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 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

In 1889 the first North Coast co-operative dairy factory was built at Wollongbar near Lismore, on the property of Edwin Secombe.

The North Coast Fresh Food and Cold Storage Co-operative Pty Ltd built its first butter factory at Byron Bay in 1894. This unwieldy title was replaced in 1904 by the North Coast Co-operative Ltd, and in 1925 further shortened to Norco. The factory was strategically placed near the growing port facilities at Byron Bay used by coastal steamers.

Only a few months after the butter factory began operations, the railway line connecting Lismore, Bangalow, Byron Bay, Mullumbimby and Murwillumbah opened, giving dairy farmers in the Tweed Valley direct access to markets.

The first butter factory in Murwillumbah was established by the Tweed Butter Company in 1897, with Isaac McIlrath as Manager. The Tweed Butter Company became the Tweed River Co-Operative Butter Company in 1905, and later merged with Norco, in 1930. The value of the dairy industry was so great in the area that it was able to support both co-operatives for 25 years.

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

Arthur Loder's dairy farm 'Kniveton Wood', milking time, 1894.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection No: TH91-04

The first dairy farms in New South Wales were established in the Kiama District, south of Sydney, in the 1860s and 1870s. Reports of a warm climate and good farming land on the North Coast drew dairy farmers to the region in the 1880s and dairy cattle were first introduced to the Tweed Valley in the 1890s.

There were two factors that encouraged the growth of the dairy industry in the Tweed Valley:

  • the introduction of grass varieties, in particular, paspalum dilatatum, that were suited to the rich volcanic soils and which enabled the cows to produce more milk
  • the opening of the railway line connecting Lismore, Bangalow, Byron Bay, Mullumbimby and Murwillumbah, which gave dairy farmers direct access to towns along the railway line, and also to Sydney, to sell their butter.

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

Cream cans lined up at the NORCO Butter Factory in Murwillumbah in the 1930s.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection No: TH115-35

Butter boxes were made from Hoop Pine, a timber that was non-tainting, meaning it did not change the smell or taste of the butter packed inside it. The boxes were used to pack export quality butter which was sent as far away as London. The stamp on the box says that the contents were “pasteurised” meaning the milk was sterilised to remove bacteria through a process of heating and then rapidly cooling it.

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

NORCO butter box, manufactured by Munro & Lever Sawmill in GRevillian c1920.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection No: MUS1993.74.1

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

The butter churns at the NORCO Butter Factory Murwillumbah in the 1930s.
Tweed Regional Museum collection, No: TH118-36.

The invention of a mechanised cream separator, allowing for cream to be taken off milk efficiently, changed the lives of dairy farmers. Previously milk was poured into shallow dishes to stand until the cream rose to the top and was then skimmed off by hand.

On the South Coast of NSW Separating Stations were established by cooperative groups of farmers but by the time the Tweed dairies were being established, the machinery had become more affordable so farmers separated the cream from the milk themselves. Rather than wasting the skim milk that was a by-product of the process, the dairy farmers raised pigs and fed it to them. The pigs were then sent to the NORCO factory at Byron Bay to be butchered and turned into bacon, ham, sausages and other products. As their farms produced more cream the local farmers pushed for factories to be established on the Tweed. Butter factories were opened up in Murwillumbah, Tweed Heads, Uki and Tyalgum.

At the factory the cream was weighed, tested for butterfat content, pasteurised, cooled and churned. The butter was salted, tested and packed into boxes for export. For local consumption, it was wrapped by hand in pound and half pound blocks and sold to grocers or sent back to the farmer via the cream carrier. Some farmers’ wives still preferred to make their own butter. A small domestic churn was kept in the dairy and used when needed to make as much as their family required. The cream carriers who delivered cream to the butter factories also delivered food and other necessities to the isolated farming families.

Alma's Story

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

Carrier truck owned by C. W. Rogan, c 1920.
Tweed Regional Museum collection, No: TH204-02

"We got our goods by the cream carriers. They would come three or four times a week and we would have to ring up and give the order for the bread and also the meat. … And you’d hear this poor old wagon with a tray on it and four horses and you’d hear it coming around the bend and the whip cracking and you’d know you’d have to go up and get the goods."

Alma Milsom recalls the arrival of the cream carrier, c. the 1920s/30s,
in Connery, M.L. (ed.) The Way it Was, 1987

Did you know?

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

Milking stool.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection, No: 32905

Most milking stools had three legs so that the person milking them could lean forward towards the cow without losing their balance. A stool with three legs is more stable on uneven ground than one with four legs.

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

The O'Keeffe dairy farm at Duranbah, Brian O'Keeffe feeding calves 1949.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection No: TH101-32

Dairy farming involved all the members of the family and everyone was expected to lend a hand to get all the jobs done, including milking the cows, separating the cream and feeding the calves and other animals.

During the 1950s and 1960s the small local butter factories closed down and were replaced by larger factories with modern machinery and methods of production. Some dairy farms were turned into beef cattle farms, encouraged by government initiatives and the rise in beef cattle prices, and other farmers changed to vegetable production. Once the United Kingdom entered the European Economic Community in 1972 the market for Australian butter was greatly reduced, another factor in the downturn of the dairy industry in the Tweed.

Alice's Story

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

Cream can.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection, No: MUS1986.45

"We worked together. Daph and I worked together. We milked. I milked eight [cows], we always had our share of cows. Daph milked more than the usual. Get up real early and Mum’d say ‘see how many we can get out before the sun hits Mt Warning’. We’d all go like mad. Then you had to clean the bails, separate [the cream]. One’d separate till they got tired, then the other’d take over. Hand milked, washed the separator, wash the cans out, wash the buckets out, feed the calves. Someone had to light the fire to boil the copper up. Dad used to feed the pigs as a rule.”

Alice Lange, who grew up near Uki remembers life on the dairy farm.

Did You Know?

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

Glass butter churn.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection, No: MUS2007.133

One of the reasons dairy farmers in the Tweed started to switch to beef cattle farming and growing crops was that margarine was introduced as a substitute for butter in the 1960s, and became very popular. Because people were eating less butter, not as much milk and cream was required and the farmers couldn’t continue to earn a living from their dairy cattle.

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