From Hand Churn to Creamery

"Come butter come, 
Come butter come, 
Peter standing at the gate 
Waiting for a butter cake
Come butter come"
Traditional Chant

"Come butter come," the pioneer woman would chant in a low voice as she pumped the dasher stick up and down in the wooden churn. "Peter standing at the gate..." Inside the churn, butter is gathering, thick and lumpy, to the top of the white splashing cream. "Waiting for a butter cake..." If she stops to rest her aching muscles, the butter may be ruined. She must keep the motion of her arm constant for thirty to forty minutes. "Come butter come." Then, if all has gone right, the butter will be lifted out on the dasher, drained, shaped into short, fat rolls and wrapped in cotton fabric for storing.

Butter for Sale

For pioneers in Iowa as elsewhere, homemade butter was a good trade item. Even a couple of milk cows produced more butter than the family could use. The extra pounds could be traded at the general store for sugar or coffee. What butter the storekeeper couldn't sell to townspeople was handed over to a butter packer who shipped it to larger cities.

When butter arrived at the packer's, it was already several days old. The packer reworked (mixed together) all the butter he received and repacked it in wooden tubs weighing 10 to 60 pounds. These tubs traveled, without refrigeration, by wagon and boat to eastern cities.

It was little wonder that buyers in New York complained Iowa butter had a "wild" flavor and was of poor quality! Even when the butter began to arrive in refrigerated railroad cars in 1868, prejudiced Easterners still turned up their noses.

New Ideas for Preserving Butter

In 1872 John Stewart, a successful butter buyer, brought his knowledge of the business to Iowa. He built a creamery in Manchester and set out to make it as good as any in the East. Matthew Van Dusen, the butter maker John hired, had studied the methods used in the best creameries. He had farmers deliver fresh milk to the creamery doors. He was careful to keep the milk cool so it didn't sour, ruining the taste of the butter. Mathew used the long-used method of pouring the milk into round shallow pans to allow the cream to rise. Then the thick cream was skimmed off and poured into horse-powered churns, which could produce 100 pounds of butter daily. John sold the leftover milk to farmers, who fed it to their calves and pigs.

Only four years later, John Stewart's Iowa butter took a gold medal in competition at the world famous Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. People in New York and Chicago were convinced that western butter was of "gold medal quality." Soon creameries like John Stewart's appeared all over Iowa.

In 1882 the first mechanical cream separator was brought to Iowa. This invention replaced the slow method of letting milk sit until the cream rose to the top. This new machine spun the milk at a high speed. Doing this quickly seperated the milk and allowed larger amounts of milk to be separated. Iowa farmers increased their herds of milk cows, confident that the creameries would buy as much as they produced. Butter took an important place in Iowa's manufacturing.

By 1879 Iowa creameries, along with Minnesota and Wisconsin creameries, were shipping tons of creamery butter by refrigerated railroad cars to the East, where it stocked the ice boxes of city families.

Henry Wallace, an Iowan who spoke to and for the farmers of the state, said in a speech made in 1880:

...(T)he bondage of the wife to the churn must be broken. Hence the unusual favor with which the creamery has met in the State, wherever railroads have rendered creameries possible. The creamery takes away half the drudgery of the farmer's wife. What this drudgery has been let the women of Iowa tell. But whilst it removes the drudgery it retains... the monthly income—not in store accounts but in creamery checks—good as gold.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “From Hand Churn to Creamery,” The Goldfinch 2, no. 2 (November 1980): 14-15.


Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.