The Scheckel family milked cows by hand on the Oak Grove Ridge farm outside of Seneca in the middle of Crawford County. Oh, the neighbors had milking machines in the late 1940s and during the 1950s, but not the Scheckels. Count ‘em; Dad, Mom, Phillip, Lawrence and Bob. Five milkers with 10 hands.
We milked about 17 to 20 cows at any one time; four cows in the morning and four cows at night for me. It was one of those tasks on the farm that I did not relish. But, you play the hand dealt you.
We washed the cow’s teats with a disinfectant mixed in a water pail, grabbed a milk pail and wooden stool from the milk house, and rested our head against the side of the cow.
First, “stripping” the cow to “let her milk down” by grabbing a teat in each hand, holding it between your thumb and forefinger. Start at the top of the teat, then slide your thumb and forefinger down the length of the teat, compressing it as you slide. You primed the cow for milking and then start right in with the serious job.
The white stream impinging on bare metal yielded a high-pitch tenor sound, changing to a baritone as milk accumulated, ending in a low bass tone as the pail neared half full. Milking a cow took about six or seven minutes.
We carried the milk pail to the milk house and poured it in a large funnel that had a gauze filter in the bottom. Dad or Mom poured the filtered milk into the cream separator. Our cream separator was powered by an electric motor. The centrifugal Gustaf de Laval separator bowl spun 100 revolutions per minute. The whole milk trickled down the 18 rotating disks. The heavier milk was pulled outward against the walls and lighter cream collected in the middle. The skim milk and cream came out separate spouts.
We mixed the skim milk with ground oats as slop for the hogs. The cream was put in a 10-gallon milk can and cooled in a two-can milk cooler. The cream was taken to the Eastman cheese factory every three or four days. It was a constant chore to keep the milk clean, devoid of dirt, hay or straw particles. The milk inspector came around to the farms several times a year.
The cow barn could be hot and sweaty on those long summer days. The cow swished her tail in your face and that tail was sometimes laden with manure. Flies were a constant menace in the summer.
Winter was just the opposite. It always amazed me how much heat cows gave off. It could be a bitter cold morning, as much as 20 below zero, and you would open the sliding doors of the milking area and a blast of warm air would hit your face.
I imagined that the cows were talking to each other. They knew we were there for the milking. I surmised that one cow would turn to the other and say, “Here comes old icy fingers again!”
We did have some good times milking cows. Those would be the milk fights we got into by squirting each other with milk right from the cow’s own spigot, the teat. We had two rows of stanchions with cow posteriors facing each other and a 3-foot-wide concrete path between the two rows of cows.
In the summer, when the weather was warm, one of us would start the battle by giving a quick squirt at his brother across the way. Squirt and duck, until one of us would break it off or Dad would yell at us. The only drawback to this great fun was leaving the barn with milk in your hair, dried and matted down.
But cats were always fair game, and it seemed we had a steady supply of barn cats that would wander down that center aisle. They didn’t seem to mind getting shot with a stream of milk, which they eagerly licked off.
The cows were let out of their stanchions. These were not the fancy steel stanchions seen in some milking parlors. The Scheckel stanchions were all homemade from hardwood, sturdy, functional and in place since the barn was made 50 years earlier.
The cows moved briskly to the water tank. This was the same water tank that floated our boats made from hollowed oversized cucumbers. The same water tank that we stocked with a few small fish caught at Cold Springs, along the Mississippi near Lynxville, and brought home in a milk pail.
While the cows were quenching their thirst, we fed the fodder to the cows, throwing it down the chute from the hay loft above. Fodder provided good roughage for bossy. The milking cows also got a diet of loose hay from the loft and a dose of ground corn from the granary.
The neighboring Kozelka kids visited us on the farm one memorable morning. Jimmy and Gary dropped in as Phillip, Bob and I were “cleaning the barns” or hauling manure out of the barn and into the fields.
We had one cow we called “the three titter.” Yes, she had only three spigots instead of the normal four. Jimmy reached in behind the cow to pull on a teat, and “three titter” felt offended. With a tremendous kick from the affronted cow, Jimmy went flying 4 or 5 feet and found himself crumpled against the sliding barn door. He never did that again!