Reconditioned antique milker one of oldest around

Gloria Hafemeister

East Troy – An old milking system has brought family and friends together on a unique project.

Bob Zelenski, 87, a retired East Troy dairy farmer, had parts of what he thought was a Pine Tree milking system in his barn since he moved there more than 60 years ago when he married his wife, MaryAnn, and took over her parents’ farm. The Mitchell farm had been very progressive in the East Troy area, and it was no surprise to him that his in-laws would have been one of the first in the area to use the new milking technology.

“We believe MaryAnn’s grandpa Ben Mitchell would have used it," Zelenski said. "Her dad had a Surge milker when I came here in 1957. In 1984, we put in a pipeline.”

Coincidentally, the parts of the milking machine that were in place on the Mitchell farm were very similar to parts of the milking machines he remembers hanging on the beams of his own family’s farm in Brighton in Kenosha County. He never paid much attention to the wooden shaft that was in the barn when he was helping his parents on their farm, but now in his retirement he started thinking more about those old-time milking systems.

When his nephew, Phil Koenen, learned about the old milking machine parts Zelenski had found, he did some research and found the pieces at the Mitchell farm were actually from a Success Milker. Several companies — Hinman, Easy Clean, Success and Pine Tree — made similar units unique to other milking machine systems.

One thing that makes them unique is there are no inflations inside the claw, only a rubber washer. Also, there is no vacuum in the pail, only in the claw.

Researching the system

As Zelensii and Koenen investigated the machines and searched for parts, they found another East Troy farm, the Ferry Farm, had also used this system to milk in the 1920s. Theirs was a Clean Easy model.

That farm, established in 1838, is still in the dairy business today, and owners had a box of parts stored away they gave to Zelenski. They also recalled that some of the parts, including the transmission, had been thrown on a line fence decades ago, along with other “junk.”

Koenen and Zelenski’s son, Tim, resurrected the transmission from the fence line.

“It was buried in dirt halfway up, and getting it out was not easy," Tim said.

It was still in good shape, and after cleaning off the rust, he was able to get it going again.

Through the internet, Koenen was able to locate a parts list and an instruction manual for assembling the system. Then the three set out to rebuild the system and get it working again.

Tim made the brackets for hanging the wooden shaft and fabricated a leather part with cow leather he obtained from a local shoe repair shop.

The system is powered with a belt and a 1½ horsepower hit-and-miss engine.

With the wooden shafts sliding back and forth on the beam above the cows, the vacuum chambers are set up to oppose each other so when one is sucking the other is releasing. The vacuum chamber can be moved down the line from cow to cow.

"All my life I’d look at these pieces that were mounted in the barn, and I always wondered about how this milking machine worked," Bob said. "Now at 87, I get to see it working.”

Other milking equipment

In his retirement, he is also gathering other pieces of old-time farming tools and milking equipment and working to display them in a manner that others will be able to enjoy them and learn more about what these tools once did.

Among his milking equipment collection are two Sputniks that were used to transfer milk from the barn to the milkhouse before other types of transfer systems came out. They got their name because when they were used in the 1950s, they resembled the Sputnik space vehicle.

Finding better ways to milk cows is nothing new. Around 380 B.C., Egyptians, along with traditional milking by hand, inserted wheat straws into cows' teats. Many years later, dairy farmers began experimenting with different systems, but most of them involved sticking some sort of straw into the teat.

During the 1800s, many farmers dreamed of a milking machine to ease the chore of hand milking. Dairy farmers were beginning to milk more cows in larger herds. By the year 1900, hundreds of patents had been granted for milking machines. But none of them proved to be worthy on the farm. Milking machines quickly developed a bad reputation for ruining good cows.

Since it was often the woman’s job to milk the cows, it’s not surprising that a woman, Anna Baldwin of New Jersey, is actually credited with developing a suction milking machine she had patented in 1878. Most of the credit, however, goes to a Swedish inventor Carl Gustav deLaval whose machine actually gained commercial success.

Several companies built and marketed milking machines from 1900 to 1920. Some companies actually fought about patents and machines were outdated before the battles were won.

Most of them looked like clones of each other with upright pails sitting on the floor. These machines milked satisfactorily but presented challenges in producing quality milk. The buckets were made of various materials including brass, copper, aluminum or tinned steel. These metals sometimes added unwanted flavors to the milk. The rubber milk tubing leading to the udders was long and difficult to clean. These early milking machines were difficult to effectively scrub and sanitize.

Early machines were designed either to imitate hand milking, using mechanical pressure, or the sucking calf, using a vacuum. Early vacuum milkers created problems because the continuous suction made blood pool in the udder and damaged it. The invention of the pulsator opened the gateway to effective milking machines.