Sunday, August 16, 2009

Was Bovina Butter Served at the White House?

When Bovina’s first settlers starting arriving in 1792, they were attracted by what the land agents for Janet Livingston, the then owner of much of present day Bovina, said was an area good for grain and excellent for meadow. What was they didn’t mention was Delaware County’s rather rocky soil – ‘two stones for every dirt.’ In this rocky soil, farmers tried to grow grain. Over the years, Bovina farmers grew a variety of grain, including barley, oats, rye, wheat, buckwheat and corn. Wheat was the predominant grain, as it was the way many farmers paid the rent on their farms to Livingston and her successors.

It became obvious, however, that growing grain was not going to be Bovina’s farming future. When Bovina was created in 1820, Erastus Root suggested naming the new town Bovina in honor of its local dairy farms. This tells us that there were enough dairy farms to cause Root to make this suggestion, though early census data do not tell us the population of cows or the number of dairy farms.

Early records do tell us that in 1821, Bovina’s livestock included 219 horses and 2,299 sheep (Bovina’s human population was around 1200). Bovina’s sheep population reached a peak of 6,700 in 1845, just as Bovina’s population reached its peak of 1,436. That same year, Bovina's wheat production was 2000 bushels and its farms had almost 2000 cows (this first year the number of cows was reported). Within a decade, wheat production had dropped to merely 50 bushels. Bovina's sheep population also dropped, though more slowly. In 30 years, the sheep population was down to ten percent of its 1845 number. The number of cows, however, remained relatively steady throughout this period as Bovina found its farming niche.

Bovina was considered a model dairying community, cited in a number of references for the quality of its product. What was that product? It wasn’t liquid milk – in 1875, only 120 gallons of milk were sold. Before the days of refrigeration and easy access to the railroads, most of the milk had to be converted to butter or cheese in order to not lose the product of the dairies. Bovina favored the production of butter.

Butter production in general was very much women’s work. John Burroughs noted that “Every housewife [in Delaware County] is, or wants to be, a famous butter-maker.” The women skimmed the cream from the milk and churned it, working it into butter. They packed the butter into barrels or firkins. Bovina butter production was at 223,000 pounds in 1845, rising to 380 thousand pounds in 1875. Bovina butter became particularly noteworthy in the late 19th century, partly due to the introduction of the Jersey cow. John Hastings and Andrew Archibald introduced the first Jersey stock into Bovina in 1863. Other farmers were skeptical at first, but the Jersey proved to be superior for the production of butter.

About 1870 William L. Rutherford, whose farm was up Crescent Valley where the Weber farm is located, purchased a herd of twenty head from a Connecticut stock dealer. Not only did he do well producing butter, but the herd proved to be profitable in sales. James Hastings also was successful selling stock, selling to farmers as far away as Iowa and Wisconsin.

The heyday of Bovina butter came at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. At the New York pavilion at the fair, twenty four percent of all New York farmers exhibiting butter came from Bovina. Bovina had around 120 dairy farms at this point.

So, was Bovina butter served at the White House? And when? The section about Bovina in the Centennial History of Delaware County, New York: 1797-1897 states: “Its enterprising citizens are justly proud of the flattering appreciation of the excellency of Bovina butter, and the reputation it has gained. Upon two occasions Bovina dairies have supplied the tables of the presidential mansion at Washington, being recommended as the finest flavored butter made in the United States.” There are other similar references, but all of them rather vague as to when this actually happened.

Given the high quality of Bovina butter, it is quite possible that some of it found its way, at least a few times, to the tables of the White House. Not necessarily on any kind of regular basis, since there certainly were other butter producers significantly closer to the nation’s capital, but maybe for some special occasion. The President who brought it there maybe had New York connections.

My quandary is finding the documentary evidence of Bovina butter finding its way to the nation's capital. The next step is to see what White House records may be at the National Archives, but knowing under what administration or administrations Bovina butter is supposed to have been served will make the research a bit easier. If anyone has any other evidence concerning Bovina butter, whether in paper form or something heard at grandpa’s knee, please let me know.

Stay tuned for further developments.

And don't forget on September 6 to come Bovina Farm Day, to be held up Crescent Valley right within sight of the farm that very possibly was the source of that White House bound butter. Visit for further information. And I'll be there with a display on Bovina farms and to scan any Bovina farm pictures people care to share with me.

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