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TideWriters Tales
Milk Pails
by Catherine C. Brooks

     As I grew from birth on a small farm near Fitchetts Wharf in Mathews County, I felt the way my parents’ small farm operated was like everyone else’s small farm. But in my recent research of the other parts of Mathews, I’ve learned differently. I did wonder when Daddy raised watermelons to sell to the local stores if all truck farmers’ families ate the culls. I still don’t have that answer yet because I’ve never known other farmers who raised watermelons for market.

     I did learn that the way we handled the milk wasn’t the only way. Daddy had one Jersey cow when he and Momma started their life on the farm. They had to depend on Grandpa Callis for milk and butter when the Jersey dried up until the new calf came. But he had two after he got on his feet financially after the Great Depression. That way, he always had at least one cow to milk, making a large bucket of milk twice a day most of the year.

     Momma strained it as soon as possible before the cream began to rise. For years, she only used an extra fine strainer. It was a round tin angular contraption, smaller at the bottom than at the top. In the center of the bottom, a fine mesh with a wire rim looked as if it grew that way. You could hang the strainer on a hook, attached to the wide-top rim. But in her last years of tending milk, they no longer made the strainers that Momma had used through the years. So she used a fine cotton liner inside the large round strainer with only a metal rim around the top. Once the task was complete, the cloth was washed in hot-soapy water and rinsed well before she hung it to dry.

     She poured mornings milk in the number of quart milk bottles that she had orders for neighbors, who depended on us for milk. Granddaddy Richardson always went to the dairies when they sold out in Newport News and Hampton, buying bottles for her. And I’m sure he supplied her sister, who lived nearby, with enough for her use. She ordered the caps from Montgomery Ward or Sears, Roebuck & Co. Next, she filled one or more pitchers for our use, and lots of times, she’d put our drinking milk in extra bottles. It made her refrigerator neater. 

     The balance of morning’s milk went into heavy crock bowls to allow cream to rise and make clabber. Or if the milk soured in hot weather when it all wouldn’t fit in the refrigerator, the cream still made good butter, but the sour milk went in a bucket for the pigs. In the 1940s, Daddy raised pigs for sale. We just had a pigpen for years with two spring pigs to kill in the fall, but by that time, Daddy had built hog houses. They had electric lights and running water. The sows had a special rooms with a fenced off area for the boar. When the piglets were born in cold weather, Daddy used electric light bulbs to keep them warm. There was running water for water troughs and feed troughs. Daddy always saved two or more of the spring litter for family use and sold the rest when they were old enough to eat on their own. The older piglets often made their way out of the pen by digging under the lower board. They’d run one behind the other to the yard and begin routing up grass. Thankfully, we always spied them before they went farther. The chase back wasn’t always as orderly as the march in had been.

     After the morning milk had been properly distributed, the bowls from the previous day or days were checked. All that had thick cream, she skimmed off the top and refrigerated until she had enough to churn. If the clabber were sweet, Momma put some in the refrigerator for Daddy and often filled a quart jar for our neighbor across the road from us, Mr. Dick Landon. My sister or I would take that over in the afternoon. Momma didn’t make us girls eat clabber because it made her sick. We neither cared for it. All the rest fed pigs. Daddy preferred it rather than water to mix with ground feed.

     Once we had enough cream to churn in the four-quart-hand churn, it was my job except when I was in school. Sometimes it turned to butter quickly, but not always. Momma allowed me to take it in the sitting room (like today’s den) where I could listen to the radio. I even learned to sit in the heavy-oak-arm chair, placing a book on the wide-wooden arm and read. Once the butter formed, it seemed like a miracle—the way the butter and milk separated. 

     Momma preferred working her own butter. First, she placed it in a bowl with cold water, washing all milk out of it. Pouring the water out, she added salt for flavor, mixing it by hand. Then she formed the yellow mass into round pads about three inches tall, placed waxed paper under the pad, weighing each on large kitchen scales until the weight was exactly one-half pound. The nearby store had standing orders for Momma’s butter.
After I married I didn’t care for my mother-in-law’s butter. Then I learned she left cream in it without salt. After we got in our own place, she’d give us a patty from her pretty mould that I washed and salted. So Kirby never knew whether he was eating Momma’s or his mother’s butter.

     We saved sweet buttermilk to make batter bread and biscuits. Sometimes, one scarcely needed to butter this bread because we shimmed the top off the buttermilk, where bits of butter remained. Any we didn’t use, the pigs enjoyed. Nothing went to waste.

     I have some of those milk bottles on a ledge in my apartment, and the pitcher, from which my family poured milk at mealtime on the upper shelf in my kitchen. I also kept a blue and a brown milk crock that is on the same shelf. They hold memories, as do the bottles, many of which I delivered, picking up the empties, on my bicycle. 

     Dorothy D. Foster came for her milk and butter, visiting for a time with five-year-old Grayson Jr. It began a long-time friendship lasting many years. After we lost our husbands, we ate meals both with each other and in restaurants together, made trips to my doctor’s office in Williamsburg, eating at the restaurant chain she and her husband had enjoyed for many years, and made two trips to visit friends in West Virginia among other things. In the fall of 2003, she found it necessary to go in an assisted living home in Richmond, near her daughter. I miss her.

     For many years, I delivered butter once a week to Mrs. Lillie Hopkins and her daughters, Mary and Frances. I enjoyed our visits on their screened-side porch. Frances had a taffy-colored Persian cat, named Taffy, at one time. He was beautiful but mean so I couldn’t play with him. But I remember wishing for a white Persian cat as beautiful as Taffy. When Mary preceded Frances, by then a Callis, in death in the 1990s, I wrote Frances, mentioning enjoying those delivery days. She called me in appreciation of my good memories.
While doing interviews about Post Offices near Auburn, I contacted Robert Hicks. Then I spoke to his wife, who had been a regular customer in my fabric store. She told me about moving to the farm from a Pennsylvania City. She had to learn a new lifestyle. The Hicks had Holstein milk cows. When she strained milk mornings, she put eight quarts in a large enameled pan with a cover and refrigerated it. I described Momma’s tin strainer, and she said she used the same kind with the fine strainer in a circle in the bottom. As soon as the cream rose, she’d skim the milk. She froze the cream until she had enough to churn with her electric mixer with a wooden paddle. Sometimes some was used for whipped cream for desserts—she insisted one could not whip it too much or it would be butter. Then the milk would be allowed to clabber, or she’d make cottage cheese. They used both. And I never heard of cottage cheese until I was in my teens.

     When Robert Hicks brought the evening milk in the kitchen, Sallie Anne bottled it, using Sears, Roebuck & Co. caps. They usually shook the bottles before using, but sometimes, they’d take some cream from the top for coffee. 

     After talking to Sally Anne Hicks, I began to think about the treats Momma prepared with whipped cream. Momma prided herself in cooking tasty dishes. She’d make a plain gingerbread, but when she topped it with a large spoon of whipped cream, it became a delicacy. And on special occasions, a red cherry topped the white fluff. We had a large bed of strawberries after 1938, using all we needed and selling the rest. Momma often used a bowl of sliced strawberries, with double that amount of sweetened whipped cream, folded together. She filled ice trays to the top and froze the delicacy. We had it for dessert, or just that with a slice of plain cake for Sunday evening’s supper.

     Daddy and Momma entertained many evangelists after 1940. Many preferred her batter bread that she topped with approximately a quarter pound of butter before she baked it in an iron skillet to other dishes. Millard and Naomi Downing stayed at our home during several evangelistic meetings. Millard grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio so preferred milk to drink with many of his meals. They liked their main meal at noon with Momma’s batter bread, warmed over, and a glass of milk each before evening service. They asked to eat that meal at the kitchen table earlier than we ate. The worthless things that I remember, and none of us had ever heard of cholesterol back then.

©2004 Catherine C. Brooks All rights reserved. Contact Catherine C. Brooks at 


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