Orange County Dairy Farming History

The William S. Johnson Collection of Orange County, New York Dairy Farming History seeks to preserve the three-century legacy of Orange County’s fluid milk, butter, cheese, and dairy products. The collection contains an ample assortment of documents and images as well as books, ephemera, and go-withs relative to this topic. In addition, larger items include several milk cans from local farms, a wooden Borden’s Condensed Milk barrel used in B.S. Pembleton’s Store of Central Valley, NY, a rare circa 1936 Orange County map indicating dairy farms, and a barn storage box from Walgrove Farms of Washingtonville, NY.

Artifacts relevant to the history of dairy farming in Orange County, New York on display. The William S. Johnson collection is shown in tandem with the Orange County Milk Bottle Museum: htps;//alexprizgintas.com/orange-county-milk-bottle-museum/

New York’s Lost Dairy Farming Empire

From the beginning, Orange County was naturally suited for agriculture. Protected by the Hudson Highlands to the southeast and the Shawangunk Range to the northwest, the inner valley of Orange County was home to thousands of farms. Known by many as the “heartland,” this region has an average elevation of between 500 to 1,000 feet above sea level which protects the soil from fungi found on coastal plains that inhibits the prosperity of agriculture. Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Orange County was known far and wide for its prized butter. Milk was being produced at this time but could not be sold at crucial New York City markets due to a lack of efficient transportation. Unlike milk’s short shelf life, butter could survive the arduous journey by horse-and-carriage to the Hudson River ports of Cornwall-On-Hudson and Newburgh where this valuable commodity would then be transported by barge to Gotham. This was largely the norm for several decades, but things drastically changed with the construction of the New York and Erie Railroad in the 1830s. At a time when the horse and carriage was the primary method of transportation, railroads eliminated the danger of treacherous roads, the frustration of slow speeds, and the physical limitation of the horse itself. The “iron horse” was simply the most formidable tool of modern industrial technology during that era. While the steam engine revolutionized transportation, only a few railroads existed throughout the United States in the 1830s. The majority of these were located in the coastal regions where larger cities and harbors existed. However, plans were being made for more expansive routes. One example, the New York and Erie railroad, was chartered in 1832 to connect Lake Erie at Dunkirk, New York with the Hudson River at Piermont. Upon arriving at Piermont, the train would be loaded onto a barge and then transported down the Hudson River to New York City. Its route brought trains directly through Orange County.

During the construction of this modern marvel, workers encountered a serious problem when reaching Chester, NY. The black dirt, a commodity that was fertile in nutrients and most valuable to the farmers of the area, proved to be unable to support the weight of the railroad. The solution to this dilemma was simple; since the ground lacked the strength, a foundation needed to be constructed. The first step of this process was the construction of a wooden trestle to act as the foundation for the tracks. Within this particular section, the trestle was between twenty to thirty feet high and fitted with fifty-foot long piles driven deep into the ground to reach the solid rock. Next, railroad hopper cars were transported to the site filled with gravel and rocks. This fill was dumped through the elevated tracks, eventually covering the trestle and creating an embankment that, along with the trestle, proved sturdy enough to support the full weight of the trains. This example of railroad construction was exhibited across many of Orange County’s railroads and although the roadbed in this segment between Greycourt and Chester has not seen service since 1983, it still withstands the far more reasonable strains of walkers and bikers on the Heritage Trail each day.

Some might immediately wonder how this railroad-related construction technique influenced the dairy industry at large. Well, it was arguably the first step in the story of milk transportation. The individuals who won the contract to construct the railroad in Chester were Thaddeus Selleck and Matthew Brainard. Brainard retired during the project, but the railroad went into bankruptcy soon afterward and was unable to pay Selleck for his work. Once the railroad was reorganized, Selleck was compensated by being appointed as Chester’s first station agent, making him one of the railroad’s two original agents along with John A. Bailey in Goshen. When Selleck was appointed as a station agent in 1841,  butter from Orange County was prized yet the true gold could be found in the region’s pure milk. Selleck immediately noticed the superior quality of the pure Orange County milk in comparison to New York City’s toxic swill milk and, with this in mind, he became determined on solving what was considered impossible: transporting fresh milk without it turning sour before reaching the New York City market.

The historic marker commemorating the first shipment of milk by Thaddeus Selleck in Chester, NY. 

When Selleck first proposed his idea to local dairy farmers, many were satisfied with the strong and stable trade established through butter. Historian Robert Mohowski describes their reaction to the transportation of milk, stating that “they scoffed at Selleck and his idea in the same manner that had greeted most visionaries since the dawn of time.” Many could not grasp the concept of milk traveling more than fifty miles, especially in the hot, summer months accompanied by jarring movements from the railroad cars. Still, sometime between 1841 and 1842, Selleck met with the local farmers Philo Gregory, James Durland, Jonas King, and John M. Bull to discuss his novel idea of shipping milk by rail to New York City. Traditionally, the milk would have never survived a horse-driven trip to New York City but with the advent of the railroad, a faster route was now open. In Selleck’s proposal, the milk would be transported in butter churns forty-one miles to Piermont and then an additional twenty-one miles by barge to a storefront located at 193 Reade Street in New York City — the location where Selleck would consign the milk to the public. It took time for Selleck to convince anyone, but by the spring of 1842, farmer Philo Gregory of Chester agreed to send approximately 240 quarts of milk bound for Gotham, which arrived successfully. While Gregory’s farm was located in Chester, he accepted the proposal because he had a business in New York City and had made an agreement with Selleck that the milk would be immediately sold to consumers upon its arrival. Surprisingly, the milk was not immediately popular among the city crowds. They found the yellow “scum” on top of the milk repulsing; this was, in fact, the rich layer of buttery fat that made Orange County’s milk so vastly superior, famous, and valuable. This layer of rich creaminess was not found in the milk produced by disease-ridden cows fed on toxic swill. Soon, city customers grew to like the smell, taste, and look of fresh milk sent directly from the farm and the demand became so great that Selleck was forced to open additional milk depots. As business improved, farmers stopped laughing at Selleck’s idea and by 1897, over 7,000 milk depots had opened in New York City selling close to 750,000 quarts of milk a day to the eager city residents. Through Selleck’s intrepid endeavor, a grand business was born that would help to build five railroads and return more than $50,000,000 to Orange County and the Hudson Valley.

The first milk shipment both expanded and created new tools across the country; one that deserves close attention is the railroad. The railroad indeed allowed for the first shipment of milk, but as the dairy industry blossomed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with regional railroads including the New York, Ontario and Western, Lehigh and New England, Middletown and Unionville, and New York Central constructing branches in Orange County. As industries like the milk trade expanded the activity of local railroads, services like commuter transportation also increased and many towns replaced their early wooden stations with far larger structures. Chester was no exception to this trend; in 1915, the original wooden structure where Thaddeus Selleck served as a station agent was replaced by a more grand building that could better serve the needs of freight and passenger traffic on the Erie Railroad. For about the next seven decades, the station served the region both by transporting passengers, local freight, and of course, milk. The dairy farms themselves blossomed as well; in 1878, the first glass jar designed to hold milk was patented in New York City by George Lester and the earliest conventionally-shaped milk bottles saw use in Orange County as early as 1880. Just one year later, a reported 4,016 farms were operating in Orange County and of all those that possessed cattle, a large majority began to bottle and sell their own milk. Like other industries of the region, however, dairy farms have endured tremendous struggles in the recent past. Orange County’s few remaining dairy farms have to contend with growing unpopularity over dairy products, the rapid suburbanization of this region, and a stable processing plant which was eliminated when Elmhurst Milk and Cream, New York City’s last dairy processing plant, closed in 2016. With this industry fading, it is important to record and remember its vibrant influences—something that is arguably best done through the milk bottle. 

Milkmen working inside of one of Orange County’s many creameries. Notice that the milk bottles have metal closures attached. Known as “tin tops,” these were used before the turn of the twentieth century to keep the milk contained while it traveled from the creamery to the customer (Ontario and Western Railway Historical Society). 

William S. Johnson

William S. Johnson (1925-2020) was a local dairy farmer and proprietor of the Fort Hill Farm in Goshen, NY. I first met Bill during the debut of my program, “Orange County’s Dairies and Their Milk Bottles,” before the Hudson Valley Bottle Club in 2015. What followed were several interviews at his home about the history and current state of Orange County’s dairy farms. Passionate both about local history and the importance of the vital farming industry, Bill was one of many inspirations that encouraged me to look beyond glass milk bottles and discover how these bottles told the story of an industry that, not only fueled 2,900 farms at its height, but has since dwindled to less than thirty farms. In preserving such artifacts, it is my hope to uphold Bill’s vision of raising awareness for this aspect of agricultural history.

Myself with members of the Chester Historical Society and William S. Johnson (three from right) in 2017 when I presented my program “Orange County’s Dairies and Their Milk Bottles.” Bill operated one of Orange County’s last dairy farms, the Fort Hill Farm, in the town of Goshen. He was a wealth of knowledge regarding the region’s dairy farming history as well as a passionate advocate for the sustainability of the dairy farming industry in modern times.

The collection, displayed and stored in tandem with the Orange County Milk Bottle Museum, welcomes those seeking to research the history of Orange County’s dairy farms.

For research inquiries or other questions, please contact me here: