banner. It’s a cradle style churn, so named for the rocking motion used to agitate the cream. One or two people could work it together, swinging it back and forth until the fat solids in the cream came together into the pale yellow spread. The task was not difficult, just time consuming and would often be given to small children then finished by the mother.
The cradle is one of several butter-related items in our collection which includes the more familiar dash or plunge churns, paddles for scooping and forcing the buttermilk from the solids, and a variety of butter presses. They would have been vital to the farm wife, prized among her possessions for they represented not only the ability to extend milk’s shelf life but a modicum of economic freedom.
Commerce was dominated by men but until canning and butter production became industrialized, much of the foodstuffs bought by grocers was created by women. According to manuals on dairy production, men would bring stress and dust to the process. One curdled the milk and the other made it dirty causing extra work to strain it out.
There are always exceptions but the resources for most homes in America before WWII were managed by the women who calculated what food, clothing, and medicines the family would need and set about the tasks of making or otherwise acquiring them.
Any extra could be sold or bartered for items such as sugar, shoes, or silk, just the sort of “staple and fancy” items W.W. Burke sold. He ran a store in the Joyce Block, next to Holcomb Hardware. Prices were published in the Mount Airy News with better quality butter commanding a higher price.
Many Surry County homes kept a cow or two for family dairy production well into the 20th century. Prior to 1900 most butter made in the United States was made in homes and small operations. Since the butterfat content of milk varies greatly by breed (Holsteins give about 2.8 percent while Jerseys average about 5 percent butterfat) it takes between four and 10 gallons of milk to gather enough cream to make one pound of butter. That might be all a cow gives in one day.
Milk was allowed to stand overnight to allow the cream to rise. It was skimmed off and placed in a container until there was enough to make the job worth doing. This might be a few days. The cream would be stored in a cool place, often set in cold water such as a spring, until the work began. This allowed the cream to ripen, or sour just a bit, which gave a richer flavor.
After the cream was churned, the butter was rinsed and churned again with clear water to remove as much of the buttermilk as possible. The maker then used butter paddles, cheese cloth, or their bare hands to squeeze as much of the remaining water from the solids and work salt into the butter for taste and preservation. Finally, it was rolled into a log or packed into and popped from a press and ready to wrap in cloth to take to the general store, maybe to be made into that butter cake of the old nursery song.
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the Director of Education and Programs for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228