History Nebraska Blog

Timeline Tuesday: Butter Churning

Fairmont Creamery, butter packing, Omaha plant, 1911

Fairmont Creamery, butter packing, Omaha plant, 1911. RG4218-1-16


Well into the nineteenth century butter was made chiefly by hand using butter churns, which came in many sizes and styles. Butter, the fat found in cream, is made by churning the cream, which causes the fat globules in it to combine into lumps of butter. The remaining liquid is buttermilk. Once the butter has formed, it is removed from the buttermilk, washed in cold water, and gently kneaded to incorporate salt for flavor and to make the butter smooth. Catherine Arndt of York recalled in 1981 the churns and methods used to make butter during her Nebraska childhood in the early 1900s: "The first churn I remember was a large round wooden 'Contraption' that was fastened to a metal stand. It had a wooden lid and on the inside it had wooden paddles or dashers fastened to a metal frame that connected to the handle or crank on the outside. When you turned the handle this cause[d] the paddles to splash through the cream in a circular motion.

The constant motion through the cream caused the butter fat to separate from the buttermilk and eventually you had a nice large batch of butter. . . . "The liquid or buttermilk was drained from the churn by removing a small wooden pin from the hole in it. The paddles were then removed and the butter was lifted out and put into a large wooden bowl. This bowl and the wooden paddle used to 'work' the butter were never used for anything else. Butter was 'worked' or kneaded to get as much moisture out of it as possible. Cold water was put on it several times until it was clear. Then it was worked some more until all of the milk & water were removed. Salt was then added, usually to taste. Then it was either shaped into molds by hand using the wooden paddle or put into wooden molds. . . . "Then came the dasher churn. It was a tall round 'Crock.' It had a lid with a hole in the center that fit over the handle of the dasher. The dasher was a round wooden pole about three foot tall fastened to a wooden paddle in the shape of a plus sign. These took a long time to make butter, but were simple to clean. You got butter by 'dashing' the paddles up and down in the cream. Sometimes a tired cranky child could really make it dash. "Then Happy Day, somebody invented the 'Daisy Churn.' These were gallon size glass jars. The paddles were fastened to a metal frame, which in turn had a metal rod that came through a hole in the screw on lid. This fastened to the metal frame on the lid and to the crank and glass. So that when the lid was in place you turned the handle and the paddles stirred through the cream at a great rate. You got butter much faster with these churns. They also had an opening in the top covered by a removable screen. So the butter milk could be easily removed. Then cold water could be poured into the churn onto the butter. And the working process was shortened. Then the butter was molded as always."

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