In 1885 George Lawson milked 38 cows on his hill farm in Barre. Every day, he separated the cream from the milk, and then churned the cream into butter. Lawson shipped 14 tubs of fresh, sweet butter to Boston each week. Each tub contained 20 pounds of butter, for a total of 280 pounds a week.
The tubs were, according to the American Cultivator (Boston), “Made of clear spruce with three ash hoops on each. The tub is sandpapered inside and out, and made perfectly smooth, sweet, and clean. They are lined inside with a thin coating of paraffine; next a lining of fine cotton cloth; then the butter. Finally, the package is covered with manila paper, folded on the top and bottom in an ingenious manner, and tacked on each end with galvanized tacks.”
Vermont’s signature product of the 19th century was not maple syrup, but butter. And the careful and elaborate packaging was deliberate. Spruce was used for the firkins because it imparted neither odor nor flavor to the fresh butter.
Roger Allbee, former Vermont secretary of agriculture, noted that, after the decline of the Merino sheep boom in the state, “Vermont became the butter capital of the world, winning prizes in international competitions. Starting in 1854, an iced butter train left St. Albans for Boston once per week. By 1899, Vermont was producing 35 million pounds of butter. Whole support industries like the Bellows Falls Farm Machine Company — maker of butter churns and equipment — and the Montgomery butter box firm, existed to support this trade.”
Amazingly, the St. Albans Butter Market became the largest butter market in the world.
The transformation of Vermont agriculture from wool to dairy was not by design or intent, rather it was the result of a variety of unrelated events that created a dairy juggernaut that lasted for 50 years, after which a steady decline made the Vermont butter industry a mere shadow of the state’s onetime national influence.
Technology played an important role. As noted in the Vermont Encyclopedia (2003), “butter had become profitable with the invention of the factory cream separator, the Babcock Tester to measure butterfat content of milk, and refrigerated railroad cars.”
The fact that Americans consumed far more butter in the 19th century did not hurt the prospects of this new industry. In 1875, the annual consumption of butter was about 30 pounds per person, as opposed to five pounds today.
The beginnings of the butter trade began with the annual surfeit of milk in the spring. The excess was used by the farmers to make butter and cheese, with little thought of selling the product. The 1866 report from the Vermont commissioner of agriculture suggests the primitive state of dairy production:
“Butter and cheese were consumed in the house, and what was left over was often bartered for other products that were needed by the family but could not be produced on the farm. All the operations of the dairy were rude and undeveloped; the herds were milked in the open yard; the curds were worked in tubs and log presses. Everything was done by guess and there was no order, no system, and with no science.”
Albee offers some historical perspective in his blog, “What Ceres Might Say:” “Dairy was incidental to other things grown on the farm until about 1840 when the tide began to turn. As the urban areas and cities grew, merchants reached out for these products, the majority of which were still produced on the farm.”
Allbee goes on to quote from Vermont’s First Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture (1872), “…there are several essential elements necessary to the making of good butter...good cows, good feed, good salt, a good churn, and a good woman; and it is said by some that the possession of the last would insure the first four.”
The Vermont Department of Agriculture was aware of the headlong rush into dairying after the end of the sheep boom. But the agriculture experts were perplexed by the farmers’ indifference to their livestock’s pedigree. “The trouble is that no attention has been paid to breeding. One quarter of the cows in the state are absolutely worthless. Another trouble is with the farmers. If one-fourth of the cows in the state could be annihilated and their feed given to the other three-fourths, the dairy product would be increased. If one-half as much thought was given to the dairy business as was given to sheep raising 25 years ago the dairy product would be doubled.”
One prominent exception to the rule was Woodstock’s Frederick Billings. His scientific approach to dairy farming led him in 1871 to import Jersey cows from the same-named island in the English Channel.
With the high fat content of the Jersey milk, the quality of Vermont butter was forever enhanced. In fact, the Agriculture Department’s first rule of butter making was “have a butter cow — either a Jersey or a Guernsey.” Allbee notes Billings realized there was more to the making of butter than just milking the family cow. The quality of the milk was important, and so by 1890, the Billings Farm, using the imported breed, was producing 5,000 pounds of butter annually.
As the rush to convert sheep pastures to dairy farms continued apace, milk production increased geometrically, and creameries proliferated throughout the state. Allbee writes that, by 1900, there were 186 creameries in Vermont, and a few years later the now-famous Cabot Creamery was founded, and later purchased by 94 participating farmers for $5 per cow and a cord of firewood to fuel the boiler.
One great consequence of the creamery movement was the insistence on standards for cleanliness. By increasing the quality of their butter, the creameries could demand higher prices for their product. According to Allbee, “For example, when the creamery in Brattleboro was built in about 1887, they raised the price of butter by 12 to 14 cents per pound. They could do this by increasing the quality of their butter. One way this was done was by demanding total cleanliness on the farm. To insure this, the farms were inspected continually. After the cheese and butter were made the whey was returned to the farmer to feed the pigs and other livestock. This way nothing was wasted.”
The quick growth of the butter industry stimulated demand for wooden tubs to ship the fresh product. The spruce forests in and around Montgomery proved ideal for the manufacture of firkins which, in turn, were ideal for shipping butter. “Montgomery Spruce Butter Tubs” made by Nelson and Hall were well suited for this purpose. In 1888, according to an industry directory, 575,000 tubs were produced in Vermont, and more than 50% of those were credited to Montgomery.
In another 20 years, according to William Jeffrey’s “Successful Vermonters” (1907), the proprietor of the Montgomery company, “Has placed it in the front rank as the largest manufactory of spruce wood butter packages in the United States. The company owns 8,000 acres of timber lands, cuts and manufactures 2,500,000 feet of lumber annually and sells more than a million and a half of butter tubs and packages. The tub staves are loaded upon cars which are run into a room, where they are completely seasoned and kiln dried in 48 hours, without handling until they reach the lathes, a device employed only in this factory. More than one hundred men are employed in and about the factory, mostly permanent residents. They are paid every Wednesday and the company has never had a strike.”
The success of this company transformed the town of Montgomery. As Jeffrey noted: “The past dozen years have witnessed great improvements in the villages of Montgomery and Montgomery Center, especially the latter. Modern residences have been erected and many former ones have been painted and remodeled with verandas; front yard fences have been removed, the shade trees have grown, and the Center is today one of the prettiest of Vermont’s rural villages. The school buildings are modern and well equipped and the schools prosperous.”
St. Albans was at the vortex of this perfect butter storm. Its location on Lake Champlain worked in its favor, as well as the fact that it was a major Vermont railroad hub. By the late 19th century it had become the “Butter Capital of the World.”
Hosting the headquarters of the Central Vermont Railroad, it was the largest railroad complex in the Green Mountain state. Located on the main line of the CVRR was the St. Albans Cold Storage Company, with a railroad spur running to the refrigerator doors. The building was 40 by 60 feet and 50 feet high, and had a capacity of 1 million pounds of butter. It was cooled with 900 tons of ice.
An 1889 promotional book on St. Albans noted, “Ample and convenient rooms for the use of butter buyers have been built in connection with the building, and the St. Albans butter market is conducted here on Tuesdays, buyers from the various cities in New England and from New York being attracted here. The annual production of butter in the entire state is 25,240,286 pounds. This butter is all marketed in St. Albans. Tuesday is market day and the streets are then thronged with people from the country towns. As many as three hundred teams are frequently seen standing in the streets and packed about building of the St. Albans Cold Storage Company.”
In 1854 the Central Vermont Railroad began running a butter train to Boston. The insulated box cars were cooled with ice, and approximately one fourth of the butter in the shipment was produced in Franklin County.
Butter production in Vermont reached a high of 35 million pounds in 1899, but dropped precipitously over the next few decades.
What happened? Oleomargarine.
Introduced in the 1870s, margarine was a household staple by the mid-1880s. Dairy interests in Vermont and elsewhere fought the introduction of this ersatz butter on every conceivable front. Manufactured from waste fats, this butter substitute could be produced at the fraction of the cost of real butter and, during the lean years of the Great Depression, became a standard substitute for cooking and on the dinner table.
By the time margarine was manufactured from vegetable products, dairy butter would never recover its prominence in the market.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.