Nancy Cow and the Secrets of the Locust Grove Dairy


Nancy the Cow, the Official Sponsor of the Locust Grove Dairy

Hello delightful people! As I mentioned recently, the dairy is up and running! And by up and running, I mean that it is now furnished as an 18th century dairy should be. Huzzah! Today, I thought we’d take a look at  how the dairy functioned as part of the farm operations during the Croghan residence at Locust Grove, as well as some of the “stuff” that’s now on display. 102_4866 The dairy is generally referred to as an outbuilding, but could also be called a dependency, or a building designed to be separate from the main house while also serving the needs of the family. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the production of dairy products like cheese and butter was relatively low in the South, so the fact that the Croghans had a dairy signifies the wealth of their farm.  The sale of cheese and butter served an economic purpose with the surplus product sold to supplement household funds, recoup funds spend to invest in cattle,  and purchase other commodities. Therefore, having a dairy meant that the family would not only be able to enjoy delicious cheeses and butter but also benefit from the extra income. While dairying was a time consuming process, the household dairy industry itself was also somewhat flexible and could fit the existing schedule of household tasks without overshadowing the other demands on a woman’s time.

The dairy  at Locust Grove is near the well, which is handy for cleaning.

The dairy at Locust Grove is near the well, which is handy for cleaning.

The most important thing to keep in mind in dairy maintenance was cleanliness. Dairies would usually be found near wells and spring houses, because water was needed for cleaning purposes. Because of the nature of work in the dairy, it was necessary to create a sterile environment for cheese and butter.The dairy was thoroughly cleaned at the beginning of spring, when cheese-making would generally begin, and then be cleaned out again in the fall. Charles Millington, the author of The Housekeeper’s Domestic Library; or New Universal Family Instructor, writes about cleaning dairy utensils and equipment: “‘They should be well-washed every day in warm water, and afterwards rinced in cold, and must be entirely cool before they are used. If, however, any kind of metal vessels are improperly retained in the dairy, they must be scalded every day, and well-scrubbed and scoured.’”Milk pans could be covered with cheesecloth to prevent bugs and dirt from dropping into the milk. Mr. Millington may know a lot about cleaning a dairy, but dairying was primarily woman’s work. In fact, the word “dairy” descends from the Middle English word “deierie”, meaning a place of female work. Due to sanitary concerns, milk was usually stored separately from wherever milking occurred. At the time when the Croghans were settling in Kentucky, milk would have been taken from the barns after milking to the springhouse or dairy to cool. Milk buckets are wider on the bottom so it’s harder to overturn them.


Mrs. O’Leary’s cow may be a myth, but let’s take precaution to prevent spilled milk just the same!

John Croghan’s 1849 probate inventory lists 12 cows, all of which would generally be milked twice a day. That’s a lot of milk, so dairy production, particularly in the summer, was likely very high. Because of the size of the Croghan family, as well as the size of their slave population, the dairy at Locust Grove probably was an operation on the medium size, producing cheese and butter for approximately 50 people plus any guests. Just as milk these days  has to be pasteurized and homogenized and a bunch of other things before it makes its way to our cereal bowls, milk in the 18th and 19th centuries had to be processed before it was used. And that’s where this beautiful pancheon comes in. 102_4853   Pancheons, or setting dishes, were used to cool milk and set cream. The steps for processing milk looked something like this:

  1. Milk cows!
  2. Strain the fresh milk in order to remove chunks and detritus like hairs and insects.
  3. Pour into milk pans—leave for cream to rise, about 12-24 hours.
  4. Skim off the cream and store milk in salt-glaze or earthenware pots.
  5. Use milk for butter, drinking or cooking!

If you’ve ever read Little House on the Prairie, you probably recognize this contraption. 102_4862 That’s right, the good, old-fashioned butter churn. Butter would  be made from cream in a plunge churn like the ones found in the Locust Grove dairy. Churning took place in the early morning or evening. Butter would be rinsed with water and worked by hand or with butter paddles until all of the water, or buttermilk, was removed from the butter. finally, butter was salted for preservation and could last for two to three months when stored in the springhouse.

The Locust Grove springhouse

The Locust Grove springhouse

The rest of the milk would be used in cooking or in making the best food of all time: cheese! Cheese comes in all sorts of scrumptious varieties, but can basically be broken into the categories of soft, hard, aged, and fresh semi-soft. Soft cheeses are made and eaten in shorter amounts of time than hard cheeses, but the initial process remains the same:

  1. Rennet (from the lining of a calf’s stomach) added to milk. Let stand for twelve hours.
  2. Cut into squares with knife or cheese knife. Whey leaks out through the cut lines. Cubes put through cheese press or whey strainer get rid of extra water–the whey.
  3. The curds are then put into cheese cloth and hung over a bucket from a tree, clothesline or cheese ladder to set.
  4. To make hard cheese, put the curds into a cheese hoop and press, turn and age for several months.

We have a whey strainer, but no cheese hoops or cheese press yet! (Dear Santa, the dairy has been very good this year…) 102_4851 All the various crocks and casks around the dairy would have been used to store butter and milk over time in either the dairy or the springhouse. 102_4858 I like to think that Lucy Croghan and the dairy staff at Locust Grove would be very pleased at how the dairy has turned out! In the future, we’ll talk more about cheesemaking, but for now, let’s just admire all the work that our Croghan predecessors put into their farm!

Cheesily yours,


(How do you get a mouse to smile? Say cheese!)

P.S. For more information on colonial dairy practices, look no further than these great sources!

Michael Olmert, Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies: Outbuildings and the Architecture of Daily Life in the Eighteenth Century Mid-Atlantic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Michael Olmert, “Cool, Calm, and Clean.” CW Journal, Winter 2005-2006.

Sandra Louise Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Rachel Kennedy and William Macintire, “Agricultural and Domestic Outbuildings in Central and Western Kentucky, 1800-1865.” The Kentucky Heritage Council, 1999.

Monticello, “Dairying at Monticello.”

A blog post detailing a cheese making workshop at Old Sturbridge Village led by foodways interpreter Ryan Beckman provides a complete outline of 19th century cheese making practices and can be found here.

One thought on “Nancy Cow and the Secrets of the Locust Grove Dairy

  1. Pingback: A Dairy-ing We Will Go | Locust Grove Louisville

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.