Images of New England dairy farms on the byways of rural towns with their picturesque barns and silos can summon memories in almost all of us, memories usually of the happier times and places of our youth. Many “old timers” can remember the days of men and children who “peddled” milk house to house with a horse drawn cart or old Ford truck. The milk was in a large tin pail and the good wife would come out with her pail and the milk was ladled into it. A few remember being sent by their mother down to the dairy to get a pail of milk and then stopping to sip the sweet cream from the top before returning home. Unlucky boys were given the unpleasant chore of sneaking under the fence into the fields to collect the cow manure and bring it home in wagons for their parent’s gardens. Along with the local family peddler are remembered the neighboring family farms that sold directly to milk processors. No less quaint and dedicated than the peddler and sharing the same philosophy and background, they insured that milk reached a wider market. Co-existing with the family farms were the hobby farms of the rich mill owners. These farms did not need to make money, profit was secondary; the thrill was in the owning. They imported herds of expensive breeds of cattle, and in one case, brought along a whole new culture of people that became implanted in the town’s landscape as surely as the cattle were.
All these combined to make for beautiful scenery, plentiful milk supplies and preservation of open space. Every where you looked there were fields of brown and white Herefords, Dotted Swiss and black and white Holsteins along the rural roadsides of town eating contentedly behind old stonewalls. In 30 short years all of the farms are gone, all that remain are the names on street signs in residential developments. In 1955 the Whitinsville Transcript listed 27 dairy farms operating in the area and now in 2003 there are none, the last going out of business at the end of this year. What are the forces that put an end to a tradition almost as old as the country itself? Depending on to whom you speak, you will get many different answers to the question. The most frequent answers are government interference and the cost of the land. Somewhere in there is a lack of respect for the oldest and proudest ways of earning a living- farming.
While everyone seems to agree that dairy farming is essential to rural community character by preserving open space, sculpting the landscape and offering diversity of recreational pursuits, few seems aware of the endangered status of the farm. (Northeast Dairy Compact Association) The Massachusetts Dairy Index published by the Conservation Law Foundation lists some alarming numbers. In the years between 1986 and 2001 Massachusetts lost 239 dairy farms and 70,186 acres of farmland. An Ohio Dairy Farmers web page states that in 1973 10% of U.S. households had daily delivery of milk but by 1995 less than 1% had delivery. In 2002 years of ineffective government price supports, escalating property taxes and the cost of machinery drove farmers in Farmington, Maine to dump 10,000 gallons of milk into a manure pit to protest the plummeting price of their milk. That same year a Vermont farmer dumped 2,800 lbs. of milk and sent a bag of manure in its place to protest delayed government milk checks. Let’s look at examples in the Blackstone Valley of each type of dairy farm: hobby, wholesale and the family farm that sells its own milk. Each one is no longer in business and their stories are typical of all farms in the North East.
An Inside Look Into Uxbridge's Dairy Farms
In Uxbridge on the hundred-acre lot is where the hobby farm, Castle Hill Farms, was located. John C. Whitin owned a 70-acre lot on the Uxbridge/Whitinsville border that had never been successfully used for farming because of the large stones dotting the field. This was not a major concern for Whitin because he had an empire to build and farming was low on his “to do list.” One of the major problems facing a mill owner in this area was keeping his skilled workers so in 1875 during an economic depression in the textile industry, Whitin needed a way to keep his skilled men employed and in the area. He set his men to work removing the boulders and rocks from the Castle Hill land and these boulders were used to build a wall six feet high and almost as wide surrounding the entire hundred-acre farm. This wall survives till today, known as the “hundred acre wall” and is all that remains of the dairy. (Work on the wall continued from 1876-78 and cost Whitin a staggering $13,000) The importance of the farm goes beyond that of a wall built to retain skilled workers, it also extends to the introduction of a heretofore-unknown ethnic group, the Dutch. After the land was cleared, the lot was used as a hobby farm for the farm’s registered heard of Jersey cattle. A case of tuberculosis wiped out the herd, so Mrs. Whitin, (who now ran the farm after her husband’s death in 1886), imported Holstein-Friesian cattle from the Netherlands. A Friesian man named John Bosma came with the herds to help get the cattle settled and get the farm on its way. Mr. Bosma liked the land and countryside so much he sent for family and gradually the group expanded with more Friesian Dutch coming over. By WW2, nearly 65% of the privately owned farms (not company) were in the hands of the Dutch farmers. When Mrs. Whitin died in 1919, the company took over the running of the farm and it was converted from a hobby showplace to a profitable business. ("The Whitin Machine Works Since 1831" by Thomas R. Navin)
Earl Parker ran a wholesale dairy farm that sold milk to the East Grenwich Dairy in Rhode Island. He is the quintessential Yankee farmer, stoic, proud and firmly rooted to the land. His grandfather bought the farm on Rockmeadow Road in 1925 to start a chicken farm and when his father inherited it in 1936 he called it Fairview Poultry Farm. Earl remembers how his father peddled eggs three days a week in a 1938 station wagon and how the whole family helped in the process of getting the slaughtered chickens ready for the customers. The farm had originally been a dairy farm but it would not have cows again till Earl got his first one at age 7. He fondly remembers his days in the Wheelocksville school as ones filled with impatience, he knew he wanted to be a farmer and saw school as taking him away from the thing he loved most. When his herd reached 8 cows he started to sell milk to Voss (River Bend) Farm in Rice City and by the time the 65-acre farm with 100 cows was his, the name had been changed to the Jo-Erl Farm. In the beginning the processing truck came to the farm every day and processed 40-quart cans but as time went on large refrigerated tanker trucks came in their place every other day. Earl places the blame for dairy farming becoming an unprofitable business on federal regulation and high real estate taxes. The government-purchasing farmer’s surplus milk gives the farmer’s a crutch; it does not force the farmer to run an efficient farm. He believes this legislation has kept farms artificially afloat and this is why the farms eventually collapse. The decision to retire did not come easy for him, but the cost of running the farm, both financially and physically was becoming too much for Earl. He knew his children did not want to carry on the business nor did he want to see them get involved in what he felt to be a lost cause. Tears still come to the eyes of this proud farmer when he recalls the day he had to see his beloved cows leave his farm.
Hendrick Bosma came to a new world armed with just his wife and a desire to succeed. His legacy was a 100-year tradition of proud dairy farming and a rich cultural heritage that will go on longer after all the farms have come to an end. In 1904 Bosma purchased the old Mount Hope Farm on West Hartford Avenue. (Less than a mile from Castle Hill farm) The Yankees had been farming on Williams Hill for 200 years but the children all had left and the people were old and could no longer work the land. Eager Friesian Dutch came to the hill and purchased the farms and brought them back to life, turning fallow fields into green landscapes dotted with black and white Holsteins, the favorite milk cow of the Friesians. Bosma sponsored a young Dutch man names Louis Bangma and Bangma in 1924 purchased the farm from Bosma and named the farm White Farm. By the 1930’s the entire hill was dotted with Dutch farms and the competition was stiff for new business so Bangma (who had changed the name of the farm to Bangma’s Dairy) decided to go “down the hill” and look toward the Mendon/Milford area for his route. This area is the backbone of the business even today. Lenny Bangma and his brother Donaldwife Kathy ran the farm for nine years till they sold their share to Lenny’s brother Donald four years ago. Donald tried admirably to make the farm continue but sadly has decided to end the tradition and at the end of 2003 Bangma’s Dairy will no longer be in business. Bangma’s was one of the few farms that milked, processed and sold their milk both by a retail store and home delivery. While Kathy and Lenny ran the farm they were able to see the business in the 1990’s grow to 120 cows and they were processing 20,000 qts. a week. Kathy (who is a descendant of Hendrick Bosma) counted off the farms that all existed in a small radius on the hill. There was Baker’s, which later became Visser’s Dairy; Cnossen’s, which later became Wassenar’s Maple View Dairy; Gilbert Bosma’s Farm; Van Der Zicht; Haringa; Hillcrest; Clover Hill Farm; and Grand View Dairy. She shared insights as to why the farms on the hill started disappearing one by one. All the farms existed in a small area and were competing against each other with each farm having to purchase and maintain expensive equipment, if the farmers had joined together and formed a cooperative it would have been cheaper for them to get their milk to market. Another contributing factor was that farms were sold too many times within families. You would have father leaving the farm to several sons and one had to buy the others out and this would repeat in each generation. Each time a brother had to be bought out, that lessened the value of the farm and you had to start all over again. Like Earl, Kathy’s face clouds with emotion when she thinks of the farm that was started 100 years ago by her ancestor, lying empty and silent. What the future holds for the farm is unknown, but what is known is that a way of life that has existed generation after generation has now come to an end.
I would like to thank all the dairy farmers everywhere who have provided service to all of us and have left all of us with wonderful memories. I want to thank them for all those cold mornings, hot afternoons and missed family events; their dedication to providing us with the best quality product available was not appreciated at the time but will be sorely missed in the future. But mostly I would like to thank Earl Parker and Kathy Bangma for their patience and wonderful insights into dairy farming. Their patience and graciousness will always be remembered.