Dairy Farming: Johnson County’s Most Prominent Industry

With the current expanse of suburbs covering much of Johnson County, it’s hard to imagine that dairy farming served as the county’s leading industry from the 1870s to the 1950s. Family dairies dotted the countryside, and in the 1870s, the county had over 2,500 farmers producing almost 25,000 pounds of cheese and nearly 220,000 pounds of butter. By 1929, farmers  in Johnson County regularly produced over three million gallons of milk a year. At one point, 285 dairy farms thrived in the Kansas City metro area. These dairies primarily produced milk, cream, and butter for the family and farmhands who resided there before excess product was sold to local residents and grocery stores.

Horizontal rectangular black and white copy photograph of man identified as Medard "Boots" Vankeirsbilck standing next to delivery truck marked "MAPLE DAIRY" He wears dark colored cap, long sleeved shirt and overalls; holds a wire basket/tray containing 6 bottles of milk.  Snow on ground.

Medard “Boots” Vankeirsbilck standing next to a Maple Dairy delivery truck. Source: Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCo History

A typical day at a dairy began between 1:00 and 2:00 am when milking started. This continued until about 6:30 am when trucks started delivering milk to individual homes and grocery stores. Milk delivery went out daily, regardless of weather conditions. The left over milk and separated cream would then be made into cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products. The entire family worked on the farm by completing various chores including herding cattle, gathering eggs, bottling and delivering milk, canning, and cleaning milk bottles. Usually, additional help came from farm hands who lived on the property with the family. Gene White recalls his mother cooking three meals a day for not only her family, but also their farm hands during his family’s time operating the Wolverine Dairy Farm, located at 85th and Metcalf. Hugh and Mary White bought the farm from F.O. Hebeler and operated the dairy from 1941 to 1949. When the family sold the dairy, they opened the White Haven Motor Lodge.

Black and white photographic print, an informal portrait the four children of Hugh and Mary White on the Wolverine Dairy farm. The four are near a shed on the farm. Three stand while Gene, the youngest, sits on a horse. Bob White stands at the left. Joe stands at the center. He wears a cap and holds a light-colored rabbit. Louise, at the right, wears a dark-colored sweater, light-colored skirt, and holds a dog. The silo is visible in the background at the left. A fence is at the extreme right. Museum label: ""2013.22.12"" Handwritten on back of original print: Bob 15 Joe 8 Louise 14 Gene 4 Pony 2

Bob 15, Joe 8, Louise 14, Gene 4, Pony 2: the four children (and pony) of Hugh and Mary White on the Wolverine Dairy farm. Source: Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCo History

Black and white photographic print, an exterior view of the cow barn at the Wolverine Dairy farm. The light-colored, single story frame building has a row of small windows along the side and three in the gable end. The roof sags and bricks weight down a section at the left. A cylindrical metal vent is at the peak of the roof at the left. A small lean-to is at the right. A gate and fence is at the far right.

Barn on the Wolverine Dairy Farm Source: Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCo History

As men left for the war in the 1940s, seventy-five dairies in Johnson County closed because of the lack of farm hands. In the 1950s, industrialization began to overtake Johnson County’s rural infrastructure. In 1951, dairy farmer Harry Walmer sold the farm his family established in 1879. He explained his decision by stating, “workable land is becoming too scarce and the taxes are getting too high. The real estate men are beginning to call more and more – but that’s what you have to expect when each acre will sell for $1,000 – $1,500.”  Though it seems much of Johnson County’s farming past has made way for shopping centers and subdivisions, dairy farming is still a thriving, billion dollar industry. Residents can even take a tour of a working dairy barn at the Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead located at Switzer and 135th St in Overland Park. Here, visitors can see live milkings twice daily and view a video on the history of the dairy industry in Kansas, in addition to many other activities on the farmstead.

Black and white photograph of Richard Jorgensen standing beside a cow in a yard. Richard wears a long sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled. He stands to the right of the spotted cow. Behind him there are several other cows, a partially visible silo, and two partially visible structures. This photo is a part of the 1950-51 F.F.A. Scrapbook; "Supplemental Section." Typed on white paper above photo: "Jorgensen, Bill- Sophomore; 2nd yr. vo-ag; Greenhand; One Reg. Holstein Bull Calf; One Reg. Holstein Cow; One red Feeder Calf; Dairy, Beef, Corn, etc.; 15 acres of field corn and ¼ acre of potatoes; Chapter Property managing and Repair Committee; C Judging Team."
Richard Jorgensen circa 1950 Source: Johnson County Museum College on JoCo History

-Amanda Wahlmeier, Johnson County Library

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