Several people have asked for the text of the talk I gave at Bovina Farm Day this past September 3, so here it is in all its glory (it's a bit long, so don't say I didn't warn you!):
Bovines of Bovina. So it seems obvious that it is the bovine that gave Bovina its name.
The gentleman who named Bovina, Erastus Root, did not see an abundance of bovines in the town. They were there, but the animal that more likely stood out was the ovine – the sheep. Root’s suggestion for the name was an allusion to the town’s fitness for grazing.
But let’s talk about cows, for Bovina certainly had them from its earliest history. Ulysses Prentice Hedrick, in his 1933 book on the History of Agriculture in New York State wrote that “whether our bovine servants were first domesticated for the strength of the bulls or the milk of the cows, we shall never know.” He went on to note that the species is the most adapted to domestication and then had some rather nasty things to say about the bovine: “A cow or an ox is stupid, and man does not have the affectionate relations with them he has with the horse, camel, or elephant. A cow is little more than a passive producer of milk, almost devoid of emotions – she lives to eat, drink and reproduce. In neither sacred nor profane literature are there stories of the cow tending to show the existence of emotions approaching those of human beings that the books of the ages record for the horse.” There are a number of folks around here who would take issue with Mr. Hedrick.
We do not know how many cows Bovina had in its early days, nor do we really know what kind. The earliest collection of any cow data came in the 1845 state census, when Bovina had 1959 cows. That same year, there were 6700 sheep. But as the years progressed, the number of sheep began to drop, partly due to competition from the west and partly because they were getting more wool per sheep. In 1855, the sheep population dropped in half. It did so again 10 years later and again 10 years after that so by 1875, there were only 677 sheep, vs. 2304 cows. A reminder of all those sheep in Bovina can be seen occasionally in the stone walls. If there are a row of stones on top of the wall sitting sideways, that likely was to keep in sheep.
Bovina was producing butter in its very early days. A decent quantity was being made in the 1840s, 50s and into the 1860s without anyone really remarking on the quality. Bovina being a town of Scotch Presbyterians, many of the farmers determined that their hardworking cows had to keep the Sabbath too. The town passed a resolution on Feb 11, 1862 “that the people of Brushland be required to keep their cows in the stable on Sabbath days.”
In 1863, a newspaper was reporting Bovina was producing 126 lbs a year per cow. 126 pounds was chump change when compared to a decade later as farmers began experimenting with different breeds – all of them foreigners, by the way (meaning the cows in this instance). In the 1860s, farmers like John Hastings and Andrew Archibald started bringing in Alderneys. They are noted for their butter production. Around this same time, other farmers were trying the Ayrshire.
The Alderney was a breed of dairy cattle originating from the British Channel Island of Alderney, though no longer found on the island. The pure breed is now extinct, though hybrids still exist. Ayrshire cattle are a breed of dairy cattle from Ayrshire in southwest Scotland. They are known for their hardiness and their ability to convert grass into milk efficiently. The breed's strengths today are traits of easy calving and longevity.
A letter to the editor of the Delaware Republican, written in 1872 and signed only "T.L.D.," sang the praises of Bovina farmers and their cattle:
Within the last ten years the farmers of Delaware Co. have perhaps made greater progress in the improvement of stock for dairying purposes, than in any other branch of their industry, and in this improvement the little town of Bovina will compare very favorably with other and less secluded localities. Many of the farmers of this town have, with much care and at considerable expense, procured a stock of cattle, that for their fine appearance and profit to their owners, in producing both quantity and quality of butter, are unsurpassed in any other section of the state.
Among our most prominent owners and dealers in thoroughbred cattle in this town, may be named Mr. Thomas Miller, who has imported stock from Europe, and who owns a large and fine dairy of thoroughbred Ayrshires, dealing only in Ayrshires. Mr. Miller is now the owner of the celebrated bull “Lord Cuthbert,” one of the finest Ayrshire bulls ever brought into Delaware county. He received the first premium at the recent State Fair at Albany, is two years old, of a beautiful red and white color…
Mr. James G. Ormiston is a dealer in both Ayrshire and Alderney cattle, his dairy consisting about equally of each, and is one that would attract the attention of everyone who might have an opportunity of seeing them by their neat and thrifty appearance. It is a conceded fact here that “Jim” knows a good cow as well as a good horse when he sees one, that he owns both, and that he would deal in no other.
Thomas E. Forrest owns and deals in the Ayrshire, Alderney and short horn breeds. “Tom” is a lively farmer, buys and sells freely and of the first quality.
Mr. James M. Hastings was the first man in Bovina to introduce the Alderney cattle. His dairy consists entirely of that class. He has been improving it for some years, and now owns one of the most profitable stocks in the country – His production of butter is said to exceed 200 lbs. per head; and to bring in market extra figures on account of its superior quality.
The writer of this article also noted in particular a nine year old half-blood Alderney owned by Mr. McFarland. “Mr. McF. Feeds her well, and she well deserves it. During eight months from the 1st of June 1870, till the lst day of January 1871, she produced 454 lbs. of butter, and during the eight months from April 1st, 1871, until Dec. 1st 1871, she yielded 439 lbs. Mr. McFarlane (sic) will give any information in regard to this animal which may be desired. I understand she is not for sale; an offer of $400 has been refused for her."
The writer concluded his letter with “And now, Mr. Editor, allow me to say, lest my motives in writing this article be impugned, that I am not a farmer myself or in any way interested in cattle, and that the names of those whom I have mentioned I have taken the liberty to do so without their knowledge or comment; but I do feel that there is merit in their stock, even though it be owned in the secluded town of Bovina.”
Thomas Ormiston, James G’s son, had more of a preference. He wrote in the 1890s that while “The Ayrshires were beauties and took the eye of a Scotchman, they could not compete with Alderneys …making butter.” Hedrick in his history of NY State agriculture noted the Ayrshire as being the “poor man’s cow.”
About a decade or so after the introduction of the Alderneys and Ayrshires, Jerseys made an appearance and ultimately became the prominent Bovina cow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like the Alderneys and Ayrshires, the Jerseys were British. William L. Rutherford, on what is now the Weber farm (where Bovina Farm Day is held each year), likely brought in the first Jerseys. In 1876, he bought six Jerseys, named Elsie of Staatsburgh, Fanny Frank, Kitty 3d, Daphne of Staatsburgh 2d, Princess 5th and Bertha 2d.
Within a couple of years, a debate sprang up between the Delaware Republican and the Delaware Gazette newspapers, both based in Delhi, over who should get credit for bringing in the Jersey. It started with the Republican and an article called Jerseys in Delaware County, signed with the pseudonym “Rural Home.” The writer reported visiting Mr. Rutherford’s: "He is a Scotchman and a farmer, unassuming, and not a man to go into anything without having a perfect system to work upon. This county owes him a debt it can never pay, for improving the dairies of this town and many others of this county. He keeps only the choicest thorough-breds. His herd consists of thirty head, ranging from two years old to eight. In starting his herd he picked the best milkers as well as the choicest colors. His cattle are mostly squirrel grey. One of these beauties is Frolic, eight years old. Bridget, Flora 4th, and Fairway 2d are fine specimens of the Jersey cow, excellent butter cows, and also of solid color."
At the end of this article was a note by the Republican newspaper that stated "While Mr. Rutherford is perhaps entitled to as much credit for contributing to the improvement of the dairying stock as any of our farmers, Mssrs. Thos Miller, J.G. Ormiston and many other farms of Bovina and neighboring towns are little if any behind in the matter. In fact, most of the leading dairymen of our county are well supplied with full blood or grade Jerseys-the latter, in quantity as well as quality of milk– in fact, the very best dairy cows, all things considered, that can be found in the county."
The following week, the Delaware Gazette took exception to this addendum, noting that "Now, Mr. Miller is a late convert to Jerseys, and if he has a thoroughbred cow he must have purchased it this spring – Mr. Ormiston is another convert to Jerseys, as the above-named gentlemen, who have bred, till very lately, Ayershires; and Mr. Miller only last fall sold a farmer an Ayershire calf, claiming the superiority of that breed, yet bought thorough bred Jersey calves for his own use. The Gazette went on to say that to Mr. Rutherford is due to say, that he bought thoroughbred Jersey’s and kept them when the first mentioned gentleman were discouraging their introduction into our dairies. Justice where justice is due."
The Republican responded thusly:
A correspondent of the Gazette, referring to our commendation of the efforts of several farmers in Bovina for the improvement of dairy stock, says that some of them prefer Ayrshire and other blooded stock to the Jerseys, in which they have not invested. We were well aware of that fact, and it was by inadvertence that “other blooded stock” was not added after “Jerseys.” We may add that many others are not satisfied that the Jerseys are in all respects best adapted for dairying purposes. While the superior richness of their milk is generally admitted, we have heard their hardihood, keeping qualities and the quantity of milk given by them freely criticized. And from such testimony, and what little experience we have, our opinion is that the breeding of full blood Jerseys, for sale and improvement of other stock, is what is mainly commendable in those who have introduced it. We are quite ready to admit the claims of Mr. James M. Hastings and others who may have done much in that direction. We cannot attempt to recollect or enumerate how many have been so engaged or how far their efforts for purity of blood have succeeded.
Another debate started in 1879 and W.L. Rutherford himself weighed in, castigating two men over their statements about their dairies and butter production, including the above mentioned Thomas Miller:
Editors of the Gazette: Having read the proceedings of the Dairymen’s Association at Andes, as reported in the Delaware Republican, there are some statements that are utterly false and without any foundation of truth, which ought to be exposed; in view of this, if you will be kind enough to allow me a little space in your valuable paper, I will try to take the kinks out of some of those lying scoundrels.
Rutherford first took to task statements of a Mr. Davis concerning how he sold some of his butter along with Mr. Rutherford’s. Rutherford denies this and says that he can’t even determine who this man was. The only thing he did know was that he is “an infernal liar. …I find that we have three different classes of people to deal with in this old, rough world, viz: God’s poor, the devil’s poor and poor devils. No doubt he belongs to the third class. So much for Davis." He then went on to speak of Thomas Miller:
Now, with regard to Hon. T. Miller – He stated that he had Ayrshire cows that made 1 lb. of butter per day more than the Jersey cow, which he insinuates he paid a very big price for. I don’t believe that Mr. Miller ever had an Ayrshire cow that made over 1 lb. of butter in a day in his life. If his neighbors tell the truth, they say he generally takes his butter away under the cover of the night in order that they may not know how much he has, and that he is sly about it as a cat stealing candles.
Is that honest and upright for a man who professes to be a disciple of Christ? We know that he stands high in the church militant, but if he follows this hypocritical course, will he ever enter into the church triumphant, to the general assembly, and church of the first born which is in heaven? I suppose Mr. Miller thinks it is all decreed so and that it is all glorifying to God.
Where the truth lies in this debate we may never know. We do know that into the 1880s, Alderneys and Jerseys were both common in Bovina, but by the end of that decade, Jerseys were winning out. The Watertown Times in 1887 gave a report of the State Dairymen Convention in Middletown, including this tidbit: “25 years ago in the town of Bovina there was only 125 to 150 pounds of butter made from each cow. Now when they use Jersey blood the dairies average 250 pounds, and often run as high as 300 pounds. But the feeding of grain has much to do with this increase.”
Thomas Ormiston in 1896 agreed that the increase in the production of butter went hand-in-hand with the improvement in feeding and care of live-stock. Formerly, all live-stock was driven out to a stack and there fed, every day during the winter, and, when hay was scarce, they were fed on ‘browse.’ No grain was fed, except, perhaps, a little rye bran to a cow that was a little ‘off.’ Ormiston when on to note that "some farmers used feed, but others did fine without. I know one man having a small herd who made and sold 215 lb. of butter per cow, without buying one pound of feed, and nearly all the grain raised on the farm was fed to the team; but the cows had all the rough feed they wanted."
Whatever Bovina farmers were doing individually, collectively, it was enough to make Bovina’s dairying noteworthy. It was chosen by the State dairying association in 1891 for a ‘cow census.’ An official with the association noted that “the census report of the town of Bovina, in Delaware county, [was] proof of what might yet be accomplished, and compared that town, with its rough, hilly location to other places with far more favorable surroundings, far behind. The cause of this is that the farmers of Bovina make the dairy their first work. They studied the cow, they thought of the cow, they made this their one business. Again, they were wise in selecting a breed of cows especially adapted to the making of butter, a breed that had been bred for years for that object alone-meaning the Jersey.”
The Andes Recorder in 1893 noted that “Bovina is noted for its great butter - pure Jersey butter that is a strong competitor of Elgin, [Illinois] and is growing in favor with the butter men every year. [Elgin butter in this time period was sort of the gold standard, sold in the sticks we see today, once referred to as Elgin sticks.] The paper went on to report that a correspondent to the paper wrote that: When we were young 100 pounds of butter per cow was a fair average; now from 300 to 400 pounds per cow does not satisfy the Bovina dairyman. We expect, if they keep on grading their stock, by the time of the next centennial the Bovina cow will be giving butter instead of milk."
Another newspaper, the Plattsburgh Republican reported that:
The greatest butter town in our State is unquestionably Bovina, in Delaware county. Of the 2569 cows in this town, all except four are Jerseys, or have Jersey blood in them. In this town creameries are not encouraged, and every farmer makes his own butter. … The census of the State Dairyman’s Association shows that the better the animals, the better they are cared for and fed, the larger will be the profit that can be made from them. According to the bulletin issued by the above-named association last winter, there was sold from this town in 1892, 591,325 pounds of butter, at an average price of 25 ½ cts. per pound, or a total of $150,861.55. The average yield of butter per cow for the whole town being 230 pounds a year.
Thomas Ormiston echoed the statement that ‘creameries are not encouraged’ in 1896. He had expressed some concern about establishing them, arguing that butter made in the home was superior. His argument was supported by the fact that at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, 20% of all New York farmers displaying butter came from the town of Bovina. And all the butter was made in the home.
Agitation for a creamery in Bovina was growing, however. In 1901, a creamery did come. In fact, two creameries were established within a few months of each other in Bovina. The creameries started mainly with butter production but this changed and expanded as the 20th century progressed, with the production of butter dropping off. With more transportation options allowing dairy products to get to the market faster, butter began to be replaced by liquid milk. This led many Bovina farmers to change breeds.
For straight-out liquid milk, the Holstein tends to be a bigger producer, so farmers began to move away from the Jersey. There had been an earlier attempt to bring in the Holstein in the 1880s, by Robert Livingston, when he gave a Thoroughbred Holstein bull to David Coulter, to be used by the people of the town. As Thomas Ormiston noted in 1896, “the farmers did not take to the Hollander.”
That all changed in the 20th century. In 1919, the Catskill Mountain News reported that “F.W. Hyatt of Bovina Center has a grade Holstein cow that this season produced 82 pounds of milk per day. She has been fed on coarse timothy hay and 25 pounds of grain per day. The milk tested at the Bovina creamery at 2.9.”
The Holstein is the cow I remember the most when I was growing up. It still is the definitive cow in my mind – cows to me are supposed to be black and white. But as several people told me, there were several farmers in Bovina who still favored the Jersey. Today’s dairy farmers in Bovina are about split between the Holstein and the Jersey. Jerseys from Cowbella just recently moved into Bovina.