By Winnie Lacy
Early Fitchburg was a rural community. As the land was cleared for farming one of the prominent crops was wheat. Besides a crop, most of the farmers had a “milch” cow or two for the use of their families. After years of continually growing wheat that depletes nutrients in the soil combined with the invasion of the cinch bug, wheat growing became unprofitable. Wisconsin farmers turned to dairy farming andmade Wisconsin the leading producer of dairy products in the country. Click here to view a video detailing Wisconsin’s change from a wheat to a dairy state. Click here to view the list of Fitchburg Dairy farmers in the 1940s and 50s.
Many Fitchburg farm wives churned butter from the milk of their own herds. As herds grew commercial production of butter became necessary. Small creameries were started in various areas of the township to fill this need. One of the best-documented local creameries was Oak Hall Creamery Co. located near the present intersection of Fish Hatchery Road and County Highway M. All the stores of this nineteenth century community have been torn down except the old creamery that was part of a house.
The main product of a creamery was butter or cheese. Most creameries were cooperative businesses with stockholder meetings held every year. The finished products were taken to stores in nearby communities to be sold. The proceeds were paid to the shareholders of the creamery. A document in the FHS archives covering the Oak Hall creamery shows the butter maker made a salary of $70 a month plus living quarters.
If a creamery specialized in cheese making the farmers took their fresh milk to the creamery and returned home with whey, which was the by-product left after the milk had been curdled and strained. The whey was used to feed their hogs.
The creamery business evolved into small dairies that bottled unpastuerized (raw) milk sold to individual homes. Several such dairies had their starts in Fitchburg. Before 1919 Ben Bancroft started the first known Fitchburg dairy. The dairy, named Wood Bend Farms was located in Section 10 (East of the present location of Eagle School). His brother, John, joined him in 1921. The dairy was renamedBancroft Brothers. John later left the company and the name changed to Bancroft Dairy. The dairy built a new facility on South Park Street in Madison. The business, including the name, was sold to a commercial company.Bancroft Dairy on Park Street remained until 2004.
After Ben sold the dairy to a commercial company he started another dairy called Valley Springs Farm Dairy located on Fish Hatchery Road (now Glacier Valley Road) at the intersection with Gun Flint Trail. He did business with Charmany Farms located at 5707 Mineral Point Road in Madison. Charmany Farms was part of the University of Wisconsin Dairy Department
Bowman Farm Dairy was another big dairy in Fitchburg. Duane Bowman, Sr. started a celery farm in the lowlands of Section 3 near the Nevin Fish Hatchery. The celery was sold to restaurants and grocery stores. The family had a cow whose milk was used by the family. The cow had a female calf, which increased the “herd” to two. One year an early freeze wiped out the celery crop. Mr. Bowman made the decision to concentrate on what he could do with the milk he produced. He obtained a license from the department of health and was in business. The dairy was located on Fish Hatchery Road. Sometime in the mid 1920s electricity came to the area and he was able to pasteurize his milk. The Bowman Farm Dairy continued to grow and an automated milking parlor was added with a viewing area for groups of school children and their parents. The business was sold and was used as a company that distributes juices. It should be noted that the Bowman Dairy that operates out of Chicago is not connected with the dairy that started here in Fitchburg.
A third dairy in Fitchburg was the McCoy Ice Cream Dairy located at what is now the intersection of Syene and Clayton Roads. The milk was kept cool in the water from the deep cold springs located on the property. It was made into ice cream and sold in bulk form. During the 1930s large amounts of ice cream were used in a retail store on lower State Street. Before home refrigerators had freezers many area families
stopped at the facility and bought small hand-packed pint sized boxes to be taken home and
eaten for dessert. McCoy Dairy also produced ice cream bars. One memberof the McCoy family worked for the UW dairy and was instrumental in devising a process for coating ice cream with hot chocolate, thus the ice cream bar. At one time “Soldier Boy” ice cream bars were sold on a walking route on Madison streets. Word has it that returning veterans sold the bars. Bill Stoneman, one of the players on the Fitchburg Wildcats softball team, sold the bars at the baseball games.
Some time in the early 1900sa fourth dairy in Fitchburg was started by Robert C. Eby. Known as the Quarry Hill Dairy Farm. It was located on Lacy Road. This farm delivered milk to the Kennedy Dairy facility on West Washington Avenue.
Through the years there were various ways of getting the farmers’ milk to the processors. The farmers took milk cans holding about 10 gallons or 80 pounds of milk to the creameries. These cans had been kept in their milk houses in tanks of cold water. An early photo shows Tom Jones driving a horse drawn wagon along University Avenue to Kennedy Dairy in Madison. That creamery was located south of University Avenue, north of Regent Street, between Park Street and Mills Street.
Some farmers were able to send their milk to processors by train. Both the Illinois Central line running along the west side of Fitchburg and the Chicago North Western along Syene Road were able to take the cans of milk to creameries. We think the milk from the Beanville milk stop was sent to a creamery or cheese factory in Belleville. It could possibly have been sent to Kennedy Dairy in Madison. As time went on small owner-owned trucking companies picked up the cans and delivered them to the local dairies. The empty cans were returned to the farmers to use the following day. Several of the truckers serving Fitchburg were Clarence Rockwell, Sr., O’Brien Brothers, Ed Jones, and Phil Barry. As more automated methods of dairying came into play the milk was stored in cooled tanks in a milk house and was picked up by large tank trucks.
Milking at the farms was done twice a day, morning chores and evening chores. It was very important to keep the “milk dishes” clean. That meant scrubbing out the 10 gallon cans meticulously when they were returned. The pails used when the cows were milked by hand were also scrubbed. The strainers that were used to transfer the milk from the pails to the cans were next to be cleaned. When milking machines were installed in barns the lines and the cups were flushed and sanitized after the milking was finished. Then the “tools of the trade” were ready for the next round of milking. In the 1950s tank trucks were used to pick up the milk. Samples were taken from each farm to insure the quality of the milk before emptying the milk house tank into the bulk truck. The modern day milking parlors do all of these things but on a larger and more automated scale.