In Burlco, a dying way of life

A painting of Roy and Edith Sprague's farm in Chesterfield, where they milked cows until the mid-1960s. Farming in the county has nearly entirely succumbed to economic realities.
A painting of Roy and Edith Sprague's farm in Chesterfield, where they milked cows until the mid-1960s. Farming in the county has nearly entirely succumbed to economic realities.
Posted: February 16, 2014

With a turn of her head, Doris Thorn can look out across 127 acres of farm fields, and nearly 84 years of memories.

"I'm told there's a bald eagle out there," she said recently in Chesterfield, Burlington County, glancing toward the snow-cloaked irrigation pond where her great-grandchildren flock on hot summer days.

Her son's house is over there. That's her grandson's house back there.

And those fields and barns outside her window are reminders, too, of her childhood on a dairy farm: of rounding up cows on horseback with her brother, squirting milk from an udder into a kitten's mouth, and their father nursing a sickly newborn lamb to health, warming it in the oven and feeding it with a milk bottle.

"Oh," Thorn recalled recently as she sat with her husband, Lew, in their living room, "it was a wonderful, wonderful life."

Burlington County was once home to more than 1,000 dairy farms, and to a way of life - sometimes wonderful, often grueling - that has succumbed to economic hardship.

"When I was a kid, there were cows on every farm on this road," Charles R. Davis, 61, of Southampton said last week as he gestured toward Pemberton Road.

Up at 4:30

Today, Davis' operation is the last dairy farm in the county: a small feedlot operation in Southampton that is all business.

Davis grew up dairying in the farmhouse where he and his wife, Arlene, live. But his parents sold the house and their 160 acres in 1974 to a sod farm.

Two years later and newly married, the Davises bought back the farmhouse, silo, milking shed, and six adjacent acres, where they and their 36-year-old son, Jeff, keep 150 cows.

Their workday begins at 4:30 a.m. with milking: a four-hour job they must repeat every 12 hours, seven days a week.

"I loved it in my younger days," Davis, a stocky, bearded man, said as he rested one late morning in a recliner between chores. "But it's a young man's business."

What's more, the Davises say, their profit margin has lately grown thinner than skim.

Davis stays at it, he said, because their son wants to stay in dairy. "If he decides to walk, I walk," he insisted.

But Arlene Davis is not sure which man is keeping the county's last dairy farm alive.

"I sometimes think Jeff's hanging in for him," she said, pointing to her husband. "And he's hanging in for him."

Burlington County had 1,030 dairies in 1940, its all-time high. Many were in the northern end, where heavy soils made for good pasture.

But it was labor-intensive work. Cows, as the old joke goes, don't know it's Sunday, and by 1959, just 394 dairies remained, part of a steady decline that led to just eight dairies in 2002 and five in 2007.

Most of the state's 60 remaining dairies are in Warren and Sussex Counties in the far north, and in Salem County in the south.

About a mile from the Davises, Burlington County's next-to-last dairy farmer is only now learning to put his feet up after a lifetime in rubber boots.

"I've been here 36 years," said Wayne Shontz, 75, who grew up on dairies in Florence and Medford. He's grown a beard for the winter, he said last week, and still sports bib overalls.

He and his wife, Roberta, for decades maintained an operation of more than 200 cows on their 118 acres off Birmingham Road. In July, however, they sold their herd - 220 milk cows, heifers, and calves - to a Pennsylvania farmer.

Labor - even teenagers working after school - had become increasingly hard to find, Shontz said. Then, in 2009, New Jersey milk prices fell from about $22 per hundredweight to $12 "and stayed that way."

"It was wicked," Shontz said. "You couldn't replace equipment, and there was no money for extras. It used to be you were happy to break even. Then it became hard to survive."

Their spread will likely never turn into a housing development; the Shontzes sold the development rights to their farm to the state for $600,000. They can still sell their acreage for farming, however, and they keep four cows for their grandchildren to take to the county fair.

Fetching brown eyes

If the 1940s was the peak decade for dairying in Burlington County, it was an era, too, when Depression-weary America fell in love with cows - and one brown-eyed beauty in particular.

Her name was Elsie, a golden-hued Jersey whose home was Plainsboro. She was the famous trademark of the Borden Co., a national food and dairy products purveyor.

Introduced at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, Elsie proved so popular Borden started sending her to state and county fairs, where she continued to draw crowds. In 1944, the company launched her on a national tour to promote the brand and sell war bonds.

For that, the firm turned to two young women from a Chesterfield dairy farm to escort her.

"Elsie had such a beautiful temperament," Edith Sprague, 90, recalled recently.

She still owns the farmhouse where she and her late husband, Roy, raised four daughters and hundreds of cows, but her home is a sunny house in Columbus.

'An adventurer'

Now white-haired and in a wheelchair, Sprague was 20-year-old Edith Perrine when she and her younger sister, Anna, boarded a freight car from New York to Chicago for Elsie's first big war-bond effort.

"We were just farm girls," she said with a laugh. "People would say, 'How could your parents let you alone like that?' But our pop was an adventurer. He said, 'You'll never have an opportunity like this again.' "

They spent six weeks in Chicago, tending to Elsie and her canopied four-poster "bed" as throngs paid 25 cents apiece for a war-bond stamp to view her.

"We made over $3 million in six weeks," Sprague said, and, with visits to California, Florida, Texas, and many local venues, Elsie had raised $10 million by the war's end.

Although a gifted mathematician, Sprague chose not to go to college when her Elsie tour ended in 1948 because "I really wanted to farm."

She speaks fondly of the days as a child when she would walk behind her father as he plowed the fields with a team of draft horses or sit with him by the light of a lantern as he milked, reciting psalms and prayers she'd learned at Sunday school.

She remembers, too, the outpouring of neighbors bearing food and tractors when their barn burned down. "There was nothing like living in a rural area," she said. "People took care of each other."

In 1948, she met Roy Sprague, a dairy farmer, at a Grange meeting. They married and, in 1951, bought a 120-acre farm in Chesterfield, where they milked about 100 cows for the next 13 years.

"I would have stayed with dairy," Sprague said, but her husband complained he never had time for fishing or the children.

"I said: 'You're the boss. I'll do what you want.' So we got rid of the cows. He smiled, and I cried."

Even with 700 acres of vegetable and grain crops to tend, the Spragues had time for recreation with neighbors like Wilmer and Doris Wilson. Wilson, twice widowed, is now Doris Thorn.

Close friends to this day, Sprague and Thorn still visit regularly.

"I was sad to see the cows go," said Thorn, who with her first husband sold off their herd in 1968.

"It was a lot of work. We milked twice a day, every day, but it was a good life, and I doubt it will ever come back.

"We call them," she said, "the good old days."


 


doreilly@phillynews.com

856-779-3841

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