A Catskill Catalog: Nov. 11, 2009

Pasteurized milk got its commercial start in America right here in the Catskills.
When I was a kid, milk was always on the table. I learned to read two of my first big words from the milk carton (or were they on a bottle?) - homogenized and pasteurized. Homogenized milk has been forced at high pressure through a screen to break down fat globules, blending that fat throughout the liquid. Without homogenization, cream rises to the top of any milk container, riding on skim milk below.
Pasteurization is a process of heating and cooling to kill bacteria. The process was developed by French scientist Louis Pasteur in 1864. Its original purpose was to prevent the souring of wine (he was French!), but in 1886, a German agricultural chemist suggested the process be used to increase the safety and shelf life of milk.
We take for granted our need to protect ourselves from germs and viruses, but the germ theory of disease was cutting-edge science in the late 19th century. In 1882, German physician Robert Koch isolated the bacterium that caused tuberculosis, a great breakthrough in proving that germs cause disease.
One out of every seven deaths in the 1800s was from tuberculosis, often called consumption at the time, because the disease seemed to consume its sufferers from within, a slow steady wasting away, marked by fever, pale skin, swollen red eyes, and a bloody cough. The discovery of the germ, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, led to a series of steps designed to protect the public health by preventing the spread of germs.
That’s where pasteurized milk comes in. Dr. Koch himself was slow to see the link between Bovine tuberculosis and the human strain, but others suspected that infected milk was one source of the spread of the disease. Milk was an important source of childhood nutrition for the urban poor, and the urban poor were particularly victimized by tuberculosis.
And victimized by tainted milk as well. Beginning in the middle 1800s, distilleries sold the grain mash left over from their liquor-making process as cattle feed. They even rented out feeding stalls to city cattle owners who could feed the swill to their cows right at the distillery, making milk a kind of whiskey by-product. The high-calorie swill led to high production, low-quality, off-color milk, sometimes whitened with chalk, plaster, starch, or eggs. It was bad stuff.
A pure-milk movement arose in response to this swill milk, which was finally outlawed in 1875. Farm-fresh milk became a prized commodity. Just a few sanitary steps on the farm dramatically improved the quality and safety of milk, and physician-inspected farms produced certified milk. Clean modern country creameries were established to insure the safe handling of the product. The next logical step was pasteurization.
The Sheffield Farms Company began on a family farm in Mahwah, New Jersey. L.B. Halsey, a lawyer by trade, had married the farmer’s daughter. In response to the pure milk movement, he began to implement herd and handling improvements that improved the quality and purity of his milk. He found a ready market for his product. Leaving the law, he expended his business.
Sheffield Farms opened its first rural creamery – a processing plant rather than a farm-based operation - in Delaware County’s Hobart. In 1892, they opened America’s first commercial pasteurization plant down the road in Bloomville.
The Bloomville creamery pasteurized milk by heating it rapidly to 185 degrees. The milk was heated by contact with steam-filled coils. Just 20 seconds is enough to kill most bacteria without significantly affecting flavor. Sheffield Farms purchased that first pasteurization equipment in Germany for $700. The investment paid off. The company grew.
By the early years of the 20th century, Sheffield Farms had modern sanitary creamery facilities in Roxbury, Halcottsville, South Kortright, Grand Gorge and 20 or 30 other mountain towns. And they weren’t the only ones. Dozens of entrepreneurs and companies established creameries along the railroad line, shipping milk south from the Catskills on daily milk trains. Farmers would bring their milk to the creameries in 40-quart milk cans. Farm-fresh, creamery-processed, pasteurized milk was much in demand. Public health depended on it.
Shirley Davis, Town of Middletown Historian, creates an ever-changing museum of displays about her town’s history at the Route 28 town hall. Her current exhibit is on the 16 or so creameries that were in the area, the last closing in the early ’60s. Refrigerated, stainless steel bulk tanks on the farm, and refrigerated milk trucks for safe shipping, rendered the creameries obsolete.
But for 50 or 60 years at the start of the last century, sanitary creamery plants were instrumental in the movement for pure food and protection of public health. The Catskills were an important part of that story.
© William Birns