The ghosts of Big 3 town of Genesee dairies

John Oncken
Keystone Farm dairy during it heyday when milking 350 cows (Probably in the 1940 to 1950 era.)

I can almost feel the ghosts of the past lurking in the dark corners of the long-vacant dairy barns, in the former milk bottling plants now serving other uses and maybe even on the lawns of the big-expensive houses that now cover the former farm fields.

I felt the dairy ghosts again this week when I was looking in one of my photo libraries and found photos taken years ago in Genesee Township in Waukesha county when visiting Wern Farms, Keystone Farm and Brook Hill Farm.

Three mega dairies

These three farms are full of dairy history and are located within a mile of each other. Each had been in the family for over three generations. Keystone Farm was milking 300 cows while the farm down the road (Wern Farms) had 650 milk cows. And just up the hill was home to 900 Holsteins on Brook Hill Farms.

The owners used the most modern technology to produce the highest quality milk that was sold to consumers in Milwaukee and Chicago. It's safe to say they were on the cutting edge of dairy farming innovation.

When I last visited the three farms I asked their owners how they ran such huge operations before the advent of computers and today’s labor-saving equipment.

Bob Rowlands, owner of the 300-cow Keystone herd said “we broke our herd into strings of 30 cows with one man responsible for milking, feeding, handling manure and milk quality.” Copeland Greene of Brook Hill Farms said: “At one time we had 90 to 100 employees in the milking and field operations.” Dave Williams of Wern Farms added: “And, we fed them all three square meals a day and provided housing."

Barn workers at Wern Farms in the 40’s.

Certified milk

One of the major income sources for each of the three dairy farms was the production, bottling and delivery of Certified Milk into Milwaukee and Chicago.

Not everyone ‒ actually hardly anyone ‒ will remember Certified Milk. It was a product of the era before pasteurization became the norm in milk processing. Strict rules and regulations were just being installed into milk processing as science and dairy leaders were making great leaps forward. Consumers were wary of the newfangled pasteurization process. “It was unnatural,” many proclaimed. “We don’t want scientific milk,” others said.

They provided it  

So the three Waukesha county farms served their customers by providing unpasteurized, Certified milk. A 1950’s sales brochure from Keystone Certified Dairy explains: “Certified milk is the highest grade of milk, the only grade produced under the direction of the medical profession. Certified Raw Milk is nature’s most perfect food in its natural, most wholesome state. It offers these outstanding advantages: rigid health program, constant supervision of cows and medical supervision of employees.”

Brook Hill was using milking machines already in the 1920's.

In 1971 when both dairy herds were sold, Bob Rowlands owner Keystone Farm and Dave Williams manager of Wern Farms (owned by the Williams family) remember the days of Certified milk very well. “We had inspectors from Milwaukee and Chicago,” Williams said. “The Chicago inspectors always came in big, black limousines and wore suits and black patent leather shoes.”

“The rules and regulations were unbelievable,” Rowlands added. “Our milkers wore white uniforms and hats and had to take monthly physicals including throat cultures.” Willams noted that everyone on Wern Farms had to take the physicals. “Because we all worked with the cows or with the feed or somehow had contact with the cattle,” Willams said.

Certified Milk from Keystone.

Only the best

In the early days ‒ Keystone began producing Certified milk in 1916 ‒ the inspectors brought their own doctors. Later local doctors were used. Because of the susceptibility of cattle to Bangs disease (undulant fever in humans) and TB, the dairy herds had to be free of these diseases.

“We each had our own laboratories on the farm,” Williams continued. “Our dairy processing plants were very modern and we were very careful to produce only the best of milk that was delivered to consumers homes.”

Each of the big dairies also had their own areas of specialization: Keystone delivered milk to retail outlets, added ice cream and later a farm store; Wern Farms was bottling 250,000 pounds of milk a day with most of it delivered to the customers' front door; Brook Hill ‒ the biggest herd with 900 cows ‒ was a big wholesaler into Chicago and produced specialty milk for babies.

It’s been decades since Brook Hill was milking 900 cows.


The faded “Brook Hill” name spelled out in the barn roof shingles of the old place, can still be seen (barely) from the highway. The farming complex is still there but has long been turned into other uses.

Keystone Farm is still pretty much intact. Two of the three big dairy barns remain as well as the farm home, dormitory and bottling plant (now used to bottle water and juice).

Remains of the two-story Wern Farms dairy after the fire.

Wern Farms, which at one time encompassed over a 1000 acres is now mostly houses and other development. However, the world-famed three story dairy barn that suffered damage in a fire some years ago still stands. And across the road, the old barn that once housed 200 cows continues its decay.

Yes, I can almost see the ghosts in those old dairy barns. Although although Greene, Rowland and Williams have all passed on, maybe I'll go back and see if I can catch up with some of those ghosts.

John F. Oncken can be reached at