Were Dairy Farms Ever A Texas Thing?

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for June 17, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

          Cow’s milk was a really important commodity in the 1940’s in the small Lee County town where I grew up, and elsewhere in Texas. My parents owned two milk cows which provided us with enough fresh milk, cream, clabber, cottage cheese, kochkase, butter, and buttermilk, — plus homemade ice cream, – that we could give or sell the leftover milk and butter to those who were dairy cow-less.

          Texas has always been famous for its ranches, cowboys, beef cattle, and horses, but there’s another “cow-side” to the State, too. In Central Texas and in East Texas, back in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there were an amazing number of small and large dairy farms as well as farmers who had a couple milk cows. Those farmers, who sold milk, raised mostly Jerseys and Holsteins, and were very prosperous. Large ranches with herds of beef cattle were common all over Texas, but not where I grew up, though some farmers nailed the word “Ranch” on the gate to their farm.

          Both sets of my grandparents were cotton farmers in Dime Box, and an aunt and uncle were dairy farmers near Austin in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Cotton farmers kept a few milk cows, whereas dairy farmers had a whole herd.

          Dean Foods, originally based in Texas, was one of the largest dairy producers in the United States, and there were many successful small dairies in Texas. Eventually, competition from plant milks (rice milk, almond milk, etc.) and other factors forced many dairies out of business and caused Dean Foods to sell the Company to the Dairy Farmers of America. Although I grew up in dairy cow territory, I always thought of Texas as chaps and spurs and cowboys rather than milk buckets and electric milking machines. Both were important in making our State prosperous.

          My interest in everything Texas led me to read about dairy farming in the Lone Star State in numerous publications, from the Washington Post Business Bureau to Texas Farm Bureau publications and Modern Farmer.

          One of the things I learned, which greatly surprised me, was the reign of Hopkins County in the 1950’s as the “Dairy Capital of Texas.” Sulfur Springs started it all in 1937 when they established a milk processing plant in their community. Hopkins County remained the Dairy Capital of Texas until 1990! Even though the dairy business has continued to decline in recent years, there are still approximately 500,000 dairy cows in Texas.

          Living with my parents way back in the good old days, I don’t remember seeing many dairy farms, except for my aunt/uncle’s small dairy near Austin, but almost everybody owned a couple milk cows, and maybe a heifer or a steer or two to butcher for the “Beef Club” they belonged to. Sharing slabs of beef, cut up for them by a butcher, club members received regular distributions. Most Beef Clubs came to an end in 1949.

          In the 1940’s, folks believed you had to have “dairy” in your diet, that is, if you wanted to be a healthy person. Children were urged to drink their milk, and our rural school cafeteria served cold milk every day; by donating milk to the cafeteria, parents could earn lunchroom meal tickets for their kids. Nobody questioned the health benefits of milk, and we poured it in our cereal every morning for breakfast. Some of us loved and drank buttermilk and clabber every day; in fact, I am still an avid consumer of buttermilk, though, because of unavailability, I’ve drifted away from clabber.

          Not being a nutritionist, I don’t understand the shift away from dairy products to non-dairy substitutes, but that seems to be the universal trend today. According to the National Farmers Union, over 94,000 family-owned and run dairy farms in the United States shut down from 1992 to 2018, and it looks like the trend is continuing. If milk production ends completely, then I’ll have to buy me a cow like Mama’s Daisy and hope the neighbors don’t mind its presence in the back yard.

          Daisy was a calm, gentle cow, who liked everybody, even kids; so just about anybody could milk her. But only Mama could milk Bossy; she’d kick anyone else who even tried to touch her. Maybe I will get me a gentle cow. After all, dairy cows used to be a Texas thing!


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.

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