n. A vessel in which cream or milk is shaken or beaten in order to separate the butter from the other parts. v.t. To stir or agitate, as cream, in order to make butter. — Webster, 1882
Churn as often as every fourth day. When the cream is ready, stand near the stove, turning the churn, and churning to stir the cream while warming. – Redwood Falls Gazette, January 1879
As the definition states, a churn is both the vessel used when turning cream into butter, and the action required to facilitate the change. When making a small amount of butter at home (see butter), the easiest item to use for a churn is a glass jar.
Dash churn. In pioneer times, a dash churn was typically a crockery or wooden container of various sizes. Cream was poured into the churn and the cream was agitated by means of a wooden dash (or dasher) consisting of a long handle with two cross-pieces at the end inside the churn; it might have instead a wooden disk with holes or a single cross-piece, anything that would aid in stirring the cream. The dash was raised and lowered by hand, while the person doing the churning sat or stood as was most comfortable. In order to keep cream or buttermilk from splashing out of the top of the churn, there was a round cover with a hole in it, through which the dash passed. The photo above shows a woman churning.
Barrel churn. In Farmer Boy, Angeline Wilder’s churn is said to stand on legs, and it rocks when a handle is turned. The Garth Williams illustration suggests a different type of churn – more like a barrel rocking-horse full of cream – because there is no handle to turn, and it has rockers instead of legs. The handle on the churn illustrated was stationary and would have been pushed and pulled to make the barrel rock on rockers.
The pictures here show two different types of barrel churns. The little boy cranks the handle round-and-round on one, causing one or more paddles inside the barrel to rotate. In the inset drawing, the crank caused the barrel itself to rotate, end over end.
A Mystery. In 1916, the following article was published in the Missouri Ruralist. There’s no way of knowing when Almanzo Wilder purchased the patent churn described, except that it predated the publication date. If you know what type of butter churn is described in the article, would you let me know so? (My email address is in the sidebar.) Look at the clues: there are removable tin paddles that can be unscrewed for cleaning; the churn sits on the floor; the churn has one handle but also has the option to be run by power (electric or gasoline?). It doesn’t sound like it was made of glass, since there is no mention of it breaking when Laura threw it “quite high from the ground” off the porch.
“All the world is queer, except thee and me,” said the old Quaker to his wife, “and sometimes, I think thee is a little queer.”
The Man of the Place once bought me a patent churn. “Now,” said he, “Throw away that old dash churn. This churn will bring the butter in 3 minutes.” It was very kind of him. He had bought the churn to please me and to lighten my work, but I looked upon it with a little suspicion. There was only one handle to turn and opposite it was a place to attach the power from a small engine. We had no engine so the churning must needs be done with one hand, while the other steadied the churn and held it down. It was hard to do, but the butter did come quickly and I would have used it anyway because the Man of the Place had been so kind.
The tin paddles which worked the cream were sharp on the edges and they were attached to the shaft by a screw which was supposed to be loosened to remove the paddles for washing, but I could never loosen it and usually cut my hands on the sharp tin. However, I used the new churn, one hand holding it down to the floor with grim resolution, while the other turned the handle with the strength of despair when the cream thickened. Finally it seemed that I could use it no longer. “I wish you would bring in my old dash churn,” I said to the Man of the Place. “I believe it is easier to use than this after all.”
“Oh!” said he: “you can churn in 3 minutes with this and the old one takes half a day. Put one end of a board on the churn and the other on a chair and sit on the board, then you can hold the churn down easily!” And so when I churned I sat on a board in the correct mode for horseback riding and tho the churn bucked some I managed to hold my seat. “I wish,” said I to the Man of the Place, “you would bring in my old dash churn.” (It was where I could not get it.) “I cut my hands on these paddles every time I wash them.”
“Oh, pshaw!” said he, “you can churn with this churn in 3 minutes—”
One day when the churn had been particularly annoying and had cut my hand badly, I took the mechanism of the churn, handle, shaft, wheels and paddles all attached, to the side door which is quite high from the ground and threw it as far as I could. It struck on the handle, rebounded, landed on the paddles, crumpled and lay still and I went out and kicked it before I picked it up. The handle was broken off, the shaft was bent and the paddles were a wreck.
“I wish,” I remarked casually to the Man of the Place, “that you would bring in my old dash churn. I want to churn this morning.”
“Oh, use the churn you have,” said he. “You can churn in 3 minutes with it. What’s the use to spend half a day—”
“I can’t,” I interrupted. “It’s broken.”
“Why how did that happen?” he asked.
“I dropped it- just as far as I could,” I answered in a small voice and he replied regretfully, “I wish I had known that you did not want to use it, I would like to have the wheels and shaft, but they’re ruined now.”
This is not intended as a condemnation of the patent churns – there are good ones – but as a reminder that being new and patented is no proof that a thing is better, even tho some smooth tongued agent has persuaded us that it will save time.
Also, as the old Quaker remarked to his wife, “Sometimes, I think thee is a little queer.”
churn (BW 2; FB 17-18; BPC 31; TLW 14; THGY 33; PG), see also butter