New Sheldon Museum exhibit offers a view into the history of dairy

MIDDLEBURY — Ask some young whippersnapper where milk comes from, and you might get the wiseacre response, “from a carton.”
Well, a new exhibit at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History aims to set the record straight on all things dairy, covering the past 200 years. On display at the Middlebury museum through Aug. 4, “From Dairy to Doorstep: Milk Delivery in New England” features a mesmerizing mélange of milk memorabilia that would make Old McDonald’s jaw drop.
The donated- and museum-owned pieces include antique milk containers, butter molds, churns, cheese boxes and drainers, and butter tampers. Visitors can also drink in an abundance of dairy ephemera and intriguing photos, as well as landscapes depicting farm animals and wonderful folk art carvings with a bovine motif.
Bill Brooks, executive director of the Sheldon Museum, said the exhibit is being done in partnership with Historic New England (HNE), the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional heritage organization in the nation. It was founded in 1910 to preserve and present the cultural and architectural heritage of New England. The Sheldon Museum collaborated with HNE on a successful Addison County Farm & Field Days exhibit last year. Brooks said HNE had the foundation for a dairy exhibit and asked Sheldon Museum officials if they’d like to borrow it and add to it with local material.
And there is of course no shortage of dairy-related equipment and lore in Addison County, which combined with Franklin County forms the backbone of Vermont’s agricultural economy. Add to that the fact that June is dairy month and that Weybridge is home to one of the region’s legendary dairies — Monument Farms — the exhibit seemed like a natural fit.
“Because of who we are at the Sheldon, we have objects, documents and photos in our collection to work in (to the exhibit),” Brooks said last week during a museum tour.
The exhibit has received financial underwriting from Cabot Creamery, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, Monument Farms Dairy, Foster Brothers Farm, Phoenix Feeds & Nutrition and Yankee Farm Credit, among others.
An entire room within the exhibit is dedicated to all things Monument Farms. It’s a third-generation family farm purchased by Richard and Marjory James in 1931. They soon began bottling and selling milk directly to the public, with Middlebury College standing as one of their biggest accounts. Today, Monument Farms milks about 460 cows and manages approximately 2,000 acres in the lower Otter Creek watershed, according to its business profile.
Millicent Rooney, the daughter of Richard and Marjory James, proudly chatted one day last week  about the many milk bottles, cartons and other dairy props in the Sheldon exhibit.
In the early days, of course, the “milkman” delivered the product to customers’ homes in glass bottles that he would retrieve from the customer once the product had been consumed. Rooney pointed to a photo of former Monument Farms milkman Harold Bigelow, who established such a good rapport with customers over the years that he was given keys to many clients’ homes. He would check inside their refrigerators, see what they needed, and stock accordingly.
Home deliveries were phased out two decades ago when the company lost its bid to provide milk through the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food program.
“It was a big blow,” Rooney said.
The oldest Monument Farms milk bottle in the exhibit features a small reservoir at the top with a spoon to scoop out the cream. Rooney explained how the bottles had primarily been clear, but transitioned briefly to a brown tint. The change proved unpopular, Rooney recalled.
“People could drink their beer out of brown bottles but they didn’t want to drink their milk from brown bottles,” she said with smile.
Monument Farms converted to milk cartons during the 1950s, Rooney noted. The first ones were coated with wax, a practice that was soon halted after customers reported seeing little pieces of wax in their milk. The exhibit shows the evolution of the cartons and how they transitioned from a flat top to the raised top common today. Plastic jugs are also de rigueur these days.
Other exhibit items supplied by Monument Farms include a wooden rocker butter churn, a Babcock centrifuge butterfat tester, and several large metal milk cans.
Many of the wooden dairy-related antiques in the exhibit are on loan from the private collection of an Addison County resident who prefers to remain anonymous. Among them is a wonderfully preserved Davis “swing” butter churn. Patented in 1877 and again in 1879, it was made by the Vermont Farm Machine Company of Bellows Falls. The folding frame made it easy to tilt the churn box to drain out the buttermilk, or to wash the butter. The company guaranteed that the rocking motion of the cradle would not injure the butter as the cream rolled over on itself to make the product.
Prior to 1900, wood was critical in the manufacture of dairy products, museum officials noted. Red spruce, “bed wood” and basswood were among varieties needed to make butter tubs and cheese boxes, among other things. The Lincoln Lumber Co., for example, made butter tubs of varying sizes by the thousands, which were purchased and filled by farmers who often traded the butter for other commodities. The exhibit features a Lincoln Lumber Co. ledger book showing its many butter tub transactions. And some of the payments were made in gold dust and maple syrup, according to the ledger.
And Vermont, even a century ago, was know for premium agricultural products. Dairy items made in the Green Mountain state fetched a premium in Boston and New York.
The Henry Sheldon Museum is located at 1 Park St. in downtown Middlebury, across from the Ilsley Public Library. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Admission to the museum is $5 for adults, $3 for youths (6-18), $4.50 for seniors and $12 for families. For more information about the exhibit and related programs, visit www.henrysheldonmuseum.org, or call 802-388-2117.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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