Historical Markers
Crawford County Historical Marker
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Crawford County

Lake Erie Region


Marker Location:
County Courthouse, 903 Diamond Park, Meadville

Dedication Date:
May 12, 1982

Behind the Marker

Woodcut of woman in Progress of the Dairy (1819) Image of a woman at a churn.
Woodcut of woman in Progress of the Dairy.
When the federal census taker visited Calvin and Caroline Gates's 150-acre farm in Summerhill Township, Crawford County, the Gates reported that they kept 20 cows, harvested 100 bushels of corn and 30 tons of hay, and made 700 pounds of butter on seventy-five cleared acres. Their biggest product, though, was cheese. In 1850, the year of the census taker's visit, the Gates family, which included seven children between the ages of one and sixteen and a twenty-four-year-old hired woman named Jane De Wolf, made 4,000 pounds of it - two tons!

The Gates family farmed in what nineteenth-century geographers called the "Dairy Zone, or cheese and butter district," an area that lay within the "north lines of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, embracing the northern borders of the Mohawk Valley, and stretched from Lake Erie in to New England." Crawford County, with its glaciated soils and well watered, rolling topography, was well suited to dairying. Its settlers probably came by their dairying skills from their roots in New England, New York, and even Ireland. By 1860, Crawford County families were churning out 1.8 million pounds of butter per year - over 400 pounds per farm–and more than 300,000 pounds of cheese.

Butter and cheesemaking involved a great deal of physical labor that was performed by highly skilled women and teenaged girls. After placing the milk in pans and letting the cream rise, dairywomen skimmed the cream, churned it, "worked" it, salted it, and packed it.
Fegley photo of women making butter.
Fegley photo of women making butter
Cheesemaking was even more arduous, for it involved complex chemical processes and strenuous physical labor. The "cheesemaking sisterhood," followed intricate procedures that involved curdling milk with rennet from a calf's stomach, heating and cutting the curd, draining the whey, and pressing the cheese.

Men and women worked closely together; they collaborated when buying dairy animals, negotiated over what to feed them, and together mowed and housed Crawford County's main crop - hay. Grown to feed cows and other livestock, hay was one of Pennsylvania's biggest crops.

The Gates also dug a huge potato crop, a good bit of which they probably fed to the cows. All this work they performed on top of the usual farm round of poultry raising, vegetable gardening, food processing, maple sugar making, and so on.
Oxford Abbot's Dairy, 1914 Farmers bringing milk, the beginning of Grade A milk.
Oxford Abbot's Dairy, 1914 Farmers bringing milk, the beginning of Grade "A"...

The butter produced in Pennsylvania found a ready market via rail and canal. An inexpensive form of protein, cheese from the northern states fetched good prices in the American South, where it frequently was consumed by slaves. Many an antebellum farm family obtained a comfortable "competency" by following these production strategies.

During the Civil War, dairying families' lives abruptly changed, and most acutely for the cheesemakers. As the military drew a great deal of manpower from the agricultural regions, rural women took over their menfolk's work or entered jobs in teaching and other fields that were opening to women. Prices were booming and new markets were opening abroad, especially in Britain at the same time that Pennsylvania dairying farms had neither the time or expertise to make cheese. So the war-time labor shortages gave birth to the crossroads cheese factory.

By 1875, Crawford County had sixty-five cheese factories that produced 6.3 million pounds, by far the state's largest output. These "factories" used much the same techniques as those practiced in farm cheesemaking, except that they took milk deliveries from several dozen individual farms - 250 to 600 cows - then pooled the milk and made cheese in large vats, heated by steam power. Two or three factory workers - usually men - oversaw production.

Soon, virtually all American cheese was made this way. Women thus disappeared from cheesemaking. They were, however, far from idle. On the farm, women continued to milk cows, churn butter, harvest hay, process food, and perform dozens of other tasks to sustain the family. marker Rural women also took the lead in developing numerous institutions that held the nineteenth-century community together, including the Grange, the church, and many local social and benevolent organizations.
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