Butter not miss this one, an early Wilmington enterprise

Sandy Vasko

    Today we talk about one of my favorite vices. No, not that one - it's a food vice - butter.
    It must run in the family because my great-grandmother, Katerina, won a medal for her butter making abilities back in Sweden
    Butter was also important to Wilmingtonians back in the 19th century. Let's take a look.
    I think the first thing I need to explain is how butter was made back in the day. Raw milk was soured, either by putting it into a wooden churn that still had bacteria in it from the last batch, or more usually adding a bit of “starter” from the last batch of sour milk.
    When the milk thickened into a sort of yogurt it was put into a churn and churned until the fat particles clung together as a solid.
    The liquid “buttermilk” was poured off for drinking and cooking purposes, then the butter was pressed and pounded to remove as much liquid as possible. Lastly salt was added to help preserve it.
    The prairie surrounding Wilmington was ideal for raising dairy herds and early settlers knew it. Not only was the milk produced from those cows extra rich in butter fat, but also they produced a greater quantity of it than in other places.
    Soon more butter and milk was produced on the farms than local families could use.  
    One way of preserving milk without refrigeration is to condense it and put it in cans, and that was what the first dairy men did. We read on Nov. 23, 1864 in the Wilmington Independent, “A Milk condensing establishment is about being started here, provided a sufficient quantity of milk can at present be secured to warrant the enterprise. No manufactory could be of more lasting benefit to our farmers than this.
    “Farmers, send in your offers to supply to Rev. Mr. De Wolf, and secure the establishment of a milk depot here. Milk may be sent in any time during the day, and no extra work by way of hurry or early rising is asked.”
    Buyers from the big cities of Chicago and St. Louis also heard about the famous dairy herds in Wilmington. They were looking for butter to ship directly to the markets.
    Wilmington farmers obliged them by churning the butter at home and bringing it into the local buyer. We read on June 19, 1866 in the Joliet Signal, “Forty-five tons of butter - the Wilmington Independent says that 90,000 pounds of butter were shipped from Wilmington for the week ending June the 9th. Our neighboring young city must be a slippery place these days!”
    One problem with this set-up was that the butter from the various suppliers was not all of the same quality or freshness. Sometimes the buyers rejected the butter because too much salt had been added or too little.
    Sometimes the heat turned it rancid before it could be taken into town. The solution was simple, a butter factory must be built that would accept the raw milk and turn out a good even quality of butter.
    Finding men who wanted to invest in such an establishment wasn't easy. It wasn't until 1876 that Edward Allen, the man who brought the canal to Wilmington, found a St. Louis investor.
    We read, “E. Allen, Esq., informs us that Mr. Teasdale, of St. Louis, and himself, will establish a creamery or butter factory in this city during the coming spring.
    “It will be located on Main Street, between Lafayette and River streets, and consume an average amount of 2,500 lbs. of milk daily.”
    The factory was a huge success. We read in the Prairie Farmer a year later, “Wilmington, Illinois boasts of one of the largest creameries in the State, using the milk of 1,200 cows. The product of the factory is all marketed through one house in St. Louis. Mr. E. Allen is the manager at Wilmington.”
    It was so successful that it got farmers to thinking. Mr. Allen was making huge profits on the butter, while all the farmer made was the payment for the milk. How could they make more money?
    The answer was the Wilmington Dairy Association. Shares were sold to local dairy men, the money used to rehab an old building into a butter factory, and profits from the butter were distributed to the share holders.
    In addition, cheese making was added to give the association an edge over Mr. Allen's factory.
    There was more than enough milk to go around however, and both butter factories flourished. Wilmington butter became known throughout the Midwest as the best that could be had.