Talk follows past routes of Northfield dairies
A display of antique milk bottles , many from the 1930s, of local dairy farms accompanied the talk by Joel Fowler on Saturday at Green Trees Gallery in Northfield.
Joel Fowler holds up a very early type of glass milk bottle that was part of the collection on display for Saturdays talk he gave on Northfields dairies of the past.
Joel Fowler with a small Tenney Farms Milk bottle that was part of the collection of antique milk bottles at his talk on Northfield Dairies at Green Trees Gallery on Saturday.
A dairy cow certificate that accompanied the display of Northfield dairy memorabilia and milk bottles during the talk at Green Trees Gallery on S
NORTHFIELD — As small dairies sold out to larger ones in the 1900s, milk production in most of New England’s small towns dried up.
Northfield is no exception, with one lone commercial milk producer in town.
Not too long ago, the town was spotted with pastures and cattle barns, while milkmen’s horse-driven wagons clattered up and down its streets.
Historical Society President Joel Fowler has been researching the town’s former dairy farms and he shared his findings Saturday at Green Trees Gallery with an audience of about two dozen, many of whom contributed to the conversation.
“If you go far enough back, most people in town were just doing subsistence farming,” to provide food for their families, said Fowler. “Slowly, they became larger farms, as the bigger ones ate the little ones.”
His father and uncle started Tenney Farms in Greenfield.
“They started in a garage on Birch Street and bought several milk routes,” he said. By the time it was acquired by Hillside Dairy, it had grown to a 10-truck fleet. Hillside later merged with Wayside Dairy, was then bought by Greenfield Dairy, and sold to Idlenot Dairy of Vermont.
His grandfather started Tenney Farms in Northfield, which began bottling in 1938, was later taken over by his aunt, and changed to AC & GT Young when she married.
But Northfield’s dairy history predates the Tenneys.
After the Civil War and the advent of pasteurization, dairies started to bottle and deliver their milk, he said.
“In Northfield, people started bottling milk right at the farm, so it may not have been pasteurized for a while,” said Fowler. Later, bottling would become centralized, with milk being picked up at individual farms and processed elsewhere.
“The Northfield Creamery was an early attempt at a centralized dairy,” Fowler said. It opened in 1885.
“It was a very big operation,” he continued. “They had milk, butter, and cream, and would ship it as far as Boston on the train.”
“The reason they closed doesn’t make complete sense to me,” admitted Fowler. “They said they thought there was a loss of interest, but from what I can tell, the business had been growing.”
Though the creamery closed in 1925, Northfield dairies continued to collect, bottle and deliver their own milk, in their own unique bottles, for decades to come.
Fowler brought many of those bottles, as well as a selection of photographs of former farms, and even his old milkman’s hat and the delivery ledger from his 1967 and ’68 milk route for Greenfield’s Tenney Farms, that his father ran. Fowler’s grandfather ran Northfield’s Tenney Farms.
“This ledger was all I had to go by when I sat in that horrible old Metro milk truck, driving up the steep hills of Colrain and Shelburne,” said Fowler, as he held up the worn old book.
“I was 16 years old, and my dad ran me through the whole route, from loading to unloading,” he continued. “It was pretty nerve-wracking, trying to remember everything. I’d get to the dairy at 4 a.m., and load up with milk, eggs, orange juice, and cottage cheese before I set out.”
“Every house was different. You had to know what to leave them, and where to leave it. They may want something extra, or less than usual, and they’d leave a note in the lined metal milk boxes by their doors.”
At some houses, he said, he’d let himself right in, and load everything right into a family’s fridge.
“People trusted the milkman,” he said.
Many in the audience had fond memories of those morning milk deliveries, many of which were done by horse and wagon even after the advent of automobiles.
“I remember, in the winter, if you left the milk out too long, the milk would freeze and the cream on top would lift the cap right out of the bottle,” recalled Martha Tenney, who married into the family that ran the Greenfield branch of Tenney Farms.
“My mom loved it, she would scoop the frozen cream right into her coffee.”
That was back in the early 1960s, she said, when she lived on Log Plain Road in Greenfield. Back then, she said, her milk came from Hillside Dairy, which had acquired Tenney Farms in Greenfield. The former farm is now the site of Hillside Park.
Not all who delivered for dairies were milkmen.
“Often, someone would get a dairy route, and hire a 12-year-old boy to ride in the wagon and take the deliveries up to the houses,” said Fowler.
“My mom, Helen Parker (of C.A. Parker Farm) used to talk about delivering milk before school, on a horse-drawn wagon or sled, with her brother,” said Lois Stearns. She brought along a small metal milk-bottle opener with the old dairy’s name on it, from before the days of pull-tabs.
Dairy was a big deal in the days of yesteryear.
“I was reading some old papers, and found a turn of the century gossip column in The Recorder. More than once I read about so-and-so making ice cream, and letting everyone know it was available,” said Sue Ross, of the Northfield Historical Commission.
These days, Piela Farm is the town’s sole commercial dairy producer, and milks about 280 cows, according to William Llewelyn, who rents his barns to Brian Piela. Llewelyn’s family moved to town in 1954, and had a milking herd of their own, which they grew to 200 head of cattle. About six years ago, Llewelyn got out of milking, and now harvests hay and feed corn.
Though small dairies dried up in the last century, due to consolidation, government subsidies started in the 1940s that paid farmers not to produce, and more stringent regulations calling for expensive equipment, there are some newer small farms getting back to basics.
“Dairies are coming back, as people start to think about re-localizing their food sources, and they’re pulling a lot of good, sustainable practices from the past. Places like Upinngil are even using glass bottles again,” said Fowler.
Those bottles are now square or rectangular, a development Fowler said was made in the 1940s, in an attempt to save space in the icebox.
Fowler recalled another revitalization of dairy in the 1960s and ’70s, when Manuel Lopez’s Northfield Dairy delivered milk in early plastic bottles, as well as butter and cottage cheese.
Fowler said he’d like to learn more about Northfield’s dairying history from those who remember it. He’s also looking for someone with the time to compile an oral history of this and other aspects of Northfield life. If you’d like to help with either endeavor, email Joel Fowler, at firstname.lastname@example.org
David Rainville can be reached at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279