Our farm was a typical Wisconsin dairy farm of the 1920’s. At that time each community boasted a small creamery that took in cream from the farmers and processed it into butter.

At the farm the cream was cooled and kept in well water or spring water until delivered once or twice a week to the creamery. If the cream soured in that time it was of little consequence because it would still make good butter. The farmers income depended on the price of butter and the production from his cows. Cattle breeders tried for breeds that produced the most butterfat for food consumed. For this reason, Jerseys and Guernseys were the most popular breeds.

Today’s emphasis on less fat has replaced most of the Jerseys and Guernseys with Holsteins, the milk cow that produces a product with a lower fat content. When Holsteins first started to appear in cow yards in our area the owner would be teased. “See you got a Holstein for milk to rinse the separator”.

Our family was fortunate in finding a more lucrative market for the cream from our Guernseys. We sold cream to restaurants in La Crosse and to dairies that delivered sweet cream to homes in the city. For such a market we had to produce a grade A product. A health inspector came unannounced at milking time to check on cleanliness.

Also, we needed a cooling system that required a good supply of ice. Each winter after a sustained period of freezing temperatures, the back waters of the Mississippi around Goose Island were covered with a thick layer of ice. That is when Dad gathered a crew to help him “make ice”. With a team hitched to a sled they headed for the ice with an ice saw and ice tongs. They sawed the layer of ice, hopefully 18-20 inches thick, into blocks. With the tongs they would lift the blocks out of the water and lift them onto the sled. It was a dangerous job. They knew their chances were limited if they fell into the freezing water. With the horses pulling the heavy load of ice, the five mile trip home was long and cold. The driver often walked beside the sled to keep himself from freezing. Dad wrapped himself in a full length coon skin coat and a fur hat for the chilling trip down and back.

At home the ice was packed in saw dust in the ice house. The ice house was built partially underground and shaded in the summer by two massive maple trees. The ice, well packed and protected from the summer sun, lasted through the year.

Another small room, also partially underground, held a water tank. Chunks of ice were floated in the tank to keep the cans of cream cold and fresh until delivered to the buyers. The family drinking milk was cooled there too. A gallon syrup pail with a tight cover was filled with warm milk after milking time and hung from a hook in the tank. Before every meal someone had to make the trip to the ice house to get the milk. Most often that was my job. When the ice ran low in the tank Dad would dig another block out of the sawdust, wash it off, and add it to the tank.

If the winter were exceptionally cold the ice on the creek would get thick enough for cutting. Having ice so close at hand was a real bonus, reducing the time and energy needed to put away the years supply. Making Ice was an annual chore until after 1940, when REA brought electricity to rural areas.

Next time – Planting Corn

Bernice Hellwig has been a lifetime resident of the Coon Valley area. Growing up at her parent’s farm in Chipmunk Coulee, Bernice developed a love of learning. Over the years Bernice has written the story of their lives. It is an account of cherished memories of farming, teaching and family. In her own words, this is her story.


Westby Times editor

Dorothy Robson is editor of the Westby Times. Contact her at 608-637-5625.

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