June is “Dairy Month,” an annual celebration that began in 1937. It is a time to reflect on dairy foods and the industry that makes it possible. Oktibbeha County’s heartland for many years was home to about a thousand dairy farms in the 1940s. Dairy farmers share a passion for their livelihoods and in producing wholesome, nutritious dairy products for people of all ages to enjoy. There was the Co-operative Creamery, The MSU DP (Dairy Department), Bordens, Pyrons, A & M Dairy, and Realicious Dairies, and maybe others who produced dairy products in the County.
For many years, Starkville was known as the “Dairy Center of the South.” In fact, the Chamber of Commerce published a booklet entitled, “Oktibbeha—The Jersey County of The South in 1924.” This was before Borden located here in 1926. There were dairy parades with more than 60 floats, ice cream celebrations and many other events celebrating June as dairy month. The old days of hearing the clanging of the milk cans as they were picked up from the milk stands on dusty rock roads are no longer. All the dairy cattle and dairy industries are now gone from the county except the MSU dairy and our one remaining dairyman, Johnny McReynolds who continues his love of dairying.
Dairying in Oktibbeha County began with Col. W. B. Montgomery, who lived near Starkville and was recognized throughout the South as the leading pioneer breeder of the finest strain of Jersey cattle to be had. A number of his cows had been imported from the Isle of Jersey. For some time he was the owner of “Champion of America,” then recognized as the best Jersey bull in America. The descendants of these splendid animals and of later importations were found in all parts of Oktibbeha County. With the introduction of the Jersey milch cow the planting of clovers and domestic grasses began in the vicinity of Starkville.
At that time Col. Montgomery was owner and editor of “The Southern Live Stock Journal.” This paper probably had the largest circulation of any publication of its kind in the South. For some time, Mr. H. W. Collingwood, who became editor of the Rural New Yorker, was associate editor of the Journal and resided in Starkville.
It was due largely to Col. Montgomery’s prestige and influence that the State Legislature in 1878 passed an act providing for the establishment of the Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College. And it was probably due to the fact that the Jersey cow had signified her approval of Oktibbeha County as entirely suitable for the first colonization of her kind in the South that the A. & M. College was located in Starkville.
As the Jerseys increased, the pastures in Starkville territory improved and extended each year. All clovers and domestic grasses believed to be suited to the county were introduced from time to time by stockmen as well as by the College, and the pastures and farmlands became thoroughly inoculated for them. The best authorities of a number of states readily admitted that they knew of no section in which such great variety of valuable pasture plants were so well established as they were in Oktibbeha County.
For many years the splendid pastures in Starkville’s territory called forth expressions of surprise and admiration from the casual visitor. Our own people being used to seeing good pastures all their lives have not always appreciated our natural advantages in this regard. Our people always had a few good cows and they knew how to take care of them. More cows, better cows, bigger and better pastures in 1924 was the tendency. Oktibbeha County was thoroughly “inoculated” with the dairying spirit.
The topography of the county is gently rolling. The limestone or Selma Chalk bluffs are in frequent evidence. And their slowly eroding surfaces continually serve to enrich the hill slopes, valleys and wide creek bottoms that lie below them. Twelve or fifteen miles east of Starkville this formation flattens out into the level or undulating lands known as the black prairie belt. Sour or crawfishy areas are seldom seen in Starkville territory.
The rich limey lands of Oktibbeha extend a warm welcome to the clovers and domestic grasses. A new and valuable variety comes in every year or so. For instance, in 1918, our dairymen didn’t know there was such a clover as Black Medic. They would see a stray sprig of it now and then and call it hop clover. But this wonderfully prolific Medicago liked the warm lime lands of Oktibbeha and proceeded to make itself at home. A few stockmen planted the seed, but most of them merely waited for it to come. And then from early spring to midsummer Black Medic had as large a milk yield to its credit as Lespedeza did in the latter half of the season.
The1920 Census Report placed the number of Dairy Cattle in Oktibbeha County at 13,677 and of this number 7,640 were two years old and older. These figures do not include beef cattle. Since this report was issued the number of dairy cows largely increased, as the tendency was to turn from beef cattle to dairy cows.
People saw that Col. W. B. Montgomery invested in jersey cattle and soon built up the largest herd in the South if not in the United States. His success led others to follow, notably Col. H. L. Muldrow, who at one time owned one of the choicest herds to be found in the country. The little jersey’s popularity grew as her merits became known and scores of our people became owners of small herds. In this way Starkville came to be recognized as Jersey Center of the South. From these various herds, representative farmers in almost every neighborhood in the county obtained bulls of great merit, and the common stock was graded up for several generations. As a result almost all the cattle in this section were 1/2 to 31-32 Jersey blood. These grade cows proved themselves almost as good for milk and butter as their pure Jersey ancestors and were hardier. A great demand grew up for these grade cattle.
Louisiana and Texas parties bought them by the thousands and many went to old Mexico and Central America to form dairy herds. The prices of these cattle ranged from $25 to $75, provably averaging nearly $40 each. Several firms of enterprising young men made a business of buying up this grade Jersey cows, keeping them till fresh in milk and selling again. Saunders & Hogan, Ames & White, R. P. Washington and A. W. Halbert all did a large business of this kind, as well as pasturing, feeding and selling thousands of beef cattle annually. About 75 carloads of milk cattle were shipped from this point in 1896. These men advertised their business and pushed it, and kept the grade Jersey before the public till they have brought numerous buyers, thus creating a demand and enhancing values. These men sold cattle in Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico in carload lots. There were numerous creameries or dairies scattered all over and the butter shipped amounted to several thousand dollars each year.
Oktibbeha’s rich agricultural history dates back to the 1800s. The importation of the jersey cattle by rail and its growth increased to the point that the county became the “Dairy Center of the South.” Some can still recall the days of seeing the cattle drives coming down the streets of Starkville to be loaded on the train and shipped to other states. Others remember getting up early in the morning to milk, feed, etc. Though dairying is no longer a thriving business in our county, silos still dot the landscape of our county serving as landmarks to this great agricultural endeavor which helped grow our county’s economic base.
Celebrate June Dairy Month by raising a glass of milk to our dedicated dairy farm families of the past and to MSU’s dairy products we continue to enjoy today such as ice cream, cheese, milk, etc. and to Johnny McReynolds, our last Oktibbeha County dairy farmer.