Butter making was a golden industry for Victoria in the fifty years before the second world war. Most towns in dairy districts had their own local butter factory. By 1905, nearly two hundred factories operated around Victoria, mainly in Gippsland, Goulburn Valley, Central, North East and South West Victoria. Many factories were owned co-operatively by farmers and local businesses and employed at least five men. Often painted an appetising creamy yellow, butter factories became local landmarks and a source of community pride.
Before the growth of these factories, butter was manufactured on farms, usually by women. Hand churning was long, hard work and produced only small amounts of butter which women sold locally. With no refrigeration or sterilising equipment, milk and butter rapidly went rancid.
In less than a decade during the 1890s, butter making was transformed from a cottage industry of dubious quality to a highly productive, standardised and mechanised industry.
The catalyst for change was the development of the mechanical cream separator. This machine separated cream and skim milk rapidly and efficiently enabling mass production of butter. Commercial refrigeration allowed butter to be stored and exported to Europe without the product arriving as a putrid, useless mess. Government bonuses, introduced in 1889, encouraged the development of factories producing butter for export. As early as 1894, Victoria exported over one half of the butter it produced. At this time, butter was Victoria's third most important export. Most butter went to Britain but tinned and boxed butter was also shipped to Asia and America. Australian farmers were fortunate that their cows were most prolific in November to March while European cows were drying off during winter.
During the 1920s and 1930s motor transport allowed butter factories to collect milk from a wider area. The process of amalgamation began as smaller factories combined with larger neighbours. By the late 1960s most local butter factories had either closed or been swallowed by large dairy conglomerates.
The golden age of the butter factory had a profound impact on Victoria's economy and rural environment. In dairying districts most farmers owned a small herd of between five and thirty cows. The extra money these farmers made from butter enabled them to undertake farm improvements, clear land and repay debts. Butter sales enabled some farmers to ride out hard times. This poem, written during the 1890s depression by Miss Rae Laen near Donald captures the importance of butter factories to the small farmer:
"If growing wheat has failed you,
There is plenty left to do;
For while the price is going down,
Just lay aside your ploughs,
Go in for Butter Factories, for Creameries and cows."
View the Butter factories photo collection.