When milk cans waited by the road
With June and the annual observance of Dairy Month just around the corner, I am reminded of a time when dairy farming was not simply a business, but a way of life for Ozarkers along every country road.
Growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, I was one of those postwar farm boys who discovered his identity under the business end of a Jersey cow, the milk pail clinched between my knees filling with rich, warm and frothy milk with every pull on a turgid teat, until a once-taut udder hung like a deflated balloon.
Ours was a small Grade C operation — our cows were small, our farm was small, our herd was small and our production was small, carried to the road every morning in 10-gallon cans. Still, we were dairy farmers, just like our Grade A neighbor with the elevated parlor, pipeline system and bulk tank.
Milking and feeding came before breakfast or school, then after school and before supper — without fail, 365 days a year regardless of weather or the “want-to” of teenage boys. Nothing trumped milking. We didn’t play school sports, or even go to the games. We milked — Dad and all four of us boys, each as we grew into it. I was a junior in high school before my younger brother could cover for me so I could run track.
It must be hard for most folks under 30 to imagine the rural Ozarks of the 1950s. For one thing, we weren’t so many, with the county population at its lowest point in the century (1960 census) and the gentrification of farms into elegant country estates was only beginning. As a rule, country folks were farmers and those who weren’t were city folks. Of course, the farm economy has long dictated many farm families have someone actually making the living with a job in town. In our case, that was Mom, a medical technologist.
As for Dad and his boys, we were farmers. Actually, making a living was secondary to just living. We got by.
For Dad, dairy cattle were a passion, especially top-quality Jerseys. Following agricultural studies at Southwest Missouri State, he worked with the bulls and the MFA stud farm south of Springfield, as well as for a smaller operation in Nixa, pioneering artificial insemination. In addition to working as an A.I. tech, he fitted and exhibited a doctor’s string of Jersey show cattle, once taking them as far as Canada. At the same time, he was building his own foundation herd of registered Jerseys. I still have papers on one or two, as well as my certificate of membership in the Missouri Junior Jersey Club.
Dad made sure dairying defined us boys, too.
Once, when I was quite small, Dad took me to a Dairy Month celebration in some Ozarks town where a bunch of strapping boys were engaged in a milk drinking contest in front the courthouse. I can still see those boys with upturned bottles and milk streaming down their faces and chins. It was one of the strangest and funniest things I’d ever seen and for some reason, I’ve never forgotten it. Maybe I wish I could have been one of those boys.
I doubt many kids today even know June is Dairy Month, but when I was a boy it was practically a religious observance. We were that proud of being part of what was then Southwest Missouri’s dominant agricultural enterprise. Drive around the rural Ozarks today and you’ll find semis parked in many driveways. When I was boy those same driveways would have had milk cans or Grade A signs at the road.
Imagine a time, kids, when dairy farmers outnumbered truck drivers.
I’m not slamming truck drivers. Times have changed. We need them all and more, my son-in-law at Peterbilt tells me. But I’d like to see more dairy cows out back, too.
It’s not only hard to imagine, it’s a little challenging to remember what it was like when this was the heart of Missouri dairy country, rather than a noted cow-calf capital. Just try to remember when the Ozarks plateau was a checkerboard of lespedeza, orchard grass and red clover pastures peppered with as many Jersey and Guernsey cows as those big black and white ones, and beef cattle “ranches” were a state of two west of here.
Like most Ozarks dairy farms, our little operation is now just a memory. But, though long gone, it’s still part of my identity, as I’m sure are the farms of my peers. Rusted like the old milk cans we today use for flower stands, we recall with fondness the days when we carried them every day to the road.
Hamilton is a freelance writer in Buffalo. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.