It has been a while since I have written a history piece, much to my chagrin, but the current goings on in the industry have necessitated I write about other things. Today’s column will reintroduce some dairy history in a recount of what has been termed by some as the “Butter Train.”

Most Butter Train history is regional, and not much is found for Pennsylvania. However, I think it will be interesting to many of my readers.

Prior to 1850, farmers and others wishing to move their products to market used horseback, wagon, stagecoach or walking. All of these means of transportation could take days, which could result in spoilage, especially for unrefrigerated raw milk.

Thoughts began to emerge that a railroad route could link the New York lake region’s dairy farmers with markets in Vermont and Massachusetts, particularly Boston. Political snags, however, delayed any construction of bridges crossing Lake Champlain into Vermont. Vermont was fine with the bridge project, but New York State was not.

A compromise was reached so that an area of the lake was guaranteed to be clear for barge and ship navigation.

A gentleman named James Wilder became the first to recognize the importance of having refrigerated transport and is widely credited with inventing the refrigerated rail car. Designated boxcars would be lined so that ice could be poured through a hatch in the roof into the gap between the inner and outer walls of the car.

According to “Rails Into Raquetteville” by Norwood historian Susan Lyman, “The first refrigerator car in the world carried eight tons of fresh butter from northern New York farms to the Boston market and netted the producers an extra $900 over what they had customarily received.” Author Jim Shaughnessy, in his book “The Rutland Road,” documented the construction of 50 of these specialized railroad cars.

One interesting side note to this whole story is that the Butter Train is credited with devastating the East India spice trade in Boston because, prior to the train, spices were used to make rancid butter taste better. Yummy!

Refrigerated railroad cars became more sophisticated over time, but the majority of butter transport gave way to hauling by truck. Butter is also transported internationally by ship.

Butter in Pennsylvania

To direct some attention to the commonwealth, did you know that Pennsylvania is the second largest producer of butter in the U.S.? It’s a fact, and one we can be proud of because quality milk makes quality butter.

In addition to the large Land O’Lakes plant in Carlisle, Penn State Extension lists 17 other creameries that manufacture butter for sale. I know that several of these companies market their butter at my local farmers market. I also know first-hand that the butter is delicious.

Last fall, Americans were projected to purchase 161 million pounds of butter for the combined Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season. I say we should try to top that figure this year and, especially here in Pennsylvania, increase the demand for our locally and farm-produced butter products.

I’m in!

And to those naysayers who believe butter is not a good ingredient for chocolate chip cookies, I would say that you haven’t tasted my recipe. Note: I won’t even mention the Swedish butter balls.

Transportation of dairy products has come a long way, to be sure, and there will always be a transcontinental market for some products. Knowing that much of the butter you will find in your grocery store is probably produced here in Pennsylvania, as well as trying some of the butter offered at your local small markets, should remind you that your butter is probably quite fresh. We know it will be delicious.

PMMB supports all facets of the dairy industry and is proud of Pennsylvania’s ranking as second in the U.S. in butter production. We know that a good supply of fresh quality milk from our many dairy farms will help us keep this ranking. Who knows, we might end up being No. 1 some day.

We are always available to respond to questions and concerns. I can be reached at 717-210-8244 or by email at chardbarge@pa.gov.

Carol Hardbarger is the secretary of the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board.


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