December 6th, 2009

The Barn

Barns in Whatcom County, and all over the US, changed in the mid-twentieth century. In Whatcom County, the dairy industry propelled the change. In the old, pre-refrigeration, days, every farm had a few dairy cows, just enough to supply the family with fresh milk, cream, and butter. A few dairies near population centers were larger and supplied fresh milk to non-farm families, but their size and location was severely limited by the rapid handling required to prevent milk from spoiling. Butter and cheese were the only traditional ways of preserving fragile milk and they were not an effective economic connection between remote farms and city populations.

Until the forties– I’m not sure of the year– my grandparents had only three or four cows. My grandpa and and my dad sat on three legged stools and milked the cows by hand. The milk was cooled by placing a twenty gallon milk can into a tank of cool well water. The milk that the family and one or two neighbors could not consume then went to a hand-cranked, later electric, centrifugal cream separator. Cream kept long enough to sell to a dairy, and the perishable skim milk went to the hogs.

For its first fifty years, cash crops on the farm were quite diverse. Grandpa sold potatoes, eggs, sugar beets, wheat, oats, garden vegetables, beef, pork, cream, and probably other things I never heard about. Mid-century, the diversity of cash crops ended. The farm became a dairy farm with three cash crops: whole milk, eggs, and potatoes.

The economy of the family centered on the monthly milk check. Dad and Grandpa sold an occasional cull dairy cow for beef, a load of hay, straw, oats, or wheat when they had a surplus or the price was too good to pass up, but those were bumper crops and windfalls, not to be counted on to pay taxes and the electricity bill. Dad continued to raise grass, wheat, oats, and corn, but as feed for the dairy cows, not as cash sources. The eggs and potatoes were still cash crops, but these sidelines were only assurance that there would be no idle time left after dairying and raising fodder.

The transformation to a dairy farm also transformed the barn. In 1940, the barn housed a team of horses, a bull, a few cows and calves, and their hay, grain, and bedding. By 1950, the herd grew to close to thirty head, requiring specialized space for milking and more storage for hay, silage, and grain. The horses were replaced with a tractor and the adoption of artificial insemination eliminated the prison-like quarters for a sometimes violent bull.

The  war time Seattle population clamoring for refrigerated whole milk drove the change. With improved transportation and refrigeration, Whatcom County, a  hundred miles to the north, became a major milk supplier, and eventually grew to be one of the largest milk producing counties in the US. But Whatcom dairy farms first had to meet the requirements of the King County Health Department to get a Grade A license, which was the entrance ticket to the twentieth century economy for a farmer in what was called the fourth corner of the country.

Like health departments all over, King County required concrete floors, painted walls, and generally sanitary conditions in the milking barn and milk house. As time went on, they also required refrigerated storage of milk on the farm. The days of cans of well-water-cooled milk sitting on milk stands waiting for the milk truck were over. From the cow to a refrigerated storage tank to a refrigerated tank truck was the only acceptable way to handle Grade A milk.

Dad and Grandpa added a concrete floored milking wing to the barn before I was born. The milking barn had eighteen stanchions to hold cows while they were milking and was specifically constructed to meet King County Health Department regulations. The stanchions were equipped with vacuum lines to operate milking machines. They also added a concrete silo to replace the small wood stave silo that was only adequate for the small herd of the old days. The old milk house was located at the well and set up for water cooling the milk; Dad replaced it with a new milk house that was closer to the barn and contained a refrigerated milk tank.

In addition to changes to the barn, Dad appropriated every bit of spare dry space in out buildings for storing oats and wheat that he had milled for his own blend of dairy feed. The old horse barn, hog barn, even the little mother-in-law house that Grandpa built for my great grandmother were eventually requisitioned for grain storage.

This was the barn as it was while I was growing up. It continued to be used in the same way for close to fifty years until an accident forced Dad to retire.

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