Documenting Collections | A Butter Churn

This is the first in a series of posts that will highlight the Museum’s collections as we continue to evaluate, research, catalogue and rehouse the collections over the next three years.  

For most of us, it’s just butter: innocuous stacks of foil-wrapped bricks or plastic tubs, scooped out of the dairy case without a second thought. When we do think of it, maybe it’s as delicious, creamy saturated sunshine, or the obscene product of an unsustainable food dictatorship, or possibly just that stuff you spread on your toast; what it hardly ever is, in our minds, is the product of hours of heavy manual labour. But until relatively recently, that’s exactly what it was.

It takes about four gallons of whole cow’s milk to make one pound of butter. A hundred years ago, when our churn was patented, every drop would have to be squeezed out of a cow by hand, usually at a godawful hour of the morning.

Once that was done, the cream was collected. Milk sat until the cream floated to the top and was painstakingly skimmed.

Then it was time to churn. Before the industrial revolution, this was done with a plunger churn (bucket with a stick in it) or by putting the butter in a barrel or a bag on a rope and swinging it back and forth until the cream coagulated. In the 18th and 19th century, dairies began to use high technology: rotary churns with cranks and cog-driven paddles like the one in our collection.

How-ever it was done, the basic principle of butter-making is the same: beat the daylights out of it. At a certain point, as anyone who has over-whipped cream knows, your cream will transform from soft, delightful peaks to wet, yellow lumps. Drain the watery residue (A.K.A, buttermilk), squeeze the many lumps into one, and there you have it: butter.

Because it was such a common and labour-intensive task, churning was a prime candidate for mechanization, and patents for rotary butter churns abounded. One of these was taken out by Mr. E.B. Jones, who invented a small glass churn for home use around the turn of the 19th century. After a couple of years, Nathan Dazey, a more entrepreneurial sort, bought Jones’s business, gave it his own name, and moved it to St. Louis, Missouri. Dazey diversified into butter churns of all sizes, from the original kitchen-sized jar to our farm-sized four-gallon metal model, which, according to its stamp, was patented on December 18, 1917.

It’s a solid machine, with four sturdy legs, a heavy iron crank-handle, and a sizeable churning-paddle that looks like a tiny wooden boat propeller. There is also a handy tap on the bottom to drain off the buttermilk (Fun Fact: originally, most of the cream used to make butter had fermented slightly, which is why modern buttermilk is laced with lactic acid to give it the sour tang).

Yes, Dazey churns were made to last- good news for museums and hand-churned butter enthusiasts, because the Dazey Co. stopped making churns in 1945, when the numbers of people moving to cities, and modernized industrial farming made home butter manufacture inefficient.

But how did a churn, made around 1917 in St Louis, find its way to the Fernie Museum a hundred years later?

According to Cathy Crewe, the original owner, our churn was originally used in the dairy at the Hutterite Colony near Pincher Creek. It was found by her father, George Crewe, who was a farm and automotive parts salesman and a collector of oddities and antiques. One day, visiting the farm to sell tractor parts, George discovered the churn in one of the barns, where it was waiting to be thrown away. George rescued the churn, dusted it off, and brought it home to be added to his many treasures. Eventually, Cathy inherited the churn along with the rest of her father’s collection and gave it to her friend Lori Bradish. Lori donated the churn to the Fernie and District Historical Society, where it lives today. Its handles and paddle still turn, and if you open the lid and stick your head inside, you can smell a very faint odour of cheese.

The Dazey churns like it are a reminder, not just of how our butter was once made, but of an entire rural way of life that is rapidly fading from memory. So, next time you’re grabbing a stick, a pound, or a tub, give a thought for all those sore, sweaty generations who milked, hauled, skimmed, and churned the delicious dairy fats of our past.

The object has been acquired by the Fernie Museum for its education collection.  With its strong history related to the Pincher Creek area, it falls outside the geographical range of the museum’s collection policy.  It is, however, in excellent condition and makes great object for hands-on use by students and the general public in museum programming.

The Fernie Museum recognizes the value of using artifacts and specimens in public and school programs. These programs require objects that can be operated or handled by staff, volunteers, and the public, and that, ultimately, may be expendable. To fulfil this need, the museum has established an education collection.

Artifacts or specimens designated as part of a education collection must:

  • fulfil a program need;
  • be appropriate to the program;
  • be demonstrated to be expendable (e.g. a duplicate with no defined purpose, over representation in the collection);
  • be safe to use;
  • not contravene legislation (e.g. firearms).

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