By the 1890s dairying was an important part of agriculture in the lower Hunter Valley. Tobacco production had all but disappeared due to disease and reduced market prospects while much of the area's wheat and sheep production had moved inland as pastoralism expanded west of the ranges where the climate was more suited to these enterprises. That left dairying, horticulture, beef and pig production as key enterprises in the lower Hunter.
Above: Oaklands creamery in Victoria in 1903, a typical country creamery.
In 1878 Gustaf De Laval in Sweden invented the first practical machine to separate cream from milk (although he did not invent the idea). De Laval's was the first centrifugal cream separator in which milk flowed continuously and was spun and the cream separated as it moved through the machine. The cream flowed out continuously through one spout and the skim milk through another. De Laval soon had competition from Denmark where larger, faster separators were produced.
In 1882 the Fresh Food and Ice Company, established by Thomas Mort in 1875, imported two Danish separators for its factories at Mittagong and Darling Harbour, the first separators to be brought into Australia. They were large, steam-powered models designed to be used in factories or creameries rather than on individual farms. Creameries were so named because they only separated cream but did not make butter and cheese on-site whereas factories did both.
By the late 1880s many milk factories and creameries were operating, particularly on the south coast. Farmers in the district brought their milk to the factory or creamery to have it separated into cream and skim milk. They usually sold the cream to the factory and brought home some skim milk to feed to pigs.
Establishment of the Vacy creamery
Above: the remains of the Vacy creamery as seen from space (GPS: 32° 32.230'S 151° 34.578'E. Open in Google Earth).
In September 1892 a group of farmers met at Vacy to discuss the establishment of a creamery and from there things moved quickly. Mr JB Albion financed the creamery as its owner while Mr Gilbert Cory of Vacy provided a piece of land at a nominal price. In today's terms the site was just over Vacy bridge on the right as you drive north. The concrete foundations are still visible as shown on the google earth image at right.
William Keppie and James Oldfield were awarded the contract for its construction. The creamery was opened on 18 December 1892 and part of the Maitland Mercury's report is as follows:
The dimensions of the building are 35 feet by 16 feet, and 13 feet high. The boiler room is 10 feet square, and the boiler of 6 horse power, and the engine is of 4 horse power. The two separators are capable of holding 180 gallons of milk. There is also a reservoir for heating milk. The receiving tanks allow for weighing 120 gallons of milk at a time. A windlass is arranged to draw the milk from the carts, and the water required is pumped up from the river, near which the creamery is situated.
A complete photo of the Vacy creamery has not been found but it would have looked something like the Oaklands creamery shown above. Creameries were almost always two storeys high so carts could drive underneath where the milk cans were hauled to the top storey by block and tackle (or steam winch in larger factories). Here the milk was weighed then fed by gravity into the separators where the cream and skim milk flowed into different containers. If the farmer wished he could move his cart along to a skim milk line and fill his empty milk cans with skim milk to take back to the farm (unfortunately an effective way to share diseases such as tuberculosis among the local farms in the days before pasteurisation and TB testing).
Above: the roof and boiler flue (chimney) of Vacy Creamery can just be seen through the railing of Vacy Bridge. The photo was taken upstream on the southern side of Paterson River about 1894 (photo courtesy of Wayne Patfield and Colin Horn).
Vacy creamery closed for a while in late 1893, probably due to the severe economic depression in the colony at the time, combined with local flooding. Perhaps Mr Albion had borrowed to establish the creamery and became insolvent when the depression hit? In July 1894 the creamery was purchased and reopened by William Heap from Sydney (apparently known locally as Uriah Heap). It closed permanently in September 1899.
Like all these small district creameries, its life was short due to technological changes, the first of which was the rapid uptake of small, affordable, hand-powered separators on farms in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Being able to separate cream on-farm had several advantages. Farmers did not have to cart bulky milk cans to the creamery, instead they could just deliver cream, and they could retain the skim milk on farm to feed to pigs.
The second change was that refrigeration was becoming more affordable. Previously the expense limited its use to large city-based butter factories but as refrigeration technology improved and the cost decreased, regional butter factories were able to compete with their city-based counterparts. For example, butter factories were established at Gostwyck, Bowthorne, Duckenfield Park and Raymond Terrace.
The combination of on-farm separation and regional butter factories sounded the death knell for small district creameries. One by one they shut down, the Osterley creamery, for example, closing in 1903.
Above: the foundations of Vacy creamery in 2012. The raised block with four bolts was probably for the steam engine.
Above: the location of Vacy Creamery as shown on the 1897 plan for the current Vacy bridge (courtesy of Roads and Maritime Services archives). It indicates that the raised cantilevered loading stage of the creamery faced north. The track shown below the bridge is Clarke's crossing, where people crossed before the first Vacy bridge was built.
History of dairying in the Williams River valley on-line.
Maitland Mercury, various issues.
Clements, Pauline. Vacy ... 180 years of History. Paterson, 2003.
Todd, Jan. Milk for the Metropolis - a Century of Co-operative Milk Supply in New South Wales. Sydney, 1994.