Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Owatonna exhibit celebrates Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World October 8, 2013

MILK COURSES through my veins, for I am the daughter of a dairy farmer.

Inside the Wegners' barn, where dairy products come from.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Ron and Diane Wegner’s rural Faribault dairy barn.

Growing up, I labored in the barn beside my dad and siblings—feeding cows, bedding straw, lugging pails of milk to the bulk tank, washing milking machines, scraping manure and more.

I smelled of cow, watched bovines’ tails flick flies and rise to release streams of splashing hot pee into barn gutters.

Sandpaper rough tongues sometimes grated across my skin. Cold, wet noses dampened the sleeves of my chore coat.

I carried gallons of frothy fresh milk to the house for pasteurization and consumption.

The Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition is a part of Minnesota culture. The Steele County exhibit features  photos of past county dairy royalty, including 1978 princess Kari Schroht, left, and 1976 princess Kathy Zeman, right. Earlier carved butter heads from past princesses were displayed in borrowed glass door freezers at the history center.

The Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition is a part of Minnesota culture. A current exhibit at the Steele County History Center features photos of past county dairy royalty, including 1978 princess Kari Schroht, left, and 1976 princess Kathy Zeman, right. Earlier this year, carved butter heads from recent past princesses were displayed in borrowed glass door freezers at the history center.

I knew cows and milk and once competed for Redwood County, Minnesota, dairy princess, a title I coveted but could not win because I lacked the poise and confidence and beauty to represent the industry.

A banner welcomes visitors to the Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna.

A banner welcomes visitors to the Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna.

These memories flit through my mind as I consider a recent visit to the Steele County History Center in Owatonna to tour the featured exhibit, Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World.

The exhibit is interesting and educational.

The exhibit is interesting and educational.

It’s a must-see exhibit which will trigger memories for those who grew up on dairy farms and educate those who didn’t. And, even with my dairying background, I learned a lot about the history of dairy farming in Steele County.

A vintage sign promoting butter in Minnesota.

A vintage sign promoting butter in Minnesota.

For example, Steele County gained its world-wide Butter Capitol reputation after Owatonna Manufacturing Company invented the mechanized butter churn in 1893, revolutionizing the dairy industry.

But two decades prior, in 1873, the county was well on its way to establishing a strong dairy reputation with four local cheese factories producing 150,000 pounds of cheese, more than any other Minnesota county.

Information and artifacts from the days of bottled milk delivery.

Information and artifacts from the days of bottled milk delivery.

At one point, Steele County boasted two dozen-plus creameries.

Coveted butter

Hope Creamery, south of Owatonna, still produces coveted, award-winning Grade A butter in small batches. Butter boxes from Steele County creameries are displayed behind glass in the exhibit.

In December 1926, thieves stole 19 tubs of butter valued at $700 from the Steele Center Creamery.

Two Steele County women, Mina Holmes and Marianne McRostie, won numerous national awards for their hand-churned butter.

Photos of some spectacular Steele County barns are showcased.

Images of some spectacular Steele County barns are showcased.

Yes, so many accomplishments led to this southern Minnesota county holding the title of Butter Capitol of the World from 1898 – 1940, says Jerry Ganfield, who along with a committee of four women involved in the dairy industry, created this remarkable exhibit. Ganfield, holds a background in communications and marketing, grew up in Iowa and worked one summer during college as a milkhouse operator. Today he lives in a barn turned house near Bixsby and volunteers with the Steele County Historical Society, serving on its board of directors.

A portion of the expansive exhibit on Steele County's dairy industry.

A portion of the expansive exhibit on Steele County’s dairy industry.

Work on the Butter Capitol exhibit began in January with the historic display debuting in mid-July. It runs through November 10. Eventually, many of the items will be returned to the farm machinery building in the Village of Yesteryear (next to the Steele County History Center) where most were previously displayed.

Visitors can get down low and check out the udder on the model cow in the photo above.

Visitors can get down low and check out the udder on a model cow.

Perhaps I am a bit biased being a dairy farmer’s daughter and all. But this exhibit is one of the most impressive, thorough, detailed and interesting I’ve seen in a county history center.

Just another view of a portion of the exhibit.

Just another view of a portion of the exhibit.

Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World is well worth a drive to Owatonna to peruse.  Just give yourself two hours, minimum, to tour the display.

#

BONUS PHOTOS:

Vintage signs are abundant in the exhibit.

Vintage signs are abundant in the exhibit.

This tin toy barn, right, caught my eye. I've never seen one prior to this. The exhibit also features an incredible handcrafted replica of a barn.

This tin toy barn, right, caught my eye. The exhibit also features a handcrafted replica of a barn.

A familiar site to me, a cow in a stantion.

A familiar site to me, a cow in a stantion.

Also familiar, those Surger milkers in the background display.

Also familiar, those Surger milkers in this display. My dad used these before he installed a pipeline.

Indian Maid Feeds memorabilia is displayed in glass cases along with an impressive collection of butter molds and other items.

Indian Maid Feeds memorabilia is displayed in glass cases along with an impressive collection of butter molds and other items. Indian Maid Feeds was sold from the late 1950s – 1984 by Owatonna Elevator Company. The brand pictured an Indian maiden to recall the legend of Princess Owatonna, whose health was restored by drinking the mineral spring waters of the area. The exhibit also features a large wooden logo of the princess that once rested atop the elevator. You’ll need to visit the exhibit to see that vintage art.

FYI: To learn more about the Steele County History Center/Historical Society, housed in a fabulous new building opened in April 2012, click here.

The Steele County History Center encourages kids to join its Time Travelers Club and History Detectives. The detectives meet at 10:15 a.m. and the travelers at 6:30 p.m. the first Thursday of each month at the History Center, 1700 Austin Road, Owatonna.

Click here to read a Minnesota Public Radio story about Hope Creamery.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling