A small crowd gathered Saturday afternoon at the Newton County Historical Society’s Ice Cream Social, to celebrate the area’s dairy farming past and enjoy some free ice cream.
Rep. Bill Reiboldt, who spent 40 years working on a dairy farm, spoke to the small crowd gathered at the historical park about how the state’s dairy industry has changed over the years.
“Kathleen and I had a nice family farm business that had been really good to us,” Reiboldt said. “Today, it’s so much different and things have changed so much.”
He said dairy farms have grown in size since the days when a family dairy farm had around 150 cows. Now, the numbers are in the thousands and many farms operate around the clock.
Technological advances have also found their way to dairy farms, and Reiboldt said he has seen at least one farm using robotic milkers.
“The technology is unreal,” Reiboldt said. “It’s a whole different ballgame from the way I did it, on a family-type operation with 100 to 150, compared to thousands.”
Another way the industry has changed, he said, is the declining presence of dairy farming in the state of Missouri.
In 1912, Newton County exported 50,947 gallons of milk and cream, 28,913 pounds of butter and 6,380 gallons of ice cream, according to Wes Franklin of the Newton County Historical Society.
However, Reiboldt said Missouri now imports 50 percent of its dairy products.
“The dairy industry is fast leaving the state of Missouri, I guess that’s the story of today,” Reiboldt said.
Reiboldt said he attempted to get a tax credit passed for dairy farmers, which was approved in the state house but failed in the senate.
“It’s not the answer but it would’ve helped,” Reiboldt said. “It would’ve told this group of farmers that ‘you guys are important and you were important for so many years in our state and we don’t want to lose you.’”
While the area’s dairy industry isn’t what it used to be, the area’s rich dairy history has not been forgotten, as evidenced by the stories shared at Saturday’s event.
Bernadine Sprenkle worked at the Pet Milk company in Neosho for 30 years, up until its closure in 1985.
On Saturday, she spoke fondly of her time at the company, as tiny Pet Milk cans dangled from her ears.
Sprenkle said groups of children used to visit the plant for tours and were given the Pet Milk earrings as a souvenir.
Pet Milk, once located on West Coler Street, where the Newton County Sheriff’s Office sits today, employed up to 200 Neosho area residents at one time, as well as bought milk from local dairy farmers.
Page 2 of 2 - “The Pet Milk plant started in Neosho in 1927 and grew steadily to become one of Neosho’s largest industries inside the city limits,” Sprenkle said.
She said on opening day, 25,832 pounds were delivered on milk routes, and by the end of the first month, the plant was receiving 42,609 pounds of milk per day.
Sprenkle said the entire process was performed at the Neosho plant. It began with raw milk purchased from local dairy farmers, which was then emptied into a tank where it was weighed and sampled to measure fat content, before being dumped into a cooler. After the milk had been evaporated and processed, it was piped to the canning machine.
The cans were filled, sealed, sterilized and labeled as they passed down the conveyer belt, and were then boxed and rolled down the line to be stored in the warehouse until shipment.
“It was a complete operation,” Sprenkle said.
Neosho wasn’t the only Newton County town with a successful dairy industry, as nearby Seneca welcomed Milnot Company in 1948.
Dick Day, former manager of the Seneca plant, said the company, which is located on the state line, in both Missouri and Oklahoma, saw the location as ideal at the time.
Day said at the time the company could not sell their products outside of the state in which they were produced, which made the plant stretching into two states a fitting location, as it allowed the products to be sold in Missouri and Oklahoma.
Day said although Pet Milk and Milnot were competitors, the two had a sense of camaraderie in the evaporated milk business.
“If one of our plants was hurting, we could always call the other plant,” Day said.
The Newton County Historical Society held Saturday’s event in conjunction with National Dairy month.
In addition to the glimpse at the area’s dairy history, attendees also had the chance to view some old-fashioned dairy farm tools, including glass milk jugs, and a milk strainer, brought in by Maurice Mailes.
And, as the event was an ice cream social, attendees were treated to their choice of six flavors of Anderson’s Ice Cream, provided by Mitchell’s Downtown Drug Store.