Call it a New Life Transcript

Sep 21, 2023

Back to Call it a New Life episode.

Christine Scales: This is the 1890s creamery. And it’s set up as it would have been set up in 1890. 

Ryan Newswanger: We’re at the Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock. We’re visiting with Christine Scales in the basement of the museum’s large, beautiful farmhouse. She’s the Director of Education and Interpretation at the Museum. 

Christine: And part of the purpose of the house being built was to have this state-of-the-art creamery in the basement. 

Ryan: Hanging from the ceiling in this creamery is a light brown wooden box. It looks like a large cradle, or maybe a small coffin. But it’s neither of those things…it’s a swing churn for making butter. 

Noel (on recording): Can we see it work? 

Christine: Yeah, definitely. So the first thing that we have to do is…this is kind of a lock that keeps it in place and keeps it from swinging too much, so we have to loosen this. [Clanking sound.] So now it’s free to swing a little bit further. And then this over here is the water motor. 

Ryan: Christine opens a valve to let in a flow of water. The water powers the motor that swings the churn. The water to run the churn was once directed downhill from nearby Mount Tom through an elaborate series of pipes. 

Christine: You’re able to make 30 pounds of butter at a time, which is more than any kind of dasher churn or anything like that. So not only are you able to make it in a larger quantity, but you can pretty much set it up and let it go. You don’t need to have somebody standing on each side pushing it back and forth. 

Ryan: Swing churns like this freed up labor to do other things around the farm.  

Ryan: After 1890, Vermont farmers were to see many more technological changes. The elaborate gravity-fed water system that powered the Billings swing churn would be obsolete in only a few years. 

Christine: So actually by 1900, ten years after this house was built, the house was electrified. That was one of the goals of this house, was to be on the cutting edge of technology at the time. And technology was changing very quickly back then. So what was on the cutting edge in 1890 was not necessarily on the cutting edge in 1900. 

[theme music] 

Noel: This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact. I’m Noel Clark. 

Ryan: And I’m Ryan Newswanger. This episode is the second of a three-part series centered around Vermont farms. We’re going to start by learning a little bit more about butter churns. Here’s Noel. 

Noel: On a shelf in the oversized storage room of the Vermont Historical Society sits a handsome yellow box   – about the size of a large rollerbag suitcase – with rounded corners and a sliding glass lid.  

Teresa Green: Yeah, and they are all painted that color. This isn’t something that somebody did afterwards. All of them are yellow stenciled with the same black decoration. They’re all gorgeous and very decorative.  

Noel: The object in question is a minor technological marvel of the late 19th century, the swinging butter churn.   

Teresa Green: It says “Davis Swing Churn number five Patented, manufactured by Vermont Farm Machine Company Bellows Falls, Vermont.”  

Noel: Here’s Teresa Green, Collections Manager for the Vermont Historical Society.  

Teresa Green:. So it dates to like 1877 to the end of the 19th century and would have been used about that time. This one was likely not used that much because it’s in such good condition.   

Noel: What’s the capacity in something like that?   

Teresa Green: They came in several different sizes, but this one has a capacity of 13 gallons.  

Noel: Here’s how it works: the box itself sits on a stand a few feet off the ground, allowing the user to rock it back and forth. The gentle side to side motion – a bit like rocking a baby’s cradle – causes the cream inside to slide back and forth and turn into butter. It still requires a person to operate, but with far less effort than other methods.  

Teresa Green: So this is our standard, it’s a stoneware crock, basically. And then this is the paddle that goes with it. This sits on the top. And then this goes through, and you kind of twist it as you pull it up and push it down. And it squishes the butter through these holes and mixes it up. It’s kind of like kneading bread, but your hands won’t warm up the butter.  

Noel: Hmm. Like a big potato masher.   

Teresa Green: Yeah. Yeah. Big potato masher through gravy.  

Noel: The constant motion cut down on the amount of physical labor required to make butter while also increasing the amount you could make in one sitting 

Teresa Green: Oh, yeah. Yeah. This is entirely human powered. I don’t know of any technological advances that really affected this without changing the form. But the swing churn was definitely an improvement. Even if you were just using a foot pedal to move it. It’s much less work.   

Noel: It also allowed for, well, sitting – maybe even reading a book – a luxury that the commonplace stoneware pump crocks of yore didn’t provide. But The Davis Swing Churn wasn’t an immediate replacement for the squishier crock method, since most new things come with a cost. If you couldn’t afford one when the travelling salesman came by with a 1/10 scale model to show off, or if you’d just purchased another piece of updated farm machinery, you might put it off for a season or two before adopting the new model.  

Teresa Green: A lot of our advancements are a little bit subtle. So this is a neck yoke for carrying buckets of water, which you no longer have to do after you have a pump in your house. You can also use it to carry buckets of sap from the tree to your cart or your house. And now we have those IVs in the woods that just like it uses the hill and dumps it into a tank. In terms of grinding technology and you go from a mortar and pestle to a coffee grinder and eventually you get electric powered coffee grinders. From a meat maul to a sausage maker.   

Noel: Yet the allure of the buttery yellow Swing Churn is undeniable – convenience, capacity, comfort, and a big leap from the pump-churn crocks.   

Teresa Green: Yeah. The Davis swing churn was an iPhone. These were your like, Nokia bricks. And the old ones were just like the rotary phone.  

(walking and talking audio)  

Noel: Royalton-born Frederick Billings was an early adopter of new technology, including the Davis Swing Churn. When Billings returned to Vermont in the 1860’s after years of work as a lawyer and politician in New York and California, he purchased the estate of former Vermont State Representative and Conservationist George Perkins Marsh in Woodstock. That’s where the Billings Farm and Museum sits today.   

Christine: So for like a bigger piece of equipment like this you would probably need that horsepower, this one horsepower,  

Noel: Ha, one horsepower. 

Noel: The museum itself is home to many pieces of farming equipment that aren’t widely used on farms today, but were seen as revolutionary in their time, like the horse treadmill. Christine says Frederick Billings intended this farm to be a place for workers in the surrounding communities to gain experience with these new technologies and methods of farming that encouraged sustainability. 

Christine: And you know, it’s a really interesting time in Vermont farming is this like 1869 to 1900 switch really to dairy. And Frederick Billings wanted his farm to be a model farm, right? So he wanted farmers to come here and to learn about how they could farm in a way that was using the land responsibly, but could also make the money because he saw so many people leaving the state, they could make more money moving to the Midwest and having farms there.  

Noel: Since the landscape of most of the state of Vermont isn’t as well-suited for agriculture, for many farmers dairy was the most profitable crop possible. But dairy farming in Vermont couldn’t produce on the scale that farms in Iowa or Wisconsin could, which typically used Holstein cows. Holsteins are bred larger and produce milk with a lower fat content which gives it that whiter appearance most American’s have come to associate with a cool glass of milk. Instead, Billings kept a small herd of Jersey cows, which produced richer milk with a higher fat content that was ideal for butter and cream to keep the farm profitable.   

Christine: You know, if you’re farmers making butter, you might want to have this specific type of animal. So he really meant it for a place where people could come and learn and see what was going on here, and we could be doing the scientific experimentation and it’s something we try to carry on today. 

Noel: Another clever use of naturally-occurring resources came in the way those cows received their water. In 1900, the farm installed gravity-fed pipes like the one used to operate the butter churn to carry water uphill down to the fields for the cows to drink. Today that system is still used to water the gardens kept on the property, and recently helped fill troughs for the cows after historic flooding left the Woodstock area on a boil-water order for several days until water was restored. All of these innovations were labor-saving devices so that workers could lean into other tasks.   

Christine So, you know, you have more people maybe doing more specialized jobs, like maybe one person is just doing the creamery and you can produce more butter that way versus, you know, if they’re trying to do a bunch of different jobs so you can have more animals, you can have more cropland, you can kind of do more experimentation because the technology is cutting down on the time that would have been spent just doing the actual work of up the farm. So it allows to kind of expand and grow the number of animals and in that way as well. 

Noel: With the steady decline in overall milk consumption in the United States going back as far as the late seventies, higher operating costs, and diminishing returns, dairy farms have had to join co-ops or invest in large-scale operations –  “get big or get out” – in order to survive. This can mean dairy farming becomes a labor of love over money for some small farmers, or just unsustainable for others in the long run. Today Billings Farm still keeps a small herd of Jersey cows, and remains open to the public to educate people and provide a sense of how small farms operate… before they vanish completely.  

Christine: Yeah. I mean I think it’s I think it’s sad. I think any time we lose a small farm is sad, especially and the generations of farmers who have put so much into their small farms. And I mean, I think part of it is education and that’s what we try to do here. 

Noel: Then the next time when a Billings Farm visitor picks up some milk in their local grocery store they stop and wonder where it came from, Christine says the museum will have done their job. 

Christine: So if people can come here and see a small farm and see like some of the differences of small scale dairy farming and how we’re trying to use land responsibly through rotational grazing and really the animals are getting really great care, then maybe people will, you know, think about where their milk comes from and maybe support other small farms in their products. So that’s the hope. That’s the dream. 


Ryan: Of all the technological changes on Vermont farms, the biggest was probably the arrival of electricity. In 1900 55 Vermont cities or towns had electricity. But this life-changing power came slowly to many rural areas.  

Narrator Mark Greenberg: “Green Mountain Chronicles, number 29. ‘Turning on the Lights: Electricity Comes to Rural Vermont.’”  

Ryan: The Green Mountain Chronicles was a series of short radio programs created by the Vermont Historical Society in the late 1980s. The series told the history of 20th-century Vermont using archival sound recordings and oral history interviews. 

Jack Starr: In 1943, we were milking around a hundred cows by hand. And the REA came into my neighborhood and that was the first that we experienced anything with electricity.  

Ryan: Power for many Vermont farms came through the help of the federal Rural Electrification Administration, the REA. This is Jack Starr of Troy; Mark Greenberg is the narrator.  

Jack Starr: And up until this point we’d always had a nice house and we’d have to get ice every night to put in the old ice cooler to keep our milk. And we burned kerosene lanterns in the barn and kerosene lights in the house. And you know, when the lights came in, it was, you know, it was a tremendous improvement to the farm situation.  

George Sibley: Guess you’d call it a new life. I probably wouldn’t be around there now. I mean, it made lots of difference for the work, you know, and I think back to the things that we used to do, had had to do, there was no other way out of it. And, uh, it didn’t do it that way anymore.  

Narrator (Mark Greenberg): George Sibley was born in 1905 on the farm established by his great-grandfather in 1939. Sibley’s father helped organize 30 farmers into the Washington Electric Co-op in order to bring power with the help of the REA to East Montpelier’s back roads.  

George Sibley: I well remember the day that I came out of the woods and saw lights in the house. Well, I’m gonna tell ya, <laugh> that was some day. Yeah. Lanterns. That was the one thing that I was most pleased about. After we had Washington Electric, my mother didn’t have to wash kerosene lamps every day.  

Ryan: Other archival recordings give further insight into what it was like when electricity came to Vermont’s farms. These next recordings are from our friends at Vermont Folklife, who have their own podcast, VT Untapped.  

Ryan: This interview with Rupert Blair of East Warren was recorded in 1991 by Jane Beck, the founder of Vermont Folklife.  

Rupert Blair: See, the electricity didn’t come through here until 1946.  

Jane Beck: Is that right? That’s late.  

Rupert Blair: When they, when they put the line in, we had to sign up. We would buy $10 worth of electricity a month.  

Jane Beck: That’s a lot of electricity.  

Rupert Blair: Well, was at the time. We had a farm. We wanted to cool milk. We had gas lights before, carbide gas. We had a gasoline milking machine and sometimes you’d be willing to pay quite a lot more to have something would start when you pushed the button <laugh>.  

Jane Beck: Yeah. What it must have been…I mean you think now when we lose electricity, because we’re used to it, it’s a real pain. But going from no electricity to electricity, what was it like?  

Rupert Blair: Well, it was a wonderful improvement. We used to run a bench grinder, we ground our sections on the mowing machine with a gasoline engine. We had a bench saw on a gasoline engine. The milking machine ran on a gasoline engine. In fact the milk cooler we did run one year with a gasoline engine, had a compressor. We did put up ice for time, but that is a difficult thing.  

Jane Beck: Putting up ice?  

Rupert Blair: Putting up ice, yeah.  

Jane Beck: It’s all covered with sawdust.  

Rupert Blair: And you take it out, throw some water on it, rinse the ice off, throw it in the milk tank. By that time you’re wet. <laughs>.  

Ryan: This last segment is from a 1994 interview with Christine “Gussie” Levarn, also conducted by Jane Beck at Vermont Folklife. 

Christine “Gussie” Levarn: In 1935, I believe it was, I was a senior in high school, we had electricity put into the farm. And this Charlie, Patrick was the one that was the electrician. And we would be asking every day, we came home from school, are you gonna turn it on yet? We’re so excited. I don’t think I can tell about it. I was so excited. So I was coming home from school and I stayed for basketball practice and we lived about a mile and a half from Hinesburg village and the farmhouse was kind of up on a hill and it was just all lit up. The barns and the house, every light was on. And it was just a spectacular sight. And I’d run a little ways and then I’d cry. I was so excited that I can’t talk about it. So excited about we had electricity. Couldn’t believe it. 

Ryan: Let’s go back to dairy, and to butter. Vermont was once known for its wool, specifically, wool from Merino sheep (we’ll talk about that in our next episode.)  

Ryan Beginning in the mid-1800s, Vermont became known for its butter, made in churns like those in the Vermont Historical Society and at Billings Farm. That changed as well.  

Dona Brown: Fluid milk is the reason why Vermont farms prospered in the early 20th century, much more than other New England farms.  

Ryan: Dona Brown is a historian at the University of Vermont. Starting in the late 19th century, Vermont dairies shipped milk throughout New England and New York, and came to dominate the fluid milk market for those regions.  

Ryan: Vermont milk’s journey to big cities started with simple steel cans.  

Dona Brown: And those are the main method by which the farmer would take his milk and pile them up into the back of his cart and take them either to the co-op—that was maybe there’s a cooperative creamery in his town or in a nearby town—or to the local railroad station to ship them down to the creamery.   

Ryan: Later the horse-drawn carts were replaced by trucks that would come out to the farms to pick up the cans. It still seemed rather simple…but change was afoot.  

Dona: Up until the mid-20th century, Vermont farms varied quite a bit in the degree to which they were modernizing. There were some places in Vermont, especially in the flatlands in Franklin County, in Chittenden County, that were really modernized.  

Ryan: This modernizing meant purchasing “off farm inputs” like grain and chemical fertilizer. It meant getting bank loans. It meant milking more cows.  

Ryan: Some Vermont farms tried to model themselves after the bigger farm operations to the west. But others chose to remain with an older, more diversified way of farming.  

Dona: There are many, many farmers in Vermont in the 1920s and 30s and 40s who had perhaps five milk cows, had a couple of calves, raised some meat, sold some meat locally, put their cream on the market locally—sent it to a co-op—but also grew potatoes, marketed those in town, ate some of them. They were extremely diversified in a much older style pattern. And they didn’t spend a lot of money on off farm inputs.  

Ryan: A smaller farm like this might make only a portion of their income from selling milk. But the regular milk check helped stabilize the seasonal ebbs and flows of other crops, like maple syrup.  

Ryan: But then came a time when these farmers were asked to make a big investment. 

Dona: The switch to the bulk tank is driven primarily by the haulers. It’s just now the mid-20th century. The milk processors are often driving trucks out to the farms to pick up those milk cans. And they’re the ones who decide that it would be easier and cheaper for them if the bulk tanks were in place at the farms so that they could just come out there and drain the milk from those things. There would be less handling.  

Ryan: The haulers said the milk would be safer, as the refrigerated bulk tanks would keep the milk at a more consistent temperature than the steel cans. But the tanks were expensive.  

Dona: I believe I’ve read that they cost something around, you know, a year’s salary for an average Vermont farmer. And these are folks who, by and large, are reluctant to go into heavy debt.   

Ryan: Some Vermont farmers believed that getting bank loans was something done only by Western farmers. Investing in a bulk tank—keeping up with the times—would lead to a larger series of decisions.  

Dona: Are you fertilizing your fields? Are you buying breed cattle? Are you shipping by rail? Are you milking in winter or are you only milking in summer when the pasture is good?   

Dona: Every one of those things is a small decision. And by the time you reach the point where you have to decide, am I going to put the money into the bulk tank or not, you’ve already seen a lot of falling away of those small remote farms. The bulk tank is just the last decision, the last point to cross, to decide, “Am I going to give up now or am I going to go into a different kind of farming from what I’ve ever done before?”  

Ryan: While Vermont can sometimes seem like a place apart, it is still influenced by national or international trends, especially with farming in the mid-20th century.   

Dona: The bet that the state took that the road toward modernization and toward more capitalization, more technology, more off-farm inputs, that choice may have looked like it was the only one that was available. But it is a choice that leads you toward a less resilient farm economy.  

Ryan: 20th-century technology did greatly increase milk yields. But Vermont’s dairy farmers became more reliant on products whose prices they couldn’t control, like grain and fertilizer.  

Dona: To some degree, people knew. Farmers knew. And I think a lot of ag experts also knew that there were downside risks to this. But this was the mid-20th century and in general, a period when there was a real love affair with new technologies and a sort of a notion that technologies were the solution to everything.  

Ryan: The gamble that included the move to bulk tanks has not paid off for Vermont’s small dairy farms. In 1950, Vermont had 11,000 dairy farms. Today there are a little over 500 remaining. The dairies that have remained have gotten bigger. 

Dona: And it’s easy now, looking back from a very different perspective, as we see what looks like the final end to dairying in Vermont. We can look back and say, well, maybe it wasn’t so bad to have those very small, very diversified farms that were not so reliant on markets, not so reliant on debt, not so reliant on off-farm inputs. Those are goals for farmers today to be more reliant on themselves, to be more resilient, to be more in tune with their environments.  

Ryan: Dona describes young Vermont dairy farmers, some of whom might not have the benefit of owning a family farm.  

Dona: They’re all about resilience. They’re all about shaping the landscape with their animals. They’re all about avoiding dependance on outside inputs and all that that entails.  

Dona: It’s interesting now to look back at this history of the dairy industry and kind of see the trajectory that seemed so inevitable now beginning to appear like a series of choices that could be questioned. 

[music bed begins]  

Noel: In part three of this series, we’ll look at technology and its impact on Vermont farms 

[clip from upcoming episode: Billings Farm?] 

Noel: Look for that episode early this fall.  

Ryan: Before Your Time is presented by Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Historical Society. This episode was produced by Noel Clark and Ryan Newswanger, with help from Teresa Greene and Amanda Kay Gustin.  

Noel: Thanks to our guests: Christine Scales, Teresa Greene, and Dona Brown. 

Ryan: And thanks to the Vermont Historical Society for the use of the Green Mountain Chronicles segments, and to Vermont Folklife for their interviews about rural electrification. Be sure to check out the Vermont Folklife podcast, VT Untapped.   

Noel: Visit our website, Before Your Time dot org, to find photos and other content related to this episode, including a video of the Billings Farm swinging butter churn in action. And if you like what you hear, please tell your friends about the podcast. Thanks for listening!