A fierce battle is being waged today over the pros and cons of pasteurized milk. But in the early decades of the 20th century, improvements that could bring safer cows’ milk to market couldn’t come fast enough. One of the farms leading the way was located in Avon Township, now known as Rochester Hills. It was owned and managed by Sarah Van Hoosen Jones, a pioneer dairy farmer in Michigan.
Jones inherited a farm that had fed her family for five generations, thanks to its rich, black soil, and turned it into a commercial dairy operation. She kept a small village employed, fed and housed, even turning a profit during the Depression. “Anybody that grew up in Detroit from the 1920s to the 1950s was affected by Van Hoosen Farm,” said Patrick McKay, supervisor of interpretive services at the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.
A century ago, doctors were eyeing milk as a cause of high infant mortality. According to The Untold Story of Milk by Ron Schmid, dairy operations at the time were far from idyllic. Some cows were fed swill from liquor distilleries. Although pasteurization had already been developed in Europe, the standard for milk in the United States was Grade A. An interim standard called Certified Milk was developed in New York. To earn certification, dairies had to undergo inspections of their facilities, their animals and employees, plus bacterial testing and chemical analysis of the milk.
When Jones took over management of her family’s 400-acre farm in 1927, five years after earning her PhD at the University of Wisconsin, she purchased 50 cows from tenant farmer Frank Barnett. He “aspired to the production of Certified Milk,” Jones wrote in her memoir.
“This was a new idea. … Mr. Barnett sought out the rules for the production of Certified Milk, a cleanly produced food. This idea and its implementation spread throughout the country.”
The first certified milk sold in Detroit came from the Van Hoosen Farm under the Stonyhurst Dairy name. “I bought it by the gallon because their milk went to the hospitals in Detroit, it tested so high,” said Gail Kemler, a lifelong Rochester resident. “Everybody knew that everything was done properly.” Though she had to travel a few extra miles to the farm to buy it, Kemler said it was worth the trip. “It was so good.” It was also less expensive than the milk sold in stores in town or by home delivery, she recalls.
The same year Jones took over management of the farm, she hired Morris Place as herdsman. Place had grown up on a farm, started veterinary school and worked for an organization that tested milk. Place experimented with milking the farm’s purebred Holstein-Friesian cows up to four times a day to produce more milk. The barn was electrified before the farmhouse, and milking went on at all hours.
“Science was behind practically all the activities,” Jones wrote. “The successful farmer was the one who followed the latest practices suggested by the agricultural college and above all made a paying business enterprise of his farming activities.”
In 1933, Michigan Farmer Magazine named Jones Michigan’s first female Master Farmer. She went on to become a nine-time Michigan Premier Breeder. “She was progressive in very tough economic times, and I think she thrived on that,” says Morris Place Jr.
In 1938, Jones opened a farm store called At the Sign of the Black and White Cow. It sold the farm’s dairy products, chickens and eggs and goods made by local residents. “There was a woman who did the most wonderful cinnamon-raisin bread,” says Mary Eberline, whose family moved to Stony Creek Village in 1948 when she was 3 years old. She attended school around the corner and remembers that the school’s milk came from the farm in little glass bottles.
Eberline’s earliest memory is of the farm’s horses. “[ Jones] didn’t have tractors until much later,” she explains. “It was much more labor intensive because of the lack of machinery on the place. So it was a slower pace. It was idyllic, from a child’s perspective.” Place Jr. puts the farm’s heyday at 1942–43, when it could still get by doing things with little mechanization and low wages. “After the Depression, credit was key and she didn’t make that transition,” he says. “We were the last farm to go to tractors.” The unwillingness to spend money to upgrade was both an economic reality and a philosophy. “I think that’s how she was programmed,” Place explains. “And for her business model it certainly was right. She didn’t believe in leveraging.”
Jones retired in 1952, and four years later, with no heirs of her own, she bequeathed the farm to Michigan State University. She died in 1972.
During her career Jones was elected to two, six-year terms on the State Board of Agriculture. In 1957 MSU named a building after her. When she died, MSU President Clifton Wharton called her “one of Michigan’s true pioneers.” She’s now enshrined in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, where the citation credits her with “guiding the progressive growth of Michigan State University.”
Place Jr. says Jones hoped her farm would become an educational branch of MSU. But shortly after she donated it, another Avon Township resident, Matilda Dodge Wilson, did the same with her Meadow Brook Farm. Wilson’s donation was accompanied by several million dollars and led to the creation of Oakland University.
Eberline says she feared Jones as a child but understands now that she had to be strong. “For a woman literally wearing the pants and running a farm in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, you had to be tough,” she explains. She and Kemler agree that Jones knew she was leaving a mark in history. “She was looking at her legacy,” Eberline says. “I think she definitely felt that way.”
Guided tours are available on Wednesdays through Saturdays at 1:30 and 3 p.m. Other times are available by appointment. The Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm: 1005 Van Hoosen Rd., Rochester Hills; 248-656-4663
Annette Kingsbury is a freelance writer in Oakland County. This article orginally appeared in edibleWOW’s summer 2010 issue. Photos courtesy of The Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.