Early Ashburton History: The Dairy Industry

So many of us love our milk, butter, and a good bit of cheese. Even the most lactose intolerant among us can seldom resist the allure of ice cream and a good choccy milk (surely the stomach ache is worth it!)

Dairy contributes roughly $10 billion to our economy and is one of our top exports, which is the result of a dramatic shift towards dairying across the country. The current state of affairs is fascinating to talk about, but not as interesting as the early days of dairying in our district. It’s less political and doesn’t involve as much economics; these are the real “grass roots” beginnings.

Small-scale, serving locals

In the early decades of the Victorian period, dairy herds in Aotearoa New Zealand were small in size.

At a time when cows were kept and milked to supplement the limited diet of Pākehā settlers, dairy was less of an industry and more of a necessity. This period was short-lived however, as co-operative dairy companies and factories soon began to pop up all over the place to meet increasing demand during the 1880s, 1890s, and 1900s.

Creamery building at Staveley, 1915.

Early dairy companies in the Hakatere/Ashburton District included one at Flemington, Blackbridge, Staveley, Tinwald, and the Ashburton Co-Operative Dairy Company (later became Midland.) Staveley was perhaps the most successful early company in the area. The company built a cheese factory in 1916 and produced butter also, before being taken over by the Ashburton Dairy Company in 1930.

Interior of Staveley Creamery, 1915. At this point, it appears that hand-churning was no longer necessary and machinery was lightening the load for workers.

From humble beginnings, a burgeoning industry developed across the District which was on the cutting edge of technology at the time.

Machinery assisted dairying

Talk of the development of milking machines arose in the mid-1890s, following the invention of the first proper one by Messrs. Nicholson and Gray from Scotland, in 1892.

Gradually, these steam-powered wonders made their way over here, which supported the ongoing boom in dairying and dairy processing. Even relatively small-scale dairymen were taking advantage of the latest machines and methods, as evidenced by an Ashburton Guardian advertisement from July, 1910.

Milking shed at William Hole’s Springburn farm, c. 1915. A water wheel was used to power the milking machines.

This advert describes a demonstration of the Zealandia Milking Machine, held by the International Harvester Company of America at a Mr. A Toppin’s farm, and that the sole agents appointed for the sale of these machines in Ashburton were the Friedlander Bros. The Zealandia was invented and patented by Mr. Norman Daysh of Wairarapa and was brought to public attention in May 1910, merely two months before it was being demonstrated in Ashburton.

Not long after this demo, the machinery department of Farmers’ Co-Op in Ashburton were also selling the Zealandia machine.

Daily delivery

Many of you will remember having milk delivered daily, a service which gradually stopped in the 1990s, or perhaps you may recall doing a milk run when you were a child to earn a bit of pocket money. As evidenced by adverts and articles from the Guardian during the 1910s and 1920s, this is the period in which milk delivery really took off in Ashburton.

Dairyman E. J. Kimber with his milk delivery bike and cart. Kimber began delivering milk around Ashburton in February 1922, and sold his business in July 1924 to R. S. White.

Coinciding with the increased level of production afforded by the factories and machines, individuals saddled up their horses, fuelled up their motorcycles, and hitched on their milk carts with the purpose of providing convenience to families across the district. An advert was put out in the Guardian in late April, 1911, notifying the public that “we, the undersigned Dairymen of Ashburton, wish to notify the public that from the 1st of May MILK WILL BE SUPPLIED ONCE A DAY until further notice. J Hepburn, A Topping, John Olsen, John Hunt, Thomas Meaclem.”

Mr. A Topping, mentioned above, was singled out and given praise in 1912 for his particularly impressive dairy herd and immaculate cow byre (cattle shed), which was cleaned after each milking “with an abundance of water.” Topping was clearly a highly trusted dairyman, he even won the tender for supplying milk to the Ashburton Hospital Board.

A milk cart that belonged to A. Topping of Milton Farm, Elgin.

Young kids were often employed to go on milk runs before school, a phenomenon which was even more popular than paper runs in some parts of the country.

We are fortunate enough at the Ashburton Museum to have several good photographs showcasing the rise of dairying and dairy processing in our District, as seen on this page. How do you reckon these operations compare to what we see today?

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 6 November 2021.

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