The Hometown History column is presented by the Fenton History Center and The Post-Journal. Each Friday, a distinct item from the Fenton History Center collections or archival special collections will be featured. Learn about your hometown history through parts of its past.
If one of the items featured brings back some memories or brings up a question, please contact the Fenton History Center at 664-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org to share your memory or get an answer to your question.
Many articles could be launched from today's artifact: the life of an exceptionally accomplished man and outstanding public benefactor, the history of the farms and land in the part of Busti adjacent to West Ellicott as illustrated by a pioneer family, the great saga of the Chautauqua County and New York state granges, or the political career of a New York state assemblyman. But I am going to hew close to the artifact itself and describe an invention intended to make life better for farm families and their dairy cattle.
The Gifford wood stanchion from the Fenton collection.
The item pictured is a model (at a scale of 2 inches representing 1 foot) of a pair of wooden cow stanchions, devices for holding cows in place in the barn. It was invented and patented by Walter Cornell Gifford, the son of Busti pioneer, Gideon Gifford. He owned one of the largest farms in Busti. His very active life in the public arena is now largely forgotten perhaps because his contributions were so rurally focused. There are short biographies of him in three local history books and the history of the State Grange. None of them mentions his inventions.
He took out three patents on the stanchions, all in 1870 and 1871. He had patented a hay tedder some years earlier. Stanchions, like nearly everything else before steel makers introduced the electric furnace in the 1890s, were made of wood. Gifford's improvements mainly related to the mechanism and ease of latching and unlatching and of releasing and removing the entire stanchions for convenience or emergency. Although we can find ads that show he tried to market his stanchions to some extent from his home, they were so easy to copy that probably few farmers either bought or paid royalties. Gifford never made much effort to promote his device or enforce his patent.
Today's cows are typically held by metal neck stanchions only while they are being milked. Otherwise they move about confined in a "loafing barn" summer and winter but not encumbered by any restraining device on their bodies. In the early 19th century and before, dairy cows were usually tied by a rope or chain around their necks.
Cows in the 19th century were typically let out daily for water and exercise. There was no watering system in early barns. This daily outing allowed them to lick and scratch themselves, vent hostilities and adjust dominance hierarchies, all things that are important to cows that they cannot accomplish when tied up or held in stanchions either one. This daily recess was eliminated in the 20th century when water systems were installed in barns. Farming was moving away from subsistence and general farming (sheep/wool, chickens/eggs, butter, hogs, horse breeding, hay, apples, and maple syrup all from one farm was common) to market dairying. In the process barns were changing from holding four to 10 to holding 15 to 30 cows, so the cows needed to be housed more efficiently. Cows were put in rows often with partitions diving them into pairs. Short chains that slid easily were attached to vertical rods beside the cow's neck. Stanchions were the next step beyond that in modernization.
This model was made after the patents were already granted. It sits on a 15 inch by 6 inch base and stands 12 inches tall. It consists of two units, not exactly identical. Both allow a 6-inch movement (fraction of an inch in the model) of the bottom anchor front and back speaking from the cow's perspective, but one also allows a 6-inch lateral movement of the top anchor, whereas the other top anchor is fixed in all dimensions.
Each unit consists of three vertical boards defining two vertical spaces with the right space used to hold the cow's neck. There is a catch and release lever pinned to the left board.
When released, the center board is free to lift up, but as it does so, the top of the board swerves to the left constrained by a rod on the fixed frame or by a flat steel spring on the sliding unit. This design allows a cow 3 feet side to side. It allows her 6 inches of movement foreword and back plus whatever more she can get from sliding her neck. The right unit gives her 6 inches of lateral movement on the front end, the left unit none. In both cases her head has free up and down movement.
The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County's history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.
Visit www.fentonhistorycenter.org for more information on upcoming events.
If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street Bridge.