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Butter and Eggs


Early pioneers were preparing for a new season of back-breaking work about this time of year. In addition to her daily chores – such as childcare, cooking, sewing, chopping firewood, carrying water and baking bread – the farm wife would also soon be gathering eggs, milking cows, making butter and cheese, and maintaining a huge garden.

One frustrated reader wrote to The Dakota Farmer, “...there is no place where women work so hard and receive so little recognition as on a farm... If the women entirely support the family with eggs and butter and cheese, it is all credited to the man.” While the editor did publish the woman’s letter, he left out her name, instead calling her a “lady reader from a sequestered locality in North Dakota.”

In other parts of the country, men milked cows, but in North Dakota, it was women’s work. The farm wife was responsible for tethering cows in good grass and also leading them to water several times a day. She milked the cows early in the morning and again around supper time.

Some women considered milking a peaceful respite from the day; she’d sit, rest her head on the animal’s side and fall into a calming rhythm as she alternated hands to empty the cow’s udder.

In the first days of birthing a calf, a cow was said to have “come fresh.” The milk during this time was so thick and rich it was given only to the calf. The first flush of spring grass could also render the milk undrinkable; during this stage, it had a strong flavor called “green.”

After a week or so, a daily ritual would set in. To make butter or cheese, cream had to be separated from the milk. If a woman didn’t have a hand-operated separator for this, she had to let the cream rise to the top and skim it off later. The leftover skim milk was hand-fed to the calves. To teach them to drink from a pail, calves would suck on one’s fingers, which were gradually lowered into the pail until the baby was sucking up milk. These calves would either be sold for cash or raised for meat. Surplus milk was also made into cheese or mixed into a kind of mash for feeding the hogs.

Making butter was punishing work. In this day and age, the process is quick – one can do it at home by whipping cream past the point of fluffiness. But back then, making butter required a churn, which looked like a small barrel. Butter was churned either by working a vertical plunger or by rotating a handle until the cream separated into butterfat and buttermilk. To get the best price, women would often press their butter into attractive molds.

Early pioneer women took their cream, butter, cheese and eggs to local stores, where they traded for groceries and other essentials. Rarely could animals be spared for these trips, and the woman would have to walk, often many miles, carrying her heavy product by hand. On hot days, the butter could melt and the cream could sour, so it was important to make the trip as quickly as possible.

While a husband’s sales of grain usually went to buying machinery or more land, it was the woman who provided the mainstays. She alone put food on the table.

By Merry Helm