COLUMNISTS

An agricultural journey back in time

John Oncken
Shelf after shelf of memories.

Almost everyone involved with dairying has visited or read about Larson Acres farm at Evansville, Wisconsin. This multi- family-owned dairy milks some 2800 dairy cows and farms 5,000 acres of land in Rock county. 

It typically (pre-pandemic) hosts 6,000 to 8,000 visitors each year ranging from city folks getting their first look at a modern dairy to dairy producers and educators seeking information about the innovations and expertise carried on at Larson Acres.

Historical agriculture

But, only a few people are aware of a most interesting feature of the farm – a unique and unusual agricultural museum in the basement of the farm office building. I’ve written about it previously and recently called Ed Larson and arranged for another visit. 

Ed Larson was the general manager of Larson Acres from the early 1980’s until about a half dozen years ago during which time the dairy grew in cow numbers and acreage and achieved national prominence.  That’s when he decided to turn the general managership over to his younger brother Mike and seek a bit of a new direction in life called semi-retirement.

Ed Larson: Dairy farmer, cow manager, historian, collector.

A new direction

Like many active, always involved, longtime farmers, Ed Larson found that moving away from everyday involvement in every farm activity means a major change in life. However, back surgery in 2013 and the resulting boredom during recovery led him down the road to what developed into almost a new dairy career.

As he said in my column of August 15, 2015:  “I began to look at eBay and found out about collecting milk bottles and other dairy memorabilia,” he says.”  “I found out other people were chatting about collecting and having fun doing it.”

Remember the cream-top milk bottles?

It was the milk bottles

To make a long story short, Ed Larson bought an old milk bottle and now has hundreds and soon expanded his collecting to include agricultural artifacts of every size and sort and hasn’t stopped collecting since. Although he has slowed down a bit as his shelves filled and space became limited.  

World of the past

Going down the steps at the end of the office hallway into the basement brings one into a different world – the world of the past. The wall at the foot of the steps is covered with old dairy product signs including “Pet Ice Cream” and “Golden Guernsey Milk,” from the recent but still historical past. Rounding the corner and facing the display room brings into view shelf after shelf of artifacts and walls covered with long gone agricultural farm signs.

Old signs have their own story.

One of the first items Larson points out are two versions of early milk bottling equipment: One filled a single bottle at a time while the other filled a continuous flow of bottles and capped them. A few steps away is a wall of “cream top” milk bottles, something many will remember from their younger day but are a complete unknown to younger generations. 

Larson pointed out a framed poster hanging on the  wall dating to 1907: “What do you notice first?” he asked.  ”Probably the pretty girls” he answered his own question. “It shows that using pretty women in advertising is an old art – this is an ad for a milk separator from 1902.”

Pretty girls advertising a milk separator in 1907. Note the envious calf and the cream and whey flowing.

A salesman’s sample

A recent acquisition of which Larson is very proud is a salesman’s sample model of the “Daisy Line” of unlocking cow stanchions made by Berg Manufacturing at Marshfield.  The stanchions actually work and have complete instructions and a contract ready to sign with it. 

The model set of stanchions used by Berg Manufacturing at Marshfield, used by sales staff to demonstrate to farmers. Called the Daisy Line.

It was used by salesmen to show farmers how the stanchions would lock or release cows all at one time. The model joins the model milking parlor that Larson has owned for some time.

It’s about history

“I’m interested in things tied into the history of farming,” Larson says. “I have some ‘one of a kind’ items and many old, rare and unique things.”

That includes an array of butter churns including one powered by a dog, sheep or goat walking uphill similar to a treadmill.  

Dog, goat, sheep powered churn (churn on lower left).

How could farmers farm with such simple, rudimentary equipment one might ask? Answer: Because that’s what was available. I’d guess most everything in Larson’s collection is still in existence but in a new, redesigned, usable and modern form. 

The early milking machines are now used in robot systems. Hand-powered milk churns are now in huge automated systems but do the same thing. Same for cheese slicers, forage harvesters and headlocks in free stall barns. Progress does not always happen instantly, it takes time effort and smarts.

UW Dairy Science promoting bulls before A.I.

Ed Larson’s collection captures moments from the past that shouldn’t be forgotten. Readers of this column will know that I’ve long advocated for the creation of an extensive Wisconsin dairy museum as a “destination.” Larson ’s collection could be the beginning. Any ideas?

If you’d like to visit with Ed Larson and see his awesome collection, call him at 608-751-9349. Perhaps he will invite you in. 

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail at jfodairy2@gmail.com