He was the county’s dairy expert

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 2, 2006

By Ed Shannon, staff writer

About a century ago Freeborn County was one of the nation’s premier dairy regions with about two dozen creameries. And the man who chronicled this phase of the county’s agricultural history was Thomas Elwood Noble. He was the person who helped to write and edit Chapter 32 of the 1911 History of Freeborn County book by Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge.

Noble was well qualified to report on what was then a major part of the county’s farm economy. He had been a dairy farmer near Manchester, a stockholder and former director of the Manchester Creamery Association, and involved with some teaching in the agriculture department at Albert Lea High School.

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This particular chapter in the 1911 book explained how the county’s first major crop of wheat gradually evolved into corn growing and dairy farming. Helping to make this transition possible was a new cream separator developed in Sweden during the 1880s. This device made butter processing easier and soon led to the organization of creameries all over the county.

The county’s first dairy processing firm, the Fountain Lake Creamery, started operations in May 1881. The plant was located at the north end of Broadway Avenue. It was based on the milk and cream from 200 cows, Noble reported. This particular creamery was a stock company owned by a group of Albert Lea businessmen. Somehow, this type of ownership didn’t work out and the creamery ceased operations a few years later.

However, there was another type of ownership which became the standard for most Freeborn County creameries. This was a cooperative where the farmers providing the milk and cream fully controlled the creamery operations and received dividends based on the profits from this venture.

The first cooperative creamery in Freeborn County and in Minnesota was organized in early 1890 at Clarks Grove by a group of mostly Danish-American farmers.

A group of farmers from Riceland Township had been a part of the original group involved with the Clarks Grove Cooperative Creamery Association in Bath Township. They soon found out the distance to haul their milk to Clarks Grove by horse-drawn wagons took too much time. Thus, a few months later they organized their own cooperative creamery.

This distance factor resulted in the creation of cooperative creameries all over the county. Several of these neighborhood -type processing plants actually resulted in the creation of growth of small villages like Lerdal, Armstrong and Mansfield.

Near the creamery was likely the buttermaker’s home, a general store and maybe post office, a nearby rural schoolhouse, and usually a few family residences.

Noble was able to document this growth of county creamery a century or so ago by quoting from a state report.

The 1910 report from the state’s Dairy and Food Commission said there were 28 creameries in Freeborn County. These creameries had 2,728 patrons (suppliers) who owned 27,253 cows. During that year 46,831,330 pounds of milk, 5,195,899 pounds of cream and 4,166,271 pounds of butter fat were received at the creameries. The amount paid to the patrons in 1910 totaled $1,339,682. All this helped to confirm Freeborn County as the &8220;Banner Dairy County of the Northwest.’

Noble was born during 1856 in Marquette, Green Lake County, Wis. In 1882 this confirmed farmer moved to Iowa and on to Manchester in 1885. He farmed 158 acres in Section 26 of

Manchester Township until moving into Albert Lea during 1906.

In 1907 Noble was elected to represent Freeborn County in the Minnesota Legislature and reelected in 1909. He was one of three men in the legislature to list the Prohibition Party as his political affiliation in that era.

Noble was a stockholder in both the Manchester State Bank and the Manchester Cooperative Creamery. He was also a charter member of the Minnesota State Corn Growers Association and served two terms as the first president in 1910 and again in 1911.

The chronicler of the once important dairy farming and creamery business in Freeborn County died on Sept. 13, 1932.

In the seven decades since Noble’s death, dairy farming in Freeborn County has gradually declined and the last two creameries in Clarks Grove and Conger have ceased operations.

(Contact Ed Shannon at ed.shannon@albertleatribune.com or 379-3438.)