Admiring the metal and wooden milking stools that grace her farmhouse in Stanford, Ill. (pop. 670), Jean Mehl, 83, explains her fascination with the practical and ingenious people who built them.
"Most of the stools are one-of-a-kind, made by farmers from whatever they had on hand," says Mehl, who began collecting the relics of rural America 38 years ago. "Farmers are the most resourceful people in the world."
Both Jean and her husband, Harry, 85, grew up on farms and began milking cows at age 6. In those days, nearly every farmer owned a cow or two to provide his family's milk and butter, and a milking stool was a necessity.
"I sat on a T-shaped stool that Dad hammered together," Jean recalls. "We lived through the Depression and wouldn't have thought of buying a stool."
Among her treasured collection of 175 milking stools, most of which are stored in the Mehl's 1890 barn, are the common one-legged styles with pedestals built from table legs, tree branches, wooden planks and porch pillars. Others have three or four legs, a few have handles or bowl-shaped seats for comfort, and some were built with sanitation in mind. One model has a top seat for the milker and a bottom shelf that slid under the cow and held the milk pail off the dirt floor.
"Now this is a real contraption," Jean says about a wooden seat, attached to a giant metal spring, with a leather belt that the milker strapped around his waist so his hands were free as he bounced from cow to cow. "You learned really fast how to balance yourself after you sat in manure," she adds.
Jean bought her first milking stool at a farm auction in 1972. She cleaned up the three-legged stool, painted it blue and used it for a plant stand in her house. Then Harry searched through their barn and found the primitive milking stool that he used as a young man, and a cousin gave Jean a 1920s metal stool made by Hohulin Fence Factory in nearby Goodfield, Ill. (pop. 686).
Fascinated with the various styles and the lowly stool's indispensable role in farming history, Jean and Harry began searching antique stores and second-hand shops for other milking stools. Jean wrote to libraries throughout the state seeking information about stool manufacturers, which sprang up in the 1920s.
"Ice cream parlors were very popular during Prohibition, which caused the government to begin looking at cow barns and classifying Grade-A milk," Jean says. "If you cleaned up your barns and used metal milking stools, you received a premium [price] on milk."
Still, many farmers didn't splurge on factory metal stools, such as the Hohulin model, which sold for 63 cents in the 1929 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. They rigged their own with tractor seats, milk can lids, and parts from corn planters, washing machines and Model T Fords.
"I'd guess it's one of the most unusual collections there is, "says Elmo Springer, 82, a former neighbor who gave the Mehls a metal stool that he built in the 1940s, using a tractors brake housing for the seat.
The Mehls' collection sparks fond memories for Springer, who recalls competing with his three brothers to make the best milking stool. "I made a three-legged stool with a drawer under the seat to hold candy," he says with a chuckle. "That one went by the wayside."
Such reminiscences delight Jean. When she and Harry were younger, they loaded up an assortment of milking stools and displayed them at agricultural fairs, retirement homes, classrooms and club meetings. Jean hopes to interest a museum in permanently housing her collection.
"As the years pass, it's getting hard to find people who remember using a milking stool," Jean says. "Milking a cow by hand is a lost art."
The antique stools aren't easy to find either, though Jean has a surefire method of identifying one. "I just dampen my finger and moisten the stool and see if it smells like a dairy barn," she says.