Thursday, May 26, 2016

Innovative New Yorkers Prominent in Dairy History

June is Dairy Month, so how better to celebrate than to look at the lives of some prominent New Yorkers who changed the dairy industry. Here is my story from the June issue of Empire Farm & Dairy magazine:

Empire Farm & Dairy


There are quite a number of New Yorkers who have provided notable inventions or knowledge to the dairy industry.
Without some of them, the industry would be quite different today.
Sit back and read about some of these historic dairy New Yorkers:

Horace Backus (1927-present)
Backus, 88, is often referred to as the “dean of pedigrees” for his work in Holstein genetics.

A long-time resident of Mexico, Oswego County, Backus is widely known and respected across the country for his knowledge of Holstein genetics and lifetime of experience in the dairy sales arena.

He began working in his father’s Backus Pedigree Office at age 15, and kept learning about the field until he stepped into the box as a pedigree reader for the first time 10 years later, filling in for his ill father, R. Austin Backus.

Following his father’s retirement, Horace and his brothers formed a company to continue the sale and pedigree business with the same values and integrity their father had instilled in them.

The business was sold in 1983, and Horace continued, as he does today, as a freelance pedigree reader. In total, he estimates he has read pedigrees at more than 3,000 sales and assisted with the preparation of more than 5,000 catalogs, each sale receiving the same special care and attention as the one before it.

Backus is also respected as an author, having written several books throughout the years, telling the story of many prolific breeding operations and providing his personal insights on the Holstein industry.

Backus has never shied away from becoming involved with organizations and causes he is passionate about. In addition to groups in his hometown, he also was elected to the Holstein Association USA board of directors in 1987, a seat which he held until 1995, and has also been involved with the association’s audit committee, and served as a delegate for New York for several years.

He has received numerous honors, such as being named World Dairy Expo’s 2010 Industry Person of the Year, and being inducted as an honorary member of the Klussendorf Association in 2003.

He also was the first-ever recipient of the Pennsylvania Holstein Association’s Distinguished Supporter Award and received the 2013 Distinguished Leadership award at the Holstein Association USA convention.

Also, a scholarship for young dairy producers to attend the Holstein Foundation’s Young Dairy Leaders Institute was created in Backus’s name about three years ago.

Former HolsteinWorld publisher Joel Hastings summed Backus up this way: “A case can be made that Horace Backus, more than any other single individual, has contributed to the growth in value of Registered Holsteins throughout his career as a sales manager, pedigree expert, association leader and adviser to hundreds in the industry.

“He is the epitome of all that is positive in our business, knowledge, respect and enthusiasm, with unwavering integrity in every single instance.”

To hear Backus speak about some well-known Holsteins, go to

William Dempster Hoard (1836 - 1918)
The name William Dempster Hoard is well-known to all in the dairy industry.

The namesake of Hoard’s Dairyman, the first national dairy magazine in the United States which still publishes today,  Hoard was born and raised in Stockbridge, in Madison County east of Syracuse. He was the son of a farmer and Methodist minister and worked throughout his boyhood on the dairy farm.

He left New York and moved to Wisconsin as an adult and became an advocate for that state’s agriculture industry. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, he was responsible for making those in Wisconsin aware of dairy and eventually turning Wisconsin into the dairy power it is today.    

“In 1870, Hoard launched a weekly newspaper, the Jefferson County Union, in Lake Mills, but moved the operation to Fort Atkinson (where it remains to this day) three years later,” according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. 

“At the same time, Hoard began a vigorous campaign to improve and grow dairy farming, asserting that Wisconsin was particularly well suited to the industry. He crusaded to get farmers who were losing money due to poor soil and crop yields to switch to dairying."

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, in 1872, Hoard organized a dairying convention in Watertown, Wis. where he founded the State Dairyman’s Association, the first of its kind in the nation. Hoard became president of the Northwestern Dairymen’s Association in 1876. His crusade for a prosperous dairy industry prompted the founding of Hoard’s Dairyman, the national dairy farm magazine, in 1885.

He eventually became governor of Wisconsin. He also financed the first cow census, recommended the making of hay silage for feeding cattle and introduced the first youth organization for rural children, the precursor of today’s 4-H and FFA.

He continued to work for daily farmers after being governor. Today, he is remembered with a marble and bronze statue on the campus of the University of Wisconsin.

Gerrit Smith Miller (1845-1937)

Without this Madison County resident, Holstein herds possibly wouldn’t exist in New York state.

Miller, grandson of famed Madison County abolitionist Gerrit Smith, brought in the first herd of Friesan-Holstein breed cattle that survived and multiplied in the United States. 

He then began keeping track of the characteristics of each cow and how much milk she produced in order to figure out which cows to breed with which bulls for maximum production.

Today, farmers look at long forms filled with statistics when it comes time to breed their cows. They want to match the best characteristics of cow and bull to produce new cows that will produce more milk for more years. Gerrit Smith Miller, of Peterboro, was a first to keep track of how much milk a cow produces and the names of each cow’s sire and dam.

Another Madison County native, Solomon Hoxie (1829-1917), also began in the 1800s keeping track of cows’ physical traits. The information kept by Miller and Hoxie were combined to come up with the advanced registry and the classification registry used by Holstein farmers today to decide which bulls should mate with which cows.

Stephen Moulton Babcock (1843-1931)

Babcock, courtesy Cornell University
Without Stephen Moulton Babcock, farmers wouldn’t have a way to know the fat content of their milk.

While he was a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he invented a test to measure butterfat content. This allowed farmers to produce cheese, cream, butter, ice cream and other dairy products that met the dairy industry standards.

Babcock was born and raised in Bridgewater, in Oneida County and received his bachelor’s degree from Tufts College in 1866. He was studying engineering at  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute when his father died and he had to leave school to manage the farm.

He eventually did return to school, receiving a doctorate in chemistry in 1879. He taught at Cornell University in 1881 but left in 1882 to become chief chemist at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. After about six years there, he left for a similar position at the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station.

Babcock’s butterfat tester was introduced in 1890. He used sulfuric acid to release the fat and by doing so, was able to measure directly the percentage of fat by observing it in the neck of a specially designed test bottle.

Babcock also is credited with working with bacteriologist Harry L. Russell to develop a process for cold curing of cheese, which led to an improvement in the quality of cheese.

Maurice S. Prescott (1892-1976)

Maurice Prescott, of Sandy Creek, Oswego County, was an early partner in Holstein-Friesian World magazine and was editor for 60 years, putting the publication in a preeminent spot in the Holstein and dairy industry. 

He was born on a dairy farm outside Lacona, graduated from Sandy Creek High School, attended Cornell University and then began working with E.M. Hastings on the staff of Holstein-Friesian World.

He became editor in 1918 and served in that post until his death. He owned a publishing company in Sandy Creek for many year, the Corse Press, which also published the local newspaper.

As editor of Holsein-Friesian World, he founded the popular All-American contest, a photo competition at the conclusion of each cattle show season that has since been adopted by all breeds.  He advocated successfully against the use of retouched photos in promotions and advertisements.  He co-authored and published several editions of Holstein history notably the 1960 edition of Holstein-Friesian History. 

He was recognized in 1963 by the National Dairy Shrine with its “Guest of Honor” award for being a contemporary dairy leader with outstanding accomplishments and contributions to the dairy industry. He also was honored by the World Dairy Expo. 

Hervey Thatcher (1835-1925)

In 1884, Dr. Hervey D. Thatcher of Potsdam invented three items that were important to the dairy industry.

His most famous was the milk bottle. While running a store in Canton and working as a pharmacist in Potsdam, he was watching some women come to a milk delivery truck to fill their buckets with milk using a ladle kept on the truck.

He thought there had to be a better way to deliver milk — one that would keep out contaminants and not affect the quality or taste of the milk.

He came up with the glass milk bottle.

He eventually sold off the milk bottle making business to others. But Thatcher Manufacturing Co., which had a factory in Elmira for years, was once the largest manufacturer of milk bottles in the country. The business died off with the popularity of the paper milk carton.

His other inventions were a device called a Milk Protector, that helped keep dirt and other residue out of milk when it was being collected from the cow. The other was the coloring that makes butter look yellow. A story about Thatcher called it the best butter coloring of that day and said evidence shows it was the first butter coloring used in the United States.

William H. Miner (1862-1939)

It’s hard to believe a person who started life in Wisconsin and lived a good part of his life in the Midwest would be so influential to New York agriculture.

But that’s the case with William H. Miner.

His early working days were spent as a machine shop apprentice with the Wabash Railway Co. After he invented and received a patent for a rigging device that provided reliable shock protection for refrigerated rail cars, he founded his own company — W.H. Miner Company — making draft riggings for railway cars. He soon was a multimillionaire.

But as a biography of him states: “He made his money in the bustling metropolis of Chicago, but put his heart in the rural life of New York’s North Country.”

Miner, who descended from men who owned farmland in Chazy, Clinton County, was left land by a deceased relative and returned to Chazy in 1903. He and his wife Alice owned more than 15,000 acres and Miner dived feet first into dairy farming, including installing one of the first vacuum milking systems in North America.

Eventually, Heart’s Delight Farm would be selling meat, eggs, dairy, fruit and vegetables to customers large and small, including some well known hotels in New York City and Chicago.

Today, Miner can be thanked for the William H. Miner Foundation, which funds the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute (or Miner Institute), “for the operation and maintenance of an experimental farm, for training young men and women in practical and theoretical farming,” according to a description of the institute.

Ezra Cornell (1807-1874)

Ezra Cornell, courtesy Cornell University
On the 200th anniversary of Ezra Cornell’s birth, the Cornell alumni magazine stated: “He went from bankruptcy to great wealth within a few days.”

This wealth gave Cornell pause as he labored to decide what to do with the money. He once wrote: “My greatest care now is how to spend this large income, to do the most good.”

What he did is establish Cornell University, one of the foremost colleges in the United States and a top university for study in agriculture.

“While the Morrill Land Grant College Act mandated support for the teaching of agriculture and engineering, Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, of Syracuse, considered it essential that these studies be integrated with a broad liberal education,” according to a story in the Cornell bicentennial birthday exhibition.

Said Cornell himself during his speech at the opening of the university Oct. 7, 1868: “I hope that we have laid the foundation of an institution which shall combine practical with liberal education, which shall fit the youth of our country for the professions, the farms, the mines, the manufactories, for the investigations of science, and for mastering all the practical questions of life with success and honor. . . . I trust we have laid the foundation of an university — ‘an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.’”

Jesse Williams (1798-1864)
At one time, New York state was the king of cheese.

And it got that way thanks to a man named Jesse Williams.

Williams, of Rome, Oneida County, is credited with opening the first cheese manufacturing factory in the state. Before that, most farmers made cheese on their individual farms.

But Williams opened this first cheese factory in Rome in 1851, taking in milk from area farmers. Within 15 years, there were 500 cheese factories in New York state.

During the 100th anniversary celebration of the founding of the cheese factory, John H. Kraft, president of Kraft Foods, said “pioneers like Jesse Williams … (fathered) the ideas and tools that have made America great. He exemplified the spirit which has made the dairy industry the largest agricultural industry in America.”

Williams also was instrumental in founding the New York State Cheese Manufacturers’ Association and then the American Dairymen’s Association.

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