Pasto Ag Museum public open house features butter, churns

September 15, 2011

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The next open house held at Penn State's Pasto Agricultural Museum, scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 25, will feature butter and churns and their historical significance in America's agrarian past.

Previously open only by appointment and during the three days of Ag Progress Days in August, the museum is welcoming visitors from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. every Sunday during Penn State home football weekends as part of a new initiative to increase public awareness of the museum's collection. Other open houses are set for Oct. 9, 16 and 30, and Nov. 13.

Museum curator Rita Graef said the open houses will help the public appreciate the time when energy for work was supplied by the power of humans and animals.

"By seeing and touching tools and equipment used in early agriculture and rural life, people will better understand how early technological developments led to modern-day technologies," she said.

Butter is as old as history, Graef noted, with a record of use as early as 2,000 years before Christ. The word butter comes from bou-tyron, which means "cowcheese" in Greek. The original practice of the Arabs and Syrians was to use a vessel made from goatskin for a churn.

"According to history books, some of the most common archaeological finds in Ireland are barrels of ancient butter, buried in the bogs," she said. "The Norsemen, the Finns, the Icelanders and the Scots had done the same: They flavored butter heavily with garlic and stuffed it into a wooden container. The longer it was left buried, they believed, the more delicious it became."

Farm production of butter in this country began at least as early as the 1700s. "Dairy butter," as this product was called, was collected as "pats," "balls" and "rolls" for sale or barter. In the 1880s and 1890s, paraffin paper -- later replaced by vegetable parchment --was used as a wrapper.

"Historical accounts tell us that farm wives first skimmed the cream from the surface of milk and allowed it to 'set' in shallow bowls or pails," Graef explained. "The cream usually then was churned in the old familiar wooden 'dash churn,' typically operated by farm boys. Other forms of churns were introduced from time to time, such as rocker and circular churns with revolving paddles.

"We have some examples of these devices at the Pasto Museum."

Farm wives in early days often used their butter as barter at the general stores in small country towns or at trading centers in exchange for merchandise needed at home.

"We'll be pulling out of storage all the butter-related items we can find at the museum for the Sept. 25 open house," Graef said. "So, stop by to see the extent of our collection, or bring your own butter-related item along as a 'show and tell.'"

More information on the museum, which is operated by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, and its open houses is available at online. To receive information and event reminders via email, send a message to

Located on the Ag Progress Days site at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center at Rock Springs -- nine miles southwest of State College on Route 45 -- the museum features hundreds of rare farm and home implements from the "muscle-power era," before the advent of electricity and gasoline-powered engines.

  • Youth inspect a butter churn at the Pasto Agricultural Museum.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated September 16, 2011