Routt County's unsung rural 'heroes'

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As a board member for Historic Routt County, I've helped compile the history of much of this area - its people, homes, barns, ranches, business, community facilities and agriculture. However, little attention has been given to the role of the "utility animals."

Utility animals are the milk cows, pigs, chickens and domestic rabbits that were the foundation of the health and economy (and often survival) of pre-1950 Routt County rural families.

An article in a recent issue of the Steamboat Today honored local resident Bill Baldwin and showed a picture (circa mid-1940s) of a young Baldwin milking a family cow. (The picture shows that he, like most milkers, enjoyed squirting milk to friendly barn cats that had learned to sit upright and drink the warm milk as it splashed in their face.)

Milk cows were essential for the food supply and nutrition of rural families in early Routt County. Some cows were the good milk-producing black and white Holstein breed, as in Bill's picture, or the deep red Shorthorns that seemed hardier in our long South Routt winters. The bulls of these dairy breeds had a belligerent disposition, and caution was essential around them. Many bulls carried a brass ring in their nose and might have a chain and wooden "drag" attached to the ring to hamper any extreme aggressiveness.

As in Bill's picture, most milkers rested their head against the side of the cow while seated for the five to 10 minutes of milking time per cow. Like most rural children, at a very young age, I began milking cows and was small enough then that, when seated to milk, my head rested against a cow's udder under her flank. There, my hair sometimes picked up lice (and what else?) from the cow. Many of us milked cows before and after school and must have carried a "barn aroma" with us to the classrooms.

Most milk cows were creatures of habit, learning to come to the milking barn at regular times, morning and evening. They also learned their "order" in the barn - who could claim the first stanchion, who the next, etc. (Stanchions were vertical boards that closed on opposite sides of the cow's neck, holding her until milking was over.) Most milk cows had names -Suzie, Patty, Old Red, Funny Face, Crazy, and on and on.

A 2 1/2 gallon galvanized pail was commonly used, and the milk was emptied into a larger container after each cow. Milkers sat on their choice of stool. I liked the 'T' stool made from two pieces of 2x4 cut to the height and seat width preferred by the milker. The 'T' stool allowed for quick movement away from the cow if she started to kick. Kicking cows could be "hobbled" to protect the milker and pail of milk. A cow's dusty, swishing tail could be controlled by holding it against the cow's leg with the milker's knee.

The warm milk was carried to the house for straining through a milk filter and separating. A cream separator was important equipment in rural homes. Hand-turning of the handle on the separator was a twice-daily, in-house exercise. That turned a metal bowl through which the milk ran. Centrifugal force spun the cream out a spout separate from the skimmed milk spout. Skim milk was used to make cottage cheese. Larger amounts were fed to the family's pigs and chickens. Cream was made into butter for the family, but most cream was collected in 5- or 10-gallon cream cans. When full, the name-tagged cans were delivered to the local train depot and shipped to a Denver creamery for commercial processing. The empty cans were returned via the train's baggage car and left outside the originating depot. The owners of the cream cans retrieved theirs from that group of cans.

The "cream check" from Denver arrived via mail. The dollar amount depended on the percent of butter fat in each can of cream. The cream check was often used immediately by the homemaker to help pay her local grocery store bill for food staples such as flour, sugar and coffee.

Electrification of rural Routt County in the mid-1940s brought not only lighting to rural homes, but also electric appliances. The electric cream separator was labor- and time-saving. Refrigerators provided longer storage of dairy products. Milking machines appeared but generally weren't used for the small eight- to 10-milk cow herds of most rural families.

In about 1970, local trains discontinued passenger/baggage service to Routt County, and with that change, the rural cream cans were left to rust in ranch outbuildings.

Since about the mid-20th century, family milk cows have moved out of the milking barn and into the family's beef cattle herds. On a winter morning, youths today don't know how quickly cold hands will warm while milking a favorite cow!

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