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Making butter back in the day
Paddle Churn
Above left is a paddle churn used to make butter. - photo by Photo provided

Many years ago the only way butter could be obtained was to make it. This required a cow to milk and physical effort in the churning. Butter was not available in stores and in days before refrigeration had a very short shelf life.

Butter could be made simply in a glass jar with tight fitting lid that was shaken or with a variety of commercially produced churns.

The plunge churn had a stick called a “dasher” which was moved up and down by hand in an upright container made of pottery or wood.  Some called this an “up and down churn,” churning tub, plunger churn, knocker churn or other names.  The glass churn known as a “Dazey” or brand name had a mechanical mechanism that sat on top of the churn that turned paddles located in the lower part of the jar. Not pictured in this article, there was a barrel churn that was turned by a handle or crank turning paddles inside the barrel that lay on its side. Some churns of this type were boxy looking and may have been called a Norman Churn.

After the cow was milked the warm milk was placed in large flat enameled pans and left for the cream to rise to the top.  It was set in the pie safe so that the flies could not get in it. The cream was skimmed and the remaining milk solidified in the pans and was referred to as “clabber.” Clabber was much like cottage cheese is today and after standing in a curd mold with holes for moisture to escape, was rinsed and eaten by people or their animals.  Some folks liked bread with clabber and syrup. (Once refrigeration was available fresh milk could be put in pans in the refrigerator to cool for 12 to 24 hours and then the cream skimmed. The cream had to be brought back to room temperature before it was placed in the churn in order to make butter.)

Room temperature cream took about 30 minutes or a little more to produce butter. When the cranking of the churn got difficult, the butter was ready. In a jar it solidified after it had been constantly shaken and you could see that it was ready. The slightly yellow butter was then surrounded by watery buttermilk. The butter we now purchase has coloring added to produce a more yellow butter.

The buttermilk was poured off and could be drunk, used in cooking or fed to the chickens or hogs. That buttermilk was not the same as our cultured thick buttermilk and was not as tasty as our modern product. Once the butter was solidified into clumps it was placed in a butter bowl or placed in a butter press (or mold) taking shape by mashing it using a small paddle.

Cold water run over it helped it solidify as the clumps from the paddles are pressed into the container. You had to work the butter with the paddle to get out as much water as possible while getting it into the bowl, mold or press and salt could be added to taste. It could be placed in a refrigerator in a container in later days but early on it was kept in the pie safe or could be stored in a bucket in the well or spring where it stayed cool. Some butter savers made of pottery stored the butter upside down in the lid with water in the bottom of the container and it would keep for a few weeks like this, always soft enough to spread.  These butter bells or containers are again on the market for today’s homemaker.

Butter was a great treat served on piping hot biscuits or bread. It was also the foundation for cake batter which was mixed by hand. We sure have it made today when we purchase butter at the store.

This was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society. If you have photos, comments or information to share, contact Susan Exley at 754-6681 or email her at: