History Matters column: Oct. 14, 2014 Skimming the surface of Manatee's dairy industry

There is a strong force of habit or perhaps a sixth sense cows on a dairy farm possess -- or maybe it is simply the discomfort of a full udder.

But if you have ever visited a dairy farm, it is so interesting to see the "girls" moving toward the milking parlor at the same time each day.

If a farm has a schedule of milking twice a day, morning and evening, you can be assured the cows will make their way to just the right gate at the right time twice a day -- they'll be there!

If there is not a routine established, eventually a cow will not produce any milk. In order to maximize milk production, a successful dairy farm will maintain a consistent milking routine.

We had numerous Manatee County dairies in the past that were quite successful, so they must have had happy cows, well-established in routine! But these days seeing "the cows come home" has become a rarity in Manatee County.

In 1957, an article in the Bradenton Herald mentions 29 dairies operating in Manatee County.

Today, only three dairies are left.

Many people remember when dairies were prevalent in the county, when milk boxes were placed outside for their morning delivery of milk in those iconic glass bottles emblazoned with the dairy name. In those days, milk was a staple at practically every meal. Who were these dairy men who worked daily to provide fresh milk for the county?

One of the most successful Manatee County dairymen was Manatee County Hall of Fame inductee

Herman Burnett, a native of Manatee County. He began operating Burnett Brothers Dairy in 1927 on First Street near current-day Astro Skate Center and the DeSoto Square mall.

He bought out his brothers and expanded to two 500-acre farms with 800 milk cows in Elwood Park. He was the largest independent dairyman on the West Coast of Florida and one of the largest dairymen in the state.

The original family property on First Street became the processing, bottling and distribution center for Burnett Dairy until he sold this part of the business in 1954 to Hood Dairy Inc. for $225,000. He continued with milk production and delivered on average 1,400 gallons of milk daily to Hood for several years.

Another successful dairyman and Hall of Fame inductee was Cecil Reagan. He moved to Manatee County in 1954, but before World War II he ran a dairy in St. Petersburg where during wartime he experimented with producing flavored milk when soda was scarce. He sold many popular flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, cherry, and even an unusual, but probably not popular attempt at root beer-flavored milk.

He decided to move to Manatee County after the war and purchased more than 1,000 acres of land off Upper Manatee River Road. He named his dairy Milk Way Farms. At the peak of season, Reagan and his staff milked more than 1,000 cows daily.

Although he retired from the dairy business in 1992, when asked why he chose to operate a dairy, he responded he thought it would be a stable career choice as milk is consumed by most families.

Today, milk may not be the most popular beverage consumed by families because of a variety of factors such as medical and taste preferences, including the growing popularity of nut and seed milks on the beverage market. However, the Manatee County Agricultural Museum still seeks to preserve the history of this important part of the agricultural history in Manatee County.

Some of the other well-known and lesser-known dairies for which we have artifacts or limited information are Baden's Dairy, Cream Crop Dairy Farms, Sunshine Dairy, Musgrave's Dairy, Moore's Dairy, Manatee Dairies, Crestview Dairy and Hood Dairy to name a few.

Melissa Dagenais, curator for the Manatee County Agricultural Museum, loves learning about history, foodways and supporting local agriculture. She can be reached at Melissa.Dagenais@manateeclerk.com or 941-721-2034.