It has been about 60 years since Barnstable County had registered commercial dairy operations. From 1850 to 1960 Barnstable County lost most of its approximately 850 farms, mainly because farming became uneconomical.
Where did those original cattle come from? Since there were no domesticated cattle in the new world, European conquerors and colonists introduced them. By 1800, hardy cattle brought to the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies had increased to several million head and thus meat and milk were plentiful.
By the mid-1800s in New England, specific breeds of European cows and bulls began to replace the initial all-purpose cattle. Quite soon, mixed or purebred herds dominated the nascent dairy and beef industries nationwide. These now-familiar breeds, such as Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey and Ayrshire, were chosen for their appearance and for the large volume of milk and its high butterfat content. Because of better nutrition, breeding and hygiene, over many decades smaller herds were producing more milk, which made these bovines economically feasible for small farms.
Dairy farming is demanding—all the time. Still, it can yield an income; after all, the cow is a factory that produces energy-rich milk. However, to fuel the several gallons of milk produced each day, a cow eats about two percent of its body weight per day, drinks gallons of water and then chews and digests for up to eight hours. Milk them twice a day, and raw milk awaits a customer or a processor. Though not all of the milk goes to the farmer; the calf gets about 20 percent of its mother’s milk.
Nevertheless, historically on Cape Cod the opportunity for financial success in commercial dairy farming, even with just a dozen cows, attracted a diverse mix of farmers and investors. Here is a sample of some of those dairy operations from Provincetown to Falmouth.
Doane family farms were clustered in sparsely populated East Orleans (Nauset Heights) on the Atlantic Ocean, whose shore was blanketed with salt works. Like most mid-19th century farmers, they sold surplus milk and butter as part of a diverse operation, which might also include poultry, beef, corn and grains. Oliver Doane pastured 25 to 30 head of cattle on his 130-acre farm on Mill Pond. Oliver’s uncle, Beriah Doane, had farmed 230 acres nearby and pastured 30 head of cattle. When the railroad reached Orleans in 1865, it brought some tourists and goods from off Cape but the return trip to Boston carried local milk, grain and corn. When the railroad was extended to Provincetown in 1873, these farmers shipped cans of milk there too.
Knowles family farms were situated on fertile land north of Nauset Harbor in the Fort Hill region of Eastham. From 1742 to 1943 generations of this family responded to changing markets: they grew grain, corn and potatoes; sold surplus dairy products from just three cows; and raised poultry. But when the railroad came the Knowles family not only increased their dairy herd and exported milk, but they also began to grow and ship asparagus. One of the Knowles farms, which came under new ownership, became Nauset Moors Farm, a full-service dairy operation that operated from 1938 to 1950.
Early in the 20th century there were five dairy farms in Provincetown, serving a population of around 4000. The largest and most successful was Frank and Maria Alves’ Galeforce Farm, begun in 1902 after Frank gave up fishing. By applying their agricultural expertise learned on the Island of Pico in the Azores, they were able to grow food for 37 productive cows, on sandy soil.
Meanwhile, technology was improving: the centrifugal cream separator and an automatic milk bottle filler and capper were in use, and eventually the Alvess adopted these as well as milking machines. Next came the health regulations.
As a result of the epidemic spread of typhoid fever and tuberculosis pathogens in raw milk in urban areas, federal and state regulations mandated that all dairy farmers must have their milk tested for these pathogens. Barnstable County led all of Massachusetts in complying with testing. Moreover, in 1923, Massachusetts law required that producers selling more than ten quarts of milk per day to consumers and those dealing in milk, skimmed milk or cream obtain a license from an inspector. And on June 1, 1929, Massachusetts and federal law mandated inspection and tuberculin testing of all dairy herds unless the milk had been pasteurized, a process that destroys pathogens by heating to 145º F for 30 minutes. Few dairy farmers would or could make this costly investment in new equipment, and they quit.
Galeforce Farm invested in pasteurization and their Guernsey and Holstein herd produced 400 quarts of high butterfat milk daily for 300 customers until 1952 when high costs of labor and operations drove them to become a supplier of milk to Quincy-based White Brothers Dairy.
Olle Lund came to the United States from Sweden in 1923, married and lived in Kearny, New Jersey, where he was a truck driver. In 1945 the Lunds moved Brewster. Mr. Lund began his dairy business in 1954, at age 51, by purchasing Nauset Moors Farm’s dairy operation. He then moved the mixed herd of 25 Guernseys and Holsteins to a fallow farm he purchased from Lydia Hopkins in East Brewster on which he built a modern dairy barn for his Pine Ridge Dairy. There his cows yielded 275 quarts per day to supply milk to Orleans and Eastham school children under the 1946 federal school lunch program, and to customers in the nearby towns, until he retired in 1964.
Hilding S. Hord emigrated from Sweden, worked in Ipswich and in 1919 bought land in Marstons Mills where he started Mystic Lake Farm on Race Lane in 1922. At its peak the farm covered 92 acres, had a mixed herd of 125 Jersey and Holstein cows, and also bought tested raw milk from local farmers. Mystic Lake Farm supplied milk to schoolchildren and delivered pasteurized milk from Woods Hole to Harwich Port until 1962.
Opportunities for successful dairy farming in prosperous Falmouth coincided with the arrival in the late 19th and early 20th century of summer visitors who flocked to new shore developments. Within several decades, however, most of the smaller farms quit producing and sold their cows.
The earliest commercial dairy operations in Falmouth were probably in the tiny village of Teaticket (a one-mile-square piece in southeast Falmouth). Solomon Lawrence’s dairy farm, which was located across from the current school administration building, began in the 1880s, as did the farm of Herbert H. Lawrence, a Falmouth Chief of Police, situated at the northwest corner of Jones Road and Main Street in Teaticket. His daughter Louise Lawrence ran the dairy farm at least through 1942.
Concerned that sold milk may be adulterated, around 1910 the Falmouth Board of Health required a certificate attesting to the measured solids and fats. Boosting consumer confidence was good for business.
In the 1920s Teaticket’s commercial dairy farms were slowly winding down. The Sylvia Farm delivered milk from his Ayrshire cows to the resort community of Falmouth Heights and in Falmouth Village, but in 1929 John Sylvia sold his cows and milk route to Frederick K. Leatherbee of Kensington Farms in the village of Hatchville. In 1926 Antone Santos sold his small Broadmeadows Farm to Robert W. Leatherbee of Brae Burn Farms, also in Hatchville.
In 1885 E. Pierson Beebe established a farm between Main Street Falmouth and Shore Road, to supply the Beebe family with fresh dairy, poultry and produce at their mansions, Tanglewood and Highfield, on the moraine west of the train depot. The Beebe Farm had 25 to 30 cows housed in luxurious conditions. After the last Beebe brother died, the trustees of the estate sold the farm to Lawrence S. White in 1933. L.S. White Dairy delivered bottled pasteurized and raw milk. His business prospered until on September 14, 1944 a Category 3 hurricane damaged his barn and silos, after which he purchased milk from five local herds. In 1948 Laurence S. White abandoned his dairy and developed home lots on his land, a short walk to Vineyard Sound.
From 1919 to 1924 John Wray, a native of Scotland, rented farmland near the railroad along Vineyard Sound from wealthy Woods Hole summer resident Henry H. Fay. Fay Farm had about 40 Guernsey cows. Soon after Fay’s death the property was sold, and thus in November 1924 Wray moved his herd to the Coonamessett Ranch Company’s farm in Hatchville.
On the west side of Church Street in Woods Hole, the Whitney Estate was home in 1920 to caretaker James H. Hallett’s Little Harbor Farm. Hallett’s five tuberculin-tested Guernsey cows provided raw milk and cream.
Ralph Chase’s small Hawthorne Dairy Farm at the intersection of Chase Road and West Falmouth Highway began operations around 1915 and closed after World War II.
Hatchville, in northwest Falmouth, has been farmed continuously since Hatch families settled there early in the 18th century. Later, in the early 20th century, several of the original settler families who lived along the 158- acre Coonamessett Pond sold their farms to wealthy individuals who began large dairy operations.
Coonamessett Ranch Company Farm
By 1920, a new corporation, the Coonamessett Ranch Company, had acquired 14,000 contiguous acres in the municipalities of Falmouth, Bourne, Mashpee and Sandwich. The company owned 2300 acres of farms, woodland and cranberry bogs in Hatchville. Woods Hole summer resident and former Crane Company executive Charles R. Crane financed these land purchases.
Wilfrid Wheeler, a Ranch Company director and secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture, conceived the idea of developing a model farm on their land north of Coonamessett Pond in Hatchville where Cape Cod farmers could learn modern techniques and then purchase land from the Ranch Company to start their own farms. Wheeler thought this scheme might be a way to halt the decline in the number of farms in Massachusetts. Dairy was one segment of this 500-acre farm begun in 1916-1917, with about 50 Holsteins and Guernseys. Under Mr. Wheeler’s management the dairy produced 800 quarts of tested milk per day, which was delivered to the shore communities and sold at their retail stores in North Falmouth and Falmouth. However, in 1925, the Coonamessett Ranch Company directors shifted from support of the farm to developing a sprawling resort on Coonamessett Pond.
Between 1915 and 1925, George St. Amant, a wool merchant from Newton, Massachusetts, bought 125 acres on the south end of Coonamessett Pond to establish a duck hunting camp and later a stock farm populated with 80 prized Guernsey cows and 40 young. The breed is an efficient grazer and their milk is high in butterfat, protein and beta-carotene. Mr. St. Amant’s cows sold for thousands of dollars. For a while Atamannsit Farm sold milk and cream locally but in August 1923 Brae Burn Farms arranged to purchase their total output. Later, in March 1926, Brae Burn Farms purchased 13 of Mr. St. Amant’s cows. Apparently, St. Amant’s breeding program was unsustainable and, except for a small breeding group, the valuable herd was sold at auction in 1929.
Brea Burn Farms
At its peak, in about 1933, Robert W. Leatherbee’s Brea Burn Farms in Hatchville was a large dairy with a mixed herd of 140 cows and its own pasteurization and bottling plant. It was started in 1921 on former Hatch family land with a small herd of Guernsey cows, which grew by acquisition of other dairy farms. Pastureland of several hundred acres was purchased, also. Mr. Leatherbee, from West Newton, Massachusetts, had been employed by the Crane Company in Chicago as a manager and was married to Charles Crane's daughter Frances Anita, until 1924.
Meanwhile, in 1929 Robert’s brother Frederick K. Leatherbee, a stockbroker and management consultant, purchased the 16-acre Randall pig farm on Hatchville Road and the cows and milk route of the Sylvia Farm, to start a modern dairy operation. A new dairy farm abutting his brother’s farm seemed like a good investment at this time since Cape Cod milk was considered safe and a sample of the 2000 Cape cows had exceeded national norms for milk production and butterfat content. Kensington Farms was modern. It had 52 cows milked by machine—milk was delivered raw or pasteurized within 12 hours of milking—and offered Vitamin D-enriched milk and milk bottles with tamper-proof metal caps. In 1933 Kensington Farms filed for bankruptcy, and Robert Leatherbee purchased it for $5000.
In August 1934 Robert W. Leatherbee, President of the Cape Cod Milk Producers Association, died of a heart attack at age 53. Brae Burn Farms dairy continued to operate with an association with Cape Cod Creamery until in 1937 H.P. Hood & Sons purchased Brea Burn’s dairy business, but not the land.
In 1936 Hjalmar Jensen, Brae Burn Farms’ trusted superintendent, purchased 121 acres of farmland from Robert Leatherbee’s estate. Mr. Jensen, a Swedish emigrant who had worked with Robert Leatherbee in Illinois, then leased 100 acres from the Coonamessett Ranch Company where he grew grains and corn, and pastured his 36 cows (a mix of Guernsey, Holstein and Jersey), which won prizes for excellence and butterfat production. Mrs. Jensen ran a popular bed and breakfast in the farmhouse. Until he retired in 1953 Mr. Jensen sold his milk to Hood, L.S. White and Mystic Lake dairies.
Hunky Dory Farm
Despite the diminishing success of small dairy farms, former grain salesman and teacher David Dimmick started Hunky Dory Farm on Hatchville Road west of the East End Meeting House cemetery in 1942. Mr. Dimmick sold eggs and poultry and delivered milk and cream within the town until he retired in 1957.
What next? Entering the commercial fresh milk market today requires the energy and financial resources to fulfill health and environmental regulations, acquire costly pasture land and purchase the cows. With the current demand for locally raised poultry and meat, perhaps local cow’s milk, butter and cheeses once again will be available on Cape Cod as it is on Martha’s Vineyard and nearby in southeastern Massachusetts.