Saturday, July 20, 2013

This Week in Texas Methodist History   July 21

Milk in Texas Methodist History

Most of us don’t think much about milk except when prices rise.  Some of us have memories of home delivery of milk or even a family milk cow, but for most of us milk has been a staple we consume every day but don’t often think of where it comes from.

What about the connection between Methodism and milk?  Sure some churches still have ice cream socials, but most of the ice cream is purchased from commercial sources rather than hand cranked.  It would surprise most Methodists to know that not too long ago most Methodist residential institutions had their own dairy herds to supply fresh, raw milk to the dining halls.

Southwestern University had a dairy as late as the mid-1950s.  The Methodist Home with its large population of children who needed milk operated a dairy as did Lon Morris College.  The institution with the greatest dairy involvement was Texas Wesleyan College in Austin.  TWC was owned by the Swedish Methodist Conference of the MEC.  It operated Sunnybrook Dairy in Austin and produced far more milk than the students could consume.  The excess was marketed in Austin to raise funds to support the college.  It also provided employment for the Texas-Swedish farm boys who could finance their education by working at Sunnybrook.

It is a little ironic that the state in which Gail Borden had so much early influence, the dairy industry was very slow to develop.  Travelers to 19th century Texas such as Fredrick Law Olmsted looked at all the cows and marveled at how little fresh milk and butter he saw. The cheese industry was practically non existent. 

Part of the reason was that the dairy breeds of cattle had originated in the cool marine climate of northwestern Europe and suffered tremendously in the Texas heat.   In sprite of that difficulty, people wanted milk. 

Milk production in Texas tended to be very localized.  People purchased milk from neighbors or very small producers.  Milk is very difficult to transport so agricultural censuses show that dairy cattle populations in Texas about 1900 were greatest in the largest cities.  As better roads and rubber-tired vehicles became more common, each metropolitan area in Texas developed a nearby “milkshed,” from which its milk came.  Houstonians drank milk from Grimes and Washington CountiesCorpus Christi got its milk from AliceParker County supplied Fort Worth, and the greatest milkshed of all was Hopkins County which supplied much of North Texas, including Dallas.  El Paso, isolated as it was, continued to report a large dairy cow population long after milk cows moved from other Texas cities.

The maintenance of dairies in Methodist institutions made a great deal of economic sense.  The college or home could assure itself of a guaranteed supply of a staple over which it had control at every step from production to consumption.  Memories of illness transmitted by milk were still fresh, and Progressive Era muckrakers  pointed out the dangers of  adulterated milk sold in cities.  By owning its own dairy the school could ensure the purity of the product. 

There were other benefits.  Devout Methodists could pay part of their tithe in hay.  There are records of donations of box cars of hay to the Methodist Home in Waco from Methodists in Wharton and Matagorda Counties.  During the Great Depression some students at Lon Morris College paid part of their tuition in hay.

Landing a job in college dairy for one’s student work assignment was considered a real plum and the best of all possible campus jobs.  Dairying is hard, dirty work that begins very early in the morning, but college boys vied for the job.  What made it so desirable?  Other campus jobs, such as in the dining hall or the library, existed only when school was in session, but the dairy herd had to be tended year-round so employment continued through holidays and summer vacation.

There were other minor perks such as having a key to the kitchen cooler and the ability to skim off some of the cream before delivering the milk.  A Lon Morris College Yearbook includes a cartoon based on the establishment of the “Mu Chi Mu fraternity” among the dairy hands who hosted their dates with ice cream made from cream they had skimmed before taking the milk to the kitchen. 

Texas Methodist schools got out the dairy business long ago, but there are still alumni who fondly remember that they were able to finance their education by milking cows.


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