The Butterfat Queen or Life on a 1930’s Dairy Farm.

Jack and Annie Shannon’s Dairy, Arroyo Grande California.

She was the queen of cows in December, 1931. Every other milk cow envied her. Minerva, Sister, Maude and Violet, even Vanilla, the cow with the least personality who never offended anyone. She was a celebrity and better know around San Luis Obispo’s dairies than England’s Queen Elizabeth the first. Her name was Bessie. She was a Holstein. She was also a producer.

dMy grandfather had a great sense of humor. He like to name his cattle after people he knew, especially the cows. He considered it a great honor to bestow the names of family members and friends of my grandmother on his herd. In little towns like ours, long before television and when radios were still fairly uncommon people socialized much more than they do today. The Odd Fellows, Rebekahs, Rotarians, the newly chartered Arroyo Grande Woman’s Club and churches provided opportunities for a wide range of activities. My grandmother was a long time member of the Minerva Club in Santa Maria. They belonged to the Santa Maria Club, todays famous Santa Maria Elks. With so many social activities, Jack had plenty of name fodder to choose from.

Bessie was most likely named for Jack’s wife Annie’s Uncle, Pat Moore’s sister. Eliza Moore “Bessie” Shipman, was born in Ireland in 1848 the year before the California gold rush. She came to the United States in in 1859 when she was just eleven. She joined her father, brother and sisters in Cuyahoga, Ohio. The entire family moved to California in 1871 finally settling in the area around Oso Flaco and Guadalupe. She was a favorite of my grandmother. When she died in 1923 at 75 she lived in San Luis Obispo and was surrounded by her remaining family, many nieces and nephews including my grandmother. She was a pioneer woman who stood on her own two feet and it’s easy to see why my grandfather used her name.

Milk cows are pretty docile creatures. They used to spend their lives out mowing the grass. Nipping off the pasture, ruminating and making milk and fertilizer. When you drive by on the highway they look peaceful standing out in the field. Their day is spent eating. They lift the head occasionally, looking around at the scenery, tossing off the odd moo and switching the tail to offend the flies that light on their fannies. It’s not a bad life being domesticated. Fresh tasty pasture in the spring and summer and sweet hay brought from the barn and delivered to the fields from the back of a pickup truck. There are big white and red blocks of salt and minerals to lick, the big pink tongue rasping across the surface and always a nice trough filled with fresh water direct from the well. Clean and pure.

Twice a day, sometimes three they meander down from the pasture and right into the barn. Putting their heads through the open stanchions and beginning to munch on the oats spread in the mangers. They don’t seem to mind the feel of the of the rubber lined stainless steel cups as they slip over their teats.

While you can certainly find instances of a farmer milking by hand here and there, dairy farmers haven’t milked by hand in a long while, a very long while, actually. Milking machines were developed more than 100 years ago for a few reasons. First, they allow a cow to be milked the same way every time, which is more comfortable for them. Plus, it’s more efficient than milking by hand. The first milking machine was patented in 1907, and it’s how most of the world now milks its cows.

The Afternoon milking. Shannon Family photo.

Before Bessie or any of her sisters was milked, my dad and uncle would wash the cows udders using a bucket of warm water and a dilute solution of chlorine or other mild acids. She needs to have her udder and teats cleaned to keep the cow comfortable and healthy and to ensure milk quality. Going cow to cow, the teats were “stripped” by hand, which meant squeezing four or five squirts into a milk cup before applying the machine. A look into the cup for evidence of mastitis, lumps or calcium deposits and discoloration of the milk was mandatory in a good dairy. In 1931 not all small dairies were conscientious about doing those kinda of things. Just like today the county inspectors did not arrive unexpectedly. Lapses in hygiene could be corrected for at least a day. My father would point out men who fit that description as part of our lessons on integrity.

My father had very, very strong wrists which he said came from decades of “stripping.” He was just twelve when my grandparents started their dairy and he was still at it twenty years later. As a grown man he used to bet Manuel Silva a cup of coffee he could out squeeze him on my mother bathroom scales. He never lost. Manuel would then have to get up from our kitchen table and pour the coffee. They had a lot of fun doing that.

After washing the milking machine is attached to each cow. The milker may have a hard stainless steel exterior, but the inside – which attaches to the cows soft teats – is anything but. It consists of a soft rubber liner that uses gentle suction to remove the milk in a natural way. At that point, the milk travels through sanitized pipes directly to a tank where the milk is quickly cooled to a minimum 45 degrees or cooler to keep it fresh. We had a chiller to do this. A solid concrete building which stayed at about 54 degrees year round and took just a little cooling to drive the temperature down to 45 F.

It takes only five to seven minutes to milk so with fifteen to eighteen cows in the stalls it’s a rush to get it all done. With my grandfather, his two boys and a hired man, all the cows were milked and turned out to pasture twice a day.

My grandparents dairy would be considered on the small side for its time. Milking around 15/18 cows is small time considering that in other parts of California like the large ranches around Point Reyes or Ferndale produced huge amounts of dairy which was shipped to the Bay area and Los Angeles by boat and train. Still for the little town of Arroyo Grande whose city population was just 895 in 1931 and it’s greater township of about 5,000 it was more than adequate. Oceano, Halcyon, Grover and Pismo were all unincorporated and not yet considered towns in their own right and were included in the township of Arroyo Grande.

Bessie, Violet, Flora, named after Mrs Harloe for certain, who was a great friend of my grandparents, produced and average of 80 gallons of milk every day, seven days a week in 1931. All the girls together gave more than 300 hundred gallons of milk daily. Thats more than a quart of milk for every citizen in town.

It all had to be Pasteurized and run through the separator to extract the cream and then put into pint and quart glass bottles sealed with a paper cap. Bulk milk was poured into one and five gallon cans for shipment to the creamery. More milk was produced than could be sold to homes and stores.

Milk was also sold wholesale to the Commercial Company, Bennetts Grocery, Bill Zeyen’s groceries in Arroyo Grande. Restaurants around the south county were also customers. Jack Fords market in Pismo Beach and its many bars and brothels. They also delivered to the little stores around what is now known as the five cities.

The milk trucks would make the rounds of neighborhoods picking up the empties and leaving full bottles of milk in their stead. The trucks ran with two people, the driver and a runner who ran the bottles back and forth to your porch. The runners were my dad, uncle and as I’ve heard the story, two generations of boys who worked for my grandfather. When I was a youngster myself it seemed that my grandfather knew everyone in town because they had worked for him at one time or another. My father met his bride to be, my mother, on the milk wagon while collecting accounts.

The Milk Truck on Short Street Arroyo Grande, 1932. It is a 1916 Semmes.
Shannon Family photo.

My grandmother used to sit at her desk with heaps of coins from milk receipts, tediously counting and filling paper tubes with pennies, nickels, quarters and into the 1950’s, silver dollars. She would fill out the deposit slip and place it all in a big green bag stamped Bank of Arroyo Grande. It was nearly an all cash business.

As for Bessie and her friends The average life span of dairy cows as active milkers is 4 to 6 years. Their natural life expectancy can be 15 to 20 years, and it not unheard of to find a 10 or 15 year old cow still milking. Cows can leave the dairy in a few different ways. Perhaps they pass away on the dairy itself or are humanely put down due to illness or injury. Sometimes they are sold. The biggest factor is her level of milk production, whether she gets pregnant (she needs to get pregnant to make milk), and if she stays healthy and free from disease and illness. If she is a great milker like Bessie she might be kept because she drops good heifers who are likely to be good producers themselves, When a cow can no longer produce at a high enough level she leaves the dairy and he is likely shipped to slaughter. In Bessies day a call would be made to Wilkinsons butcher shop and a truck would be sent out.

Perhaps she died naturally, its impossible to say. She could have been one of the skeletons in a field up in the back corner of the ranch. There you could find bones and skulls from the many who died on the ranch. Our ranch had been home to cattle since the late 1830’s. As kids it was a thrill to find a skull with the small hole from a twenty two in the center of the forehead. No one in those days would call the vet to put a cow down. 1931 was deep into the depression for farmers and ranchers and every penny was closely watched.

Dairymen are financially and emotionally invested in their animals. In the newspaper clip you will notice that only the college cattle are numbered. All the private dairies name their cows. The decision to ship a cow is not taken lightly. A few days on the ranch will teach you that cows are very social. They stand next to their friends in the barn. Cows recognize you when they see you and will lumber over to say hello. We used to put ours ears to their sides to hear their Rumens working and digesting their feed. Their tummies are warm to the touch. They don’t stink which may surprise you seeing as how they don’t bath or shower, they usually smell nice, actually. When it’s feeding time they form a line and walk single file down from the pastures, walking their walk which can only be called stately, like a row of New York debutantes parading across the floor during their “Coming Out” party. Instead of bustles, cows swing their bellies side to side in a slow meter as if in time with a pendulum. They always come in the same order for they have a leader and the rest follow according to a pecking order they have decided on themselves. They have a sense of humor too. The will pick up a flake of hay and toss it onto the back of a neighbor just for fun. Their calves race around playing hide and seek behind their mothers. Good mothers they are too.

Emotionally invested. Shannon Family photo

Watching Calves at play is a singular treat. The idea that dairymen are heartless and cruel is a joke. My grandfather knew his cows just as well as his kids and maybe treated them better, after all they didn’t drive the family car off the bridge into the creek hurrying to get to a date with the Donovan girl like my dad did or steal their fathers jug of homemade wine, digging it out from under the house when he wasn’t looking and drinking themselves sick. No, cows don’t do that kind of thing.

It’s too bad that our little town has grown to the point where a good old cow like Bessie or Violet doesn’t make the paper anymore. Bessie, my grandparents, my dad and uncle are all gone now along with the life they lived. It was a very hard and demanding life which has passed from our collective memory. Things are far better now but at the same time many things have been lost. No one seems to really know where things come from anymore. Even the newspaper is gone.


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