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Grazing Through the History of Central New Jersey Dairy Farms

By Wendy Greenberg | Lead photo from shutterstock.com

On a recent overcast day, the cows at Cherry Grove Farm on Route 206 in Lawrence Township were lying down in the meadow expecting the rain that eventually came. Cherry Grove, on land owned by the same family since 1902, is one of the few dairy farms in Mercer County and nearby. The farm doesn’t bottle milk, as many local farmers used to, but in 2002 the Hamill family began making farmstead cheese in-house.

Fulper Family Farmstead in Lambertville began in 1909 with one cow. In the 1940s the farmers were milking 20 cows by hand, according to their website, and by the 1950s, 80 cows were milked in a state-of-the-art milking parlor. Today, the fifth generation of Fulpers runs the farm.

But these and a few others in the area, like Hun-Val Dairy Farm in Ringoes, are an exception. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported last year that the U.S. has lost more than half its dairy farms in the past two decades. More farmers are reaching retirement age, while others are consolidating operations with larger farms.

In the 1950s and 60s, New Jersey had more than 500 dairy farms, some delivering fresh milk to homes, in glass bottles in metal boxes on doorsteps. The latest figures show that in New Jersey, 36 dairy farms ship milk commercially, although the full count may be about 50. This is even down from 2017, when a USDA census had 69 dairy farms remaining in New Jersey.

The dairy industry in New Jersey — where the sale of raw milk is prohibited — is adding $22 million to the state’s economy, producing 120 million pounds of milk, according to the most recent USDA census, as reported by the state Department of Agriculture. It also has a storied history, one in which gentlemen farmers raised prized cows on the grounds of mansions, and where families might make a day of visiting the Walker-Gordon Dairy Farm in Plainsboro, entering a visitor’s observation room with colored tile panels depicting the history of bovine agriculture (made by the Mueller Mosaic Company of Trenton) and drinking water from a fountain depicting a cow head.

Above and right: Photographs of Walker-Gordon Farm. (Wicoff House Museum)

Milk from the Farm

That story begins in the 19th century with the poor quality of raw milk — which humans drank for thousands of years. Pasteurization of milk (in which it is treated with mild heat to eliminate pathogens) came about in the late 1800s and early 1900s; by 1910 pasteurization was mandatory in New York City.

But in the mid-1800s in America some raw milk was being produced in highly populated cities, where cows were kept in filthy areas closer to transportation.

According to the Raw Milk Institute, in an article by Sarah Smith, these “city” cows were being fed byproducts from local alcohol distilleries, and raw milk became the source of diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid, diphtheria, and scarlet fever. Swill milk, as it was called, was milk from dairy cows that were fed leftover mash from Manhattan and Brooklyn whiskey distilleries. Feeding the “swill” – or leftover spent grain — to dairy cows was a regular practice.

When pasteurization answered the question of how to clean and commercialize the dirty milk, the question remained of how to best produce the milk in hygienic conditions. In response, Thomas M. Rotch, a Harvard-educated pediatrician originally from Philadelphia, partnered with scientist Gustavus A. Gordon, in Massachusetts, to develop a cow’s milk that more closely resembled human milk. George H. Walker, a businessman, supplied financing, and the first laboratory opened in Boston on December 1, 1891. The Walker-Gordon Laboratory Company, as it was called, tried to produce milk under the cleanest conditions possible. The company opened a laboratory in New York in 1893, but eventually concluded that the source of milk — healthy cows and clean conditions — would be significant.

In 1897 they purchased 40 acres in Plainsboro, an area at the time partly in Cranbury and partly in South Brunswick. As noted by Plainsboro historian Bill Hart in an interview, and in the Images of America book on Plainsboro (Arcadia Publishing), “Walker-Gordon has played a huge role in Plainsboro. Plainsboro was a speck in the late 1800s. What changed it was Walker-Gordon.”

The land was located off Plainsboro Road, behind what is now Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center, and where a housing development is today. Hart explained that Plainsboro was near a train line, the Trenton and New Brunswick Turnpike, and the D & R Canal for shipping, and halfway between New York City and Philadelphia.

“People were looking at bad quality milk, babies were dying,” Hart said. “Walker-Gordon wanted to create a certified milk with higher standards.”

The Henry Jeffers Era

In 1898, Walker-Gordon Laboratory Company hired Henry Jeffers Sr., a visionary who had a degree in agriculture from Cornell University. “They picked the right person,” said Hart. Jeffers was elected in 1919 as the first mayor of Plainsboro, when it became its own municipality.

At Walker-Gordon, milkers were hired, barns were built, and standards were applied. Veterinarians checked cows for bacteria, said Hart. Staff washed the cows’ udders before milking. “Nobody else was doing this,” he said.

According to the book, doctors gave employees a medical checkup twice a month, and milkers wore sterilized white uniforms. The first milk drawn from a cow was inspected and discarded. Bottles were sealed, packed in ice, and shipped on an express train twice a day.

Walker-Gordon, under Jeffers, was changing the field. For example, he invented a calculator that determined a cow’s feeding requirements. According to Hart, Walker-Gordon studied cows’ nutritional needs, discovering that dehydrated alfalfa provided more vitamin A than sun-dried alfalfa. By 1929, 40 acres had become 2,300, and 35 cows grew to 1,650 cows. Operations were decentralized, Hart said, and tenant farmers rented land, a house, and barn; and were guaranteed a price for the silage they grew. “In the depression, Plainsboro farmers did not suffer as much,” Hart said.

“Cows were also decentralized. Dairymen provided cows to Walker-Gordon in units of 50 and were paid based on how much milk they produced.”

As noted by Smith in the Raw Milk Institute article, “The cows were attended 24 hours a day by Walker-Gordon herdsmen in barns holding 50 cows with constant attention to keeping the cows bedded on fresh peanut shell bedding and groomed, with ever present fresh water on demand, and fed grain and excellent alfalfa hay year-round.”

But the best was yet to come. In 1912 or 1913, after a trip to Europe, Jeffers began musing on how cows followed each other. “He came up with the idea that you could walk them onto a merry go round apparatus, and milk them that way,” said Hart.

Development of what was eventually called the Rotolactor was interrupted by World War I, but by 1930 the Rotary Combine Milking System prototype could milk 50 cows at a time. New Jersey Gov. Morgan Larson came for the Rotolactor launch, and Thomas Edison, who could not be there in person because he was ill, pushed a telegraph key from his home to start the Rotolactor. The milk was going from the cow straight to the bottle, with less time to spoil.

Elsie the Cow posing with caretakers. (Edith Sprague Collection/Wicoff House Museum)

Elsie Takes the Stage

In 1929, Borden bought the stock in Walker-Gordon, and the rights to the Rotolactor. A smaller version (with 12 cows) was shown at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queen’s New York, where 200,000 people saw it. Hart said it “became the most popular display at the World’s Fair.”

But everyone asked which cow was Elsie the Cow, the Borden advertising “spokescow.” Borden recruited a Jersey heifer and dubbed her Elsie (even though her real name was You’ll Do Lobelia). She roomed at Walker-Gordon Farm.

Elsie became a star. She was in the 1940 film Little Men, a sequel to Little Women, as Buttercup the Cow, and has an entry in the Internet Movie Database. In 1999 a New York Times article by Neil Genzlinger wrote that “Elsie-mania once swept the land in a way that’s hard to fathom today. For starters, you have to realize that milk wasn’t always the revered liquid we know. At the turn of the century it was germy, perishable stuff. But in 1891 George H. Walker and Gustavus E. Gordon founded the Walker-Gordon Laboratory in Boston. Their aim was to make cow’s milk more suitable for humans.”

Elsie “got married” to Elmer the Bull (who promoted glue) and they had a baby, Beulah. A boudoir was built, and she began to travel and raise money for war bonds. Sadly, on her way to a Broadway appearance, her trailer was hit by a truck and she died in 1941. Her grave marker is in Plainsboro. An image of Elsie is still used on the label for Borden dairy products, and in 2000 Advertising Age recognized Elsie the Cow as one of the top 10 advertising icons of all time.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1900s Walker-Gordon could not compete with cheaper land prices in the Midwest and the South, said Hart. “By the 1960s, shortages in farm labor and price wars in the milk industry were driving costs up and profits down at Walker-Gordon,” he wrote. “On June 18, 1971, Walker Gordon milked its last cow, and Walker-Gordon dairy functions ceased.”

Some of the history is retained at the Plainsboro Wicoff House Museum. There, museum Director Kate Nolan showed Jeffer’s calculator, boots worn by Elsie the Cow, and a suitcase with her name on it. Walker-Gordon, Nolan said, “was considered the best farm in the world for certified milk.”

J. Seward Johnson Sr.’s brother, General Robert Wood Johnson, maintained his estate in Princeton on a former farm that is now D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center and Greenway Meadows Park. (Photos courtesy of D&R Greenway Land Trust)

Gentlemen Farmers

Walker-Gordon was not the only dairy farm in the area. By 1900, affluent men including financier Junius Spencer Morgan, art historian Allan Marquand, industrialist and banker Moses Taylor Pyne, and financier and philanthropist Archibald Russell purchased farms to combine into estates that included model dairy farms, according to the Historical Society of Princeton.

At Pyne’s Drumthwacket, a farmer raised champion cows like Alfalfa Farm Flutie and her calf, Flying Horse Bandmaster.

Pyne purchased Drumthwacket in 1893, and enlarged and transformed the estate. With immense wealth, he could add two wings to the house in 1893 and 1900, designed by Raleigh C. Gildersleeve. Pyne added hundreds of acres to include park-like landscaping, greenhouses, bridle paths, a formal Italianate gardens, and a dairy farm, according to The Drumthwacket Foundation. The Drumthwacket cow barn was on the site of a six-bedroom family home.

Russell bred Ayrshire cattle at Edgerstoune and Sen. John McPherson imported black-and-white Holstein cows from Europe at cattle farms in Belle Mead, Montgomery Township. McPherson, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1877-1895, was a former butcher who developed enhanced sanitation in slaughterhouses.

The lower farm at Russell’s lavish 274-acre Edgerstoune Estate stretched from beyond Rosedale Road to King’s Highway or Route 206, now known as Greenway Meadows Park.

This Princeton property was a former barn at the Drumthwacket Estate. (Photos courtesy of Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty)

Edgerstoune was nestled behind trees near Drumthwacket. Russell’s brother-in-law was Moses Taylor Pine, and the two homes were among the most impressive in the area. Today Edgerstoune is part of The Hun School.

Atherton Hobler, a founder of Benton & Bowles Advertising in New York City, came to Montgomery Township to look at farm property when two of his sons were attending Princeton University. He moved a herd of 60 cattle from Connecticut to Skillman Farm. The former home to Guernsey, Ayrshire, and Holstein cows is today on the site of the Cherry Valley Country Club.

The wealthy farmers wanted to be state-of-the-art at their operations. At Edgerstoune, Russell built a poultry plant with an electric feed mill and test barn that featured electric fans and concrete.

These gentleman farmers shared their work at meetings of the Princeton Agricultural Association, which formed in 1867 at Drumthwacket, then the home of Gov. Charles Smith Olden. Later Pyne would host association meetings in that home when it became his estate.

In 1941, Atheron Wells Hobler, the prominent founder and CEO of Benton & Bowles Advertising Agency in New York, purchased Skillman Farm and renamed it Woodacres Farm. Already a gentleman farmer, he moved his prized herd of Guernsey cattle from his farm in Connecticut to the new farm. The farm is now the Cherry Valley Country Club and the original dairy barn has been converted to a private home. (Photo by Jeffrey E. Tryon)

Dairy Farming Today

Today, the dairy farm industry is looking for ways to refresh itself. Small farmers are selling directly to customers at farm-operated markets and restaurants, in a vertical model of regenerative farming, instead of selling milk to processing plants for a price set by the U.S. government. Many have started selling cheese, yogurt, or ice cream, or even nondairy products like soy, almond, or cashew milk.

A local nonprofit group, the Decency Foundation, is helping dairy farmers to buy equipment and process milk on their own farms.

The history of dairy farming in New Jersey may be ready to add a new chapter.

Cherry Grove Farm. (Photo courtesy of Cherry Grove Farm)

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