My parents were born and raised in “America’s Dairyland.” As a child, we drove back and forth to Racine County, Wis., at least twice a year. Racine County was home to gazillions of small dairy farms with “Golden Guernsey” or “Registered Holstein” signs at the end of farm lanes. The farms and barns were fascinating.
Countless cows, silos built of staves, brick, wood, or stone, with Dad pointing out the ones he had helped build during high school summers. Those trips looking at farms through the car window formed the foundation for my love of dairy cows and future education and career plans. Things have changed.
Three weeks ago, my aunt died, so my sister, mother, and I drove back up to Wisconsin for her memorial service. It has been a long, long time since I have driven through southeastern Wisconsin, and what a disappointing change. Not one single dairy cow to be seen, not one.
According to Grant, my mother’s cousin who has a small crop farm in the county, dairy cows are now a scarce commodity in Racine County, first driven out by rising property taxes when I was a child, and kept out by development. In many places, there was an interesting old barn.
But, right in front of or beside it had been built a highway interchange or a gas station, or, this being Wisconsin, a tavern.
I had to wonder, what was still inside that barn? What treasures could still be used to help tell the story of agriculture? For example, in a barn that we rent just down the road here in Ohio, we found a small notebook: Millie, Tillie, and Cindy; Zeller’s cow, Dick’s cow, and Wilford’s cow; Daisy, Penny and Ann.
These are the first 10 cows entered in a small “Farmer’s Pocket Ledger” as they calved in late 1967 and 1968. Each entry carefully notes the new calf’s tattoo number, their dam, birthdate, and sire. A progressive herd, nearly all the calves were AI sired. In this small pocket book, “Compliments of John L. Denny, Phone 1-5867” a farmer could look up information on common farm measurements of land and crops, calculate payments using a simple interest table, and keep records for his farm.
Since the calendars on the back cover were for 1958 and 1959, this farmer obviously deemed this little book nice enough to save for something really important. The notebook was found tucked in a small cupboard in the barn that had housed the cows. Glimpse of farm life.
Beginning with those first 10 cows, new calves were named, raised and added to the herd. Grace, Janes, Polli. A few names allow you to picture the cows that they were: Crosseye, Bowlegs, Popeye and Talker. Notes in the margin allow us a glimpse of the joys and sorrows in those 10 or 11 calvings each year. Bonita died calving.
Wilford’s calf died, as did the “Kate calf”. The “White Face Jersey” had twins in 1969. Tillie, one of the foundation cows, dutifully calved in February (4th, 13th and 3rd) three years running, calved in January the next year and then didn’t calve until October for her fifth and final lactation.
By 1976, he must have run out of names because the cow names changed to numbers with an occasional name penciled in the margin. In 1990, the number of calvings dropped to six, with only two recorded in a shakier hand in 1991.
1992 brought more calvings but an end to the notations in the book, leaving many empty pages. Twelve full pages, the last 25 years of one man’s dairy herd. Thousands of people drive by that barn every day.
All they see is a nice, old red barn with a few heifers out in the front pasture. They don’t know, and won’t remember the herd that produced there, the teams of horses that were used to farm the ground along with the tractors, the hogs and chickens that filled the outbuildings.
Unless we help them remember. More people are concerned with where and how their food is produced. We have a long and interesting history that can be used to help promote today’s agriculture.
What kind of history is buried in the corners of your barn, office or attic? What can you preserve? Share what you have with family, share with local historical societies. Let’s use a proud and interesting history to help build our future. Don’t let your county become the next Racine County.