Founded 1901

Royal Purple

Founded 1901

Royal Purple

Founded 1901

Royal Purple

Milker photo brings surge of memories

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Back Home by Chris Hardie

One of the staple events during farm shows is the milking contest, usually pitting some local celebrity against another stripping milk from a cow’s udder.

The rules vary, but the winner is usually selected by the greater amount of milk in the bucket over a certain amount of time – usually quite brief. Few folks would have the finger and wrist strength to milk a cow dry.

I’ve never been a celebrity, but as a former journalist with some local notoriety, over my career I was invited to various events, including fundraisers for grilling hamburgers, food events and cart-races pulled by llamas. My kids thought I was something special when I took them to a Sesame Street show and helped introduce the characters onto the stage. I even flew an FA/18 Hornet with the Blue Angels.

But I was never invited to a milking contest, which was a little disappointing. While I was a terrible pilot, growing up on a dairy farm made me an expert milker and would have given me the inside track. It also gave me a fallback profession in case the journalism gig failed and I needed a real job.

I stirred a lot of milking memories recently by a photo that I posted on a social media page called Forgotten Wisconsin. It was a picture I took at the Washington Island Farm Museum of the first Surge milking bucket from 1948.

Within a week that post had 1.8 thousand likes, 140 shares and 405 comments – many from former farm kids like myself who remember the days of milking cows with milker buckets. What I didn’t realize was how the machines revolutionized dairy farming.

According to the website, hundreds of patents had been granted for milking machines by the year 1900, but they didn’t prove their worth. In fact, S.M. Babcock (the inventor of the Babcock butterfat test) wrote in a national dairy publication that “milking machines would result in poorer quality of milk and lowering the standards of dairy animals”.

But that changed in 1922 when Herbert McCornack of N.J. invented the Surge Bucket Milker, using a large roasting pan from his family kitchen as his base design. Unlike previous machines that sat on the floor, this milker was suspended below the cow on a steel spring rod that was attached to a leather surcingle strap over the cows back. The new milker had a natural surging action as the milker moved back and forward while milking, so it was named the Surge Milker. The tug-and-pull movement was similar to that of a sucking calf.

The Babson Brothers purchased the rights to the machine and the world of milking cows advanced dramatically until pipelines and milking parlors were developed. My father milked with buckets until 1986 when he installed a pipeline. The buckets were manufactured until 1999 and replacement parts are still available.

Even before I was old enough to handle the heavy milk buckets, I was very familiar with the milkers from about the age of 8. My first daily chore – at least when school was out for the summer – was to dismantle and wash our Surge milking buckets. We had four of them on our farm – two to a side – that were used to milk the 65-cow dairy herd.

You first unhooked the four rubber air hoses that ran from the pulsator – the regulator of the machine – to the teat cups, also called inflations. The pulsator was hooked to the lid of the milking bucket, which had four valves that held the rubber inflations.

The rubber inflations were supported by stainless steel shells, which were taken apart. All these parts were washed and scrubbed with a plastic-bristled brush using special detergent, rinsed and hung to dry.

It wasn’t a difficult job, particularly if done shortly after the milking finished. The longer in the day you waited, any dried milk in the machines would develop into a hard crust called milk stone, which was difficult to remove and unsanitary.

Some days I would whine, stall, complain or find any excuse to not wash the milkers. My efforts earned me the moniker of Tom Sawyer from my father, who refused to budge from reassigning the task.

Eventually I grew up, accepted the task and started doing more chores. It was just part of being on a farm and learning the value and reward of a job well done, a similar sentiment to many who commented about the photo.

Sometimes I miss those days – more so the family members who are no longer with us. Milking a photo for all it’s worth is enough dairying for me these days.

Chris Hardie spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won dozens of state and national journalism awards. He is a former president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Contact him at [email protected].

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