Milk only became the official beverage of Tennessee in 2009, but Tennesseans — and our ancestors — have been drinking milk for over ten thousand years. The processing and distribution of milk have changed dramatically over time: from ancient nomadic tribes drinking exclusively raw milk, to attempts at storage, to the invention of the glass milk bottle in 1884 and the eventual spread of pasteurization. As Tennessee became more settled, dairy farming became a prominent industry statewide. Ride along any country road and you will see tons of cattle. Tennessee is now home to over 170 dairy farms, producing a decent portion of dairy across the country. How did we get here?
The Very Beginning
The first instances of dairy farming began around 10,000 BCE amidst the agricultural revolution. In ancient Egypt, dairy was used only by the most wealthy — think royalty and priests. In other settlements where the populus would commit to cattle herding, dairy farming and cheesemaking became a core cultural practice. From a very early point in human history, these settlements blossomed in any landscape that was conducive to caring for cattle. Ancient pottery fragments found across Europe suggest cheese was made as early as seven thousand years ago. For ancient people, dairy was either used immediately or stored in slate, which kept it relatively cool for extended periods of time. By the year 600 BCE in western Europe, milk was taken from cows and sheep regularly. Generally, it was used to supplement the diets of infants. While mammals are young, we all produce the enzyme lactase internally, which made animal milk a simple choice for babies who needed more food. Luckily for the adults, “lactase persistence” — the continued production of the lactase enzyme into adulthood — developed over time, especially in Europe. This evolution happened relatively quickly: Southern Europeans began developing lactase persistence around five thousand years ago. Central Europeans followed, developing it regularly around three thousand years ago. Today, even the population of Northern Europe is 90% lactase persistent. As milk is high in protein, vitamin D, and calcium, it was a great addition to the diets of people in Northern regions, where dark and cold seasons were an annual threat. In other, isolated areas of Africa and the Middle East, lactase persistence became the norm as well, due to the prominence of pastoral lands. These small locales had the landscapes necessary to feed and care for herds of cattle. During these times, milk was served raw, fresh, and hyperlocally. Generally, this meant milk went only to the family whose farm it came from and their immediate community or village. Though ancient populations made use of dairy regularly, by the 1500s Europeans had a preference for cider, ale, and beer. Because mold would grow in warm and dark in barrels of water, but not alcohol, these beverages made for an easily attainable liquid that was safe to drink.
By the early 1800s, milk was beginning to become popular in North America. As in Europe, it was mostly used to provide extra nutrition for infants and small children. However, a problem soon emerged: as more concentrated populations began to develop, fewer people had the space to keep cattle. Local farms began delivering milk to cities, but transportation methods were very limited. Milk couldn’t be kept cold, and it would take a long while to move from farm to home. Because it was a raw, living, beverage, warmth and time meant that bacteria could grow while it was being delivered. The further milk was from its origin, the more likely it was to contain dangerous bacteria like E. Coli. Infant mortality rates rose considerably in populations that did not raise their own cattle.
Two revolutionary scientists brought forth the solutions people needed: the french-born Louis Pasteur and New Hampshire’s Dr. Henry Thatcher. In the mid-1800s, Pasteur had begun experimentation with his notion of airborne bacteria and germs, analyzing samples under a microscope. By 1862, he conducted the original pasteurization tests, proving that high heat would remove the microorganisms. Though he was met with much doubt from the public, the commercialization of pasteurization machines would begin in 1895. In 1884, Dr. Henry Thatcher patented the first glass milk bottle. He had seen a milkman making deliveries, as they did, from an open bucket. To Thatcher’s disgust, deliveries continued after a small child’s ragdoll had fallen into it. Milk began being pasteurized and stored in glass bottles for delivery as a general standard. These two developments allowed for milk to be more safely distributed among city populations.
In the early 1900s, a temperance movement emerged with milk as its poster child. In an attempt to sway the public away from the more popular beverages of ale, cider, and beer, religious groups began singing the praises of healthy, nutritious, hydrating milk. Many even set up booths for the sale of milk in different towns. They were particularly interested in lessening the prevalence of alcohol in factories, deeming it unsafe, and encouraged business owners to serve milk during breaks at work. These efforts were proven effective, and milk gained popularity as a healthy choice while the industrial revolution flourished. By 1914, the first milk tank trucks were hitting the road.
Here at Home
From the first settlers in Tennessee, livestock like cattle, sheep, and hogs were as integral to the economy as cotton and tobacco. Native Americans soon adopted the practice as well — the Cherokee nation owned over 22,400 cattle by the year 1828 and continued herding after being driven west. As the rise in the popularity of dairy products rose, so did the popularity of Jersey and Holstein cattle. In 1872, Tennesseans formed the Tennessee Jersey Cattle Club. Today, that same club is the most long-standing organization of farmers in the state. In 1910, the Mayfield family of Athens, Tennessee bought 45 Jersey cows, making deliveries around their hometown. Eventually, the invention of refrigeration allowed for the dairy industry to fully blossom. Farms like Mayfield and Milky Way (the predecessor of Mars Candies) found their stride with a product that would last, benefitted by centuries of technological development. Large corporations such as Borden and Carnation bought up farms in Fayetteville and Murfreesboro respectively to produce their dairy. By 1950, Tennessee was the fifth largest provider of cheese in the country. Today, most of our farmers from Nashville to the Smokies benefit far more from the production of dairy and beef than they do from grown crops. Tennessee’s rich history of cattle herding and dairy farming brings us to today, a state still speckled in herds of Jersey cattle, proudly claiming milk as our state drink.