Going back in dairy time

John Oncken

OK, you are having house guests over the holiday season, perhaps an uncle, a cousin, a brother or even one of the kids attending college many miles away. You’ve driven them around the neighborhood and looked at the new buildings and viewed the former dairy farms now empty of cows, and you’re tired of watching football and basketball games on TV.

What can I do to make their visit more interesting, you ask yourself and your spouse and guests who can’t come up with a good answer either.

Go visit a museum

Here’s a thought. Why not pile into the car or pickup, and visit the Hoard Historical Museum and National Dairy Shrine Visitors Center in Fort Atkinson? You can spend a couple of hours or the whole day there, and I assure you, it will  be a visit to remember.

You’ll relive your farming youth and career (however long it was); learn about the Mound Builders who lived in the area long before the first cow arrived; take a close look at arrowheads and milk stools; and get enough fodder for a week’s worth of conversation with your guests.

The National Dairy Shrine Museum is a wing of the Hoard Historical Museum in Fort Atkinson.The museum will hold an open house Dec. 10

A huge collection

The National Dairy Shrine Museum is a wing of the Hoards Historical Museum in Fort Atkinson that had its origin in 1956 when the Hoard family (grandsons of W.D. Hoard) gave  the family home to the city for use as a museum. The small collection that had been displayed in the city library was moved to the new Hoard Historic Museum, which has become a huge collection and attraction for this small Jefferson County community.

A dairy museum

The National Dairy Shrine museum dates to February 1974 when The National Dairy Shrine decided  to build a headquarters and museum at Fort Atkinson.

A building committee headed by Dr. Robert Walton, president of ABS, and Robert Rummler, chairman of the National Holstein Association, raised a fund of $210,000. In April 1980, ground was broken, and the building adjoining the existing Hoards Historical Museum was dedicated a year later.

Most dairy barns were topped by a weather vane. The Oncken barn had a cow like this one on display at the museum.

Back again

I recently revisited the museum and in a couple of hours didn’t get any farther than The National Dairy Shrine Museum, a collection of dairy memorabilia, photos and stories of the people and dairy cows that made dairying what it was and is in this country and the world.

Visitors should watch the video that outlines dairying from its early beginnings and marvel at the changes that have taken place over the years. You’ll  see how cows were milked (by hand) while the milker sat on a small metal or handmade wooden milk stool. Visitors may well wonder how dairy farmers milked cows twice a day, every day with equipment that was modern at the time and looks so primitive today.

I had viewed it before, so I moved directly to the dairy memorabilia displays that are interesting but make me feel old and somewhat remorseful. Many are now antiques, but as a farm boy, I had used some of them daily.

Milking by hand

Those old milk stools for instance, we had one three-legged, round metal stool that my dad used. My brother and I each used hand-built wooden stools in different configurations, and there was an extra, one-legged wood stool that we kept for emergency. Of course, milk stools were built close to the ground so the milker sat, sort of under the cow, with a milk pail between our legs.

Milk stools, many of which were homemade, came in varying styles.

The hand milking stopped when dad bought a two-unit International milking machine, and you can view several examples of this type of system. The single-unit systems used by some exhibitors at dairy shows today are similar.

If you ever tested milk in high school ag class, you certainly remember the Babcock test with the little sample bottles and centrifuge. There is a unit on display that will bring back memories along with thoughts of the sulfuric acid holes in your shirt and pants that mother had to mend.

High school ag students of years ago will remember  these tubes used in testing their cow’s milk butterfat with the Babcock test.

Famous blankets

The original blue blanket worn by “Elsie,” the Borden cow, is there. Note: the actual Elsie the Cow was a Jersey born in March of 1932 at Elm Hill Farm in Brookfield, Massachusetts, and at one time was the most recognized and beloved advertising symbols in the world.

The show blankets from three former great Holstein show herds — Pabst Farms, Carnation Milk Farm and Curtiss Candy Farm — are on display as reminders of the national dairy show circuit of years ago.

Another reminder of the fabled dairy show circuit days is the large display of judging badges once worn by John L. McKitrick of Welcome in Farms of Dublin, Ohio, who, with his father, John W. McKitrick, developed outstanding Guernsey and Brown Swiss herds from the late 1940s to 1963.

McKitrick made a goal as a young man to judge every national dairy breed show and at age 52, after judging 1,200 shows worldwide, retired.

Wally Lindskoog of Arlinda Holsteins in Turlock, California, is one of the past dairy greats.

The cows

Then there are the cows, panel after panel, row after row, pictures of the breed champion cows of the past at the great dairy shows in Columbus, OH, Chicago, IL, Waterloo, IA, and Madison.  One can see how cows have changed over the years.

The cows are long gone, but some of their genes live on in the cows in Wisconsin's 9,400 dairy herds and across all of the world's dairyland.

Grand Champion Holstein cows back to 1906 are pictured for viewing.

The people

The hundreds of photos of dairy leaders who had a major impact on the science of dairying are there to see and will bring back memories to those visitors who bred and milked cows and have met these folks or otherwise remember them.

I met many of them during my days as advertising manager at ABS. One whom I’ll never forget was Wally Lindskoog, of Arlinda Holsteins in Turlock, CA, who flew his own plane to Madison to tour ABS.

Lindskoog developed Pawnee Farms Arlinda Chief, one of the most influential Holstein bulls in history. Over the years, I’d see Wally at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, CA, always surrounded by a crowd talking about dairy cows.  I once visited his small, nondescript dairy and marveled at how many great bull came from there. bred by this humble dairyman.

Sorry to get off the track of describing the National Dairy Shrine Museum, but that’s what museums are all about.  You’ll have your own “go-back-in-time" moments when you tour the facility.

The beginning

The National Dairy Shrine dates to 1949 with a mission to do the following:

1) To honor past and present dairy leaders

2) To inspire future dairy leaders with scholarships

3) To record the significant events and achievements in the dairy industry

4) To operate a museum to display the history of the dairy industry

5) To promote the dairy industry.

You’ll see how  this mission is fulfilled by touring the museum, with your guests, family or alone.  Then consider joining the 18,000 proud members of National Dairy Shrine: $50 one-time fee. Call 920-863-6333 or

Don't plan a hurried visit, as you’ll will want to see the entire Dairy Shrine Museum and the Hoards Historical Museum. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 920-563-7769, or go to for more info.

Warning! Don't plan a hurried visit. The exhibits are so great, the learning is endless and the memories from the past and made for the future are forever.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications.  He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at