An old butter churn

Sat, 06/10/2017 - 11:15am

Ed. note: The Block Island Historical Society was founded in 1942. To help celebrate its 75th year, the Society’s Diamond Anniversary, The Block Island Times will be publishing sketches and photographs of items in its collection. For those interested in joining or donating to The Block Island Historical Society, please visit

The European settlers built simple houses, cleared the land, planted crops and kept animals, cows and sheep particularly, populating the pastures divided by stone walls. Those who set to sea in little boats, with lines and nets of twine, came home to farmsteads. 

Farm-to-table was a way of life when there were no kitchens as such. Fireplaces were the hearts of homes, providing heat for warmth and cooking; there was no electricity or propane, no running water, food storage was limited to what lasted, root vegetables and salted cod, home-cured meat.

There was perishable milk, kept in darkened sheds, cooled by ice cut from the ponds in deepest winter, layered with insulating hay. In warmer weather it was lowered into the cool water of dug wells. Soured milk and cream listed in old recipes came naturally, without controls. Milk was made into cheese (that had a longer shelf life). 

Then there was butter, glorious, real butter. 

Today, butter generally comes from the dairy case, in neat quarter pound sticks which by some miracle of convenience also contain one half cup. It is made from cream, drawn from milk with mechanical separators. 

“Store” milk is homogenized, broken into uniformity until it can no longer separate. The lighter cream cannot rise to top of the bottle or bucket, the cream that was once skimmed off, some churned by hand into butter. The “milk” when left  to set was thin, with no resemblance to the thick, cultured product sold today. 

The older of our churns is the type we see in drawings and house museums, a tall wooden cylinder with a longer handle poking through a hole in its top. A dasher was attached to the end of it and cream was turned to butter through sheer physical effort.

A more “modern,” less recognizable, version is a barrel churn, a hand crank turning the paddle inside the wooden drum, creating butter with less effort than required by its tall predecessor. Later churns were all glass and metal, easier to use and to clean. 

The older, wooden churns are another reminder of the effort behind what we today take for granted.