Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Steele County's dairy heritage celebrated in exhibit

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 08/15/2013 12:41 PM

E-mail article | Print version

OWATONNA, Minn. — Mina Holmes may not be a household name like Betty Crocker, but back at the turn of the 20th century, she was a World Champion buttermaker.

Holmes, who hailed from Steele County, is featured in the exhibit, Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World, which officially opens Aug. 1 at the Steele County History Center, 1700 Austin Road, Owatonna.

Opening festivities include a 7 p.m. roundtable in the Wenger Room at the History Center. KDHL farm director Jerry Groskreutz will moderate a panel of Steele County dairy farmers Joe and Reid Stransky, Karen Von Ruden, Loren Krause and Larry Tande.

Holmes' treadmill is one of the first things visitors see upon entering the exhibit. Her dog ran on the treadmill to drive her butter churn, said Jerry Ganfield, who set up the treadmill as it may have looked at the Holmes' farm.

Ganfield worked with Berniece Schroht, Ev Stransky, Mary Larson and Barb Kasper to set up the dairy exhibit, which takes visitors from home butter making to robotic milking.

There's been a lot of exciting changes, Ganfield said.

"For being one of the smallest counties in the state, our mark in dairy has been huge," Larson said.

Back in 1873, four cheese factories operated in Steele County and made 150,000 pounds of cheese; the most of any county in the state. About 10 years later, in 1884, 375,000 pounds of butter were produced in the county.

Steele County at one time produced more butter per capita than any other county in Minnesota.

"Everyone had cows here in Steele County," Larson said.

Including people who lived in town, added Ganfield.

Holmes wasn't the county's only famous buttermaker. Marianne McRostie also won numerous awards for her butter from 1889 to 1904.

Steele County had at least 24 creameries or two per township, Ganfield said. Creameries at Starks Corner and Rice Lake, Union and Cooleyville, Merton and Meriden. Only the Hope Creamery continues to operate today, churning out Hope butter.

Photos of nearly every creamery that operated in the county are in the exhibit. Many were distinctive buildings. Some exist today as homes or apartments, others have fallen into disrepair and others have vanished.

With all the creameries in the county, there was plenty of room for innovation in processing.

Reuben Disbrow created what was known as the Disbrow churn, the first and most popular commercial combined churn. His patent went to Owatonna Manufacturing Company. Later, Disbrow created a competing churn. OMC sued for patent infringement and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Disbrow was unschooled, but an inventive man, Ganfield said.

In 1910, there were 820 creameries in Minnesota; including 601 cooperatives.

Dairy farmers sold their cream to creameries. The skim milk was kept at home and fed to calves or hogs. The Ganfields fed sour milk to chickens.

Cream would be delivered to town every day or every other day by wagon. The exhibit covers transportation, from a steel-wheeled wagon on up to a semi-tractor.

The exhibit includes a milk cooler and a bulk tank, and a collection of three milkers. The milking units are a Surge, DeLaval and a rarer Globe. A gas engine used to drive the vacuum pump and a vacuum pump are displayed adjacent to the milking units.

Among the rarer items are a patented model for a free-stall on loan from Gandy Company. E.S. Gandrud created the adjustable cow stall.

Fresh-dried cow pies are from the Schroht farm. The pies lay on a bed of straw in a manure carrier, which was heralded when it was introduced.

"It saved a lot, a lot of work," Larson said.

Photographs show old barns and dairy farm signs. There are also promotional items given away from creameries, including a tin cow and calf from three breeds from DeLaval.

The committee shared stories when they saw the glass bottles from the Butter Capitol Dairy, which was located on Rice Lake Street in Owatonna. Kasper remembered the little glass bottles of milk she drank with her lunch in grade school.

Milk testing information, antique butter molds and butter dishes are displayed. There are photos of the county's three Princess Kays. Kristy Mussman Miron's butterhead will be on display in the exhibit during the Steele County Free Fair, Aug. 13-18.

Don't forget to look up because posters of the seven breeds hang from the ceiling.

The exhibit runs through Nov. 10.

Admission to the exhibit is free for members of the Steele County Historical Society and $2 for nonmembers. The History Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.