August 1991

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Cows and Milk

in Rochester


Robert G. Koch

In A History of Agriculture in the State of New York, Ulysses Hedrick gives the genus Bos a mixed review, granting its admirable adaptation to domestication, its docility and submissiveness to man, but faulting it for lack of companionability and intelligence. As he says, "…man does not have the affectionate relations with them he has with the horse, camel, or elephant. A cow," he continues, "is little more than a passive producer of milk, almost devoid of emotions—she lives to eat, drink, and reproduce." Those spotted hefties seen gamboling across a pasture in spring must have discovered unusually seductive grass or water!

The family cow of course supplied domestic needs, if the farm or small-town family was lucky enough to have one. Her largess, even more than a century ago, could be awesome. Consider that of Gerrit Smith Miller's generous "Dowager No. 7," a New York State Holstein-Frisian, who on March 10, 1871, completed a record of 12,681 lbs. and 8 oz. of milk in one year—a half ton of milk per month! It's estimated that a single cow of the time could contribute the makings for about 120 pounds of butter each year, or about twice that much of cheese. But dairying then, as now, was incredibly demanding. A recent survey of New York State dairy farmers found that they work an average of 14 1/2 hours a day, seven days a week, with only 14 days off during an entire year.

Before the convenience of "milk trains" and, later, milk tank trucks, that fragile abundance made its way to distant—and not very distant—markets as butter and cheese, which were somewhat less fragile. Earlier, the Erie Canal was the cheese road, with millions of pounds arriving at Albany each year for Eastern markets. The volume increased from six million pounds in 1834, the year that Rochester was chartered as a city, to 24 million a decade later.

Nineteenth century Rochester was both a gathering and a shipping place for this gift of the cow and human labor, as well as a major regional market. As in other areas, by mid-century Rochester produced only 3% of its own milk, relying instead on its immediately neighboring towns, for butter on a second layer of towns further out, and for cheese on counties farther away.

Rochester's diminishing bovine self-sufficiency had an interesting consequence or two. The University of Rochester benefited from one—the gift in the 1850s of the core of its first campus, where the Memorial Art Gallery is now. The donor is celebrated in a University song:

Azariah Boody's cows were sleek and noble kine
That wandered o'er the fields where grew the dandelion.

Despite dairying's flight to the suburbs and beyond, enough cows were wandering city streets to trigger renewed enforcement of an ordinance to contain them. An 1864 complaint led the owner of the offending bovine to reply to the Mayor's office that the old ordinance had seemed, through lack of enforcement, a dead letter. Then he added, to the enforcer:

"Having put your hand to the plow, I trust you are not the man to falter, or 'look back,' but will persevere without discrimination, political or otherwise, until our streets are freed from all obnoxious animals, both quadruped and biped. On the way to my pasture, this morning, I counted thirty cows running at large, with hogs and geese so numerous, that I did not stop to estimate their number."

Probably the local stores handled butter and cheese much as the old country store did. Gerald Carson's prize-winning history of The Old Country Store describes a testing procedure for butter, since the cream was layered in tubs as it became available. A careful store owner would plunge his butter borer deep into the tub, "…giving it a circular twist, and deftly removing the core, which revealed all the strata. He then applied a sound organoleptic test—a brisk lick of the tongue and a cautious sniff. He replaced the column of butter, withdrew the tester, and smoothed over the top with his thumb."

And every good store had a cheese safe "to keep the flies and mice away from the store cheese," and some featured a cheese board with a glass bell that was raised and lowered by chain and counterweight.

In 1856 Gail Borden, a Central New York dairyman and self-styled "doctor" who held that, "It is no use to be a doctor unless you put on the airs of one," invented a practical vacuum condenser that made possible canned condensed milk. It helped win the Civil War and, if we are to believe the inventor's corporate descendant, brought contentment to legions of cows.

The liquid milk that made its way to market was often from diseased cows, was contaminated, or was allowed to rise to temperatures that bred disease. Even in the age of Pasteur, a century ago, children under the age of five in Rochester and other urban centers were particularly common victims of "the summer complaint" from which one-third of them died. The clean-milk heroics of the City Health Department's Dr. George Goler reduced that toll to about one-fifth by the turn of the century. But that's a story for another time.

© 1991, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
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