Now that the holiday season has come and gone, I have an empty family heirloom table in the living room to continue my displaying of "theme" museum pieces. The collection of choice will gather together antique butter churns and related items, such as butter bowls, butter molds and implements. Making butter at home was a major endeavor wherever the Adirondack settlers set up housekeeping.
One reason the table became available was because our thoughtful children and their families decided that we needed a 46-inch wall-mounted, flatscreen television to take the place of the big table-model that they bought a few years ago when our original TV was showing them all the holiday ball games in purple. They take good care of us; with our aging eyes, the 46-incher is just what we need to see those Syracuse ball scores and we are thankful.
But back to butter. Butter has been part of the Adirondack scene since the settlement beginnings, even though we do not consider the forested mountains to be great "cow country." Settlers did, however, need those cows for survival to produce milk, butter, cheese and beef. Cows also were moneymakers; they were rented to the lumber camps and hunting camps during their seasons of use.
The 1845 census includes the number of pounds of butter produced during the previous year by the 12 Adirondack counties. Six of the major Adirondack counties alone produced almost 4 million pounds of butter: Essex - 673,366; Fulton - 733,950; Franklin - 554,441; Hamilton - 63,391; Herkimer?- 1,480,628; and Warren - 415,496. Not only was this butter used by the residents, it also was exported to the outside world.
In the "butter" collection, there are five different butter churns used by our ancestors to turn cream into butter. Much like building a better mouse trap, an effort was made to build a better churn to make the job easier. The first is a simple plunger type with an earthen-ware base. The wooden plunger was pulled up and down so that the wooden paddles below would stir the cream into butter. The next is a wooden box with a crank to turn the wooden paddles, making the job a little easier on the arms.
Another of the early butter churns became a little more complicated. It is a tall tin box churn with a gear on the top, which again, made the tiring, time-consuming task much easier. An alternative churn is a small metal churn with a turning wire inside that was used, not only to make small amounts of butter, but to beat eggs and whip cream. The churn that means the most to me is the glass jug with the wooden paddles turned by a crank. I have the paddles and crank but still have to find the jug that attaches to them, apparently many of the glass jugs were broken over the years. Many of my youthful hours were spent turning the crank and watching the cream fill with the yellow flakes of butter; it was a satisfying job that showed results.
With the increase of general stores and hotels in the Adirondacks during the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a strong market for butter, a local product. In the 1890s, an old bill head from M.B. Hosley & Sons, General Merchandise store records the purchase of 80 pounds of butter from the Hamilton County Creamery, Wells, N.Y., for $16. The butter was delivered to the Hosley House, a local hotel. Stegmyer's 1905 history book sums it up: "Charles K. Merrill was the efficient manager of M.B. Hosley's creamery, and furnished about 200 pounds of A-1 BUTTER daily for the camps and market."