Butter Factory at Mount Verd

Butter Factory at Mount Verd


Sandra Nipper Ratledge

Another untold story of hard-working nineteenth century folks is rooted in the ridges of Mount Verd in McMinn County, TN. As early as 1860, a butter factory began operation there near the vicinity of the double bridges in the fourth civil district. Today's newcomers are easily lost, but just mention "the double bridges" to old timers, and without doubt, they can pinpoint the exact location. Why, folks from North Athens west to Mount Verd, way up to Pond Hill, through Clearwater, across to Fiketon, and over to Idlewild -- just about everybody -- referred to the spot simply as the double bridges! Most traveled across them to visit the courthouse and merchantile businesses in Athens, county seat of McMinn. Traversing North Mouse Creek, the two bridges became familiar landmarks to all citizens around Mount Verd, a rural area whose name means "green mountain." This was once a pastoral countryside abounding in various deciduous and evergreen trees, hence the name verd.

On June 4, 1860, a well-known and competent Athens attorney named Frank S. Hale, aged twenty-eight, began recording citizens in the first civil district of McMinn County for the required U.S. census enumeration. By June 28, he had made his solitary journey probably on horseback to the fourth civil district northwest of Athens and began listing inhabitants there. Although this area was not located within the town proper, it had an Athens Post Office. On June 29, he began knocking on doors at Mount Verd. Mr. Hale's meticulous attention to detail and artistic cursive handwriting provide a lasting primary source from which researchers can glean local history.

According to Hale's 1860 enumeration, the butter business employed seventeen white women ranging in age from forty to as young as sixteen. Obviously, they had to be strong and able-bodied to endure such repetitive hard labor. No doubt they were taught by mothers and grandmothers who churned butter in their own homes in order to feed hungry families and to barter with local merchants. Bartering with butter was a common practice in the nineteenth century as evidenced by classified advertisements in The Athens Post in 1861. For example, A. C. Robeson, owner of an Athens merchantile, advertised for good butter which he wanted for resale in his store. For wealthy customers and other town residents alike, it was simply easier to purchase this desirable commodity from local merchants.

So, even very young girls grew adept at moving dashers up and down inside wooden barrel churns. After that time-consuming chore, butter was pressed into wooden molds often chiseled with various designs inside the tops. These intricate decorations such as sheaves of wheat, etc. were impressed into tops of rounded or rectangular butter as it cooled in cellars or underground "dairies." After cooling, butter pucks or bricks could be dislodged from the mold, and then tops displayed these attractive designs. Butter was often sold in community markets, and the ornamental decorations identified its various makers.

In the United States, cheese factories began producing and distributing products in the 1850s. Then, about ten years later, the first butter factories began operating.1 So, in 1860, Mount Verd's obviously numbered among the first. On average, 11.2 quarts of fresh milk yielded only a pound of butter. By contrast, fourteen quarts of milk yielded one pound of butter plus two pounds skim cheese; thus, producers soon found it more profitable and less wasteful to make both.2 Milk from cows grazing in pastures free of wild onions and other aromatic weeds produced the most palatable, desirable product.

Butter factories were chinked log structures with roofs of wooden shingles and furnished inside with rough boards for shelving, simple work tables, stools, cane-bottomed chairs, and necessary equipment. A constant water supply and cold storage areas were essential for production. Besides wooden milk buckets, equipment included various types of churns such as plunger, barrel, or box churns. Shallow troughs were required for the ten-day fermentation; curd agitators and cutters were used in that process. Later, wooden rollers facilitated whey removal.3 Butter was often stored in wooden firkins. Wooden butter markers and rollers were also standard tools.

Maintaining a dependable work force, largely dominated by women of child-bearing age, was a major business concern. Into the fourth civil district of McMinn County in 1850, however, numerous widow women and their offspring had already flocked. Then, by 1860, even more middle-aged widows were enumerated as heads of their own households. Bear in mind that this was before the Civil War decimated male heads of households across the nation. In fact, many of these widows had several unmarried daughters who were old enough to serve as wage earners. Why then was such an inordinate number of households in the fourth civil district headed by widows in 1860 and, furthermore, widows with several single daughters of employment age? Why were so many of these same households situated on land along North Mouse Creek and near the double bridges in Mount Verd Community?

Common sense dictated that widows find employment for older single daughters in order to supplement family income. If widows had no sons to serve as farm laborers, then daughters by necessity had to be "hired out" as domestic servants in more economically advantaged households, washer women in hotels and boarding houses, cotton and wool spinners, seasonal crop-pickers, etc. Thus, these families found it lucrative to set up housekeeping within reasonable walking distance of the spinning mill and butter factory where daughters could work and maintain steady income for elderly mothers and younger siblings rather than being "hired out" only part-time or temporarily.

Another drawing factor to Mount Verd in the 1850s was the Metcalfe Cotton Factory located in the same vicinity. Here widows and their unmarried daughters could support themselves by spinning cotton. Owner Charles Metcalfe, a Kentucky native and War of 1812 veteran,4 was enumerated as a "manufactural farmer" in the fourth civil district of McMinn County,TN with property then estimated at $16,000. His six slaves were mostly children except for one female aged 39. His sons owned five slaves as well but had only one mature male, aged twenty-three, among them. Slaves not only worked the fields but also picked and baled cotton for the spinners working in the factory. Some slaves were rented on a weekly or monthly basis from wealthy slave holders like Alexander Cleage.

Cotton was a major product of the Metcalfe farm, and the owner continued to acquire more farmland for growing it. This is evident in McMinn County Deed Book M, dated 21 Feb. 1855, in which, by Chancery Court Decree, heirs of Nathaniel Smith sold 140 acres and 60 acres of Stephen Smith's to Charles Metcalfe. With this single purchase, Metcalfe added 200 acres to his already valuable real estate holdings. Five years earlier, on the 1850 census, "Nat." D. Smith's property had been valued at $1,000.

Along North Mouse Creek at Mount Verd, Mr. Metcalfe established a mill, improved the property, constructed additional buildings, and supervised operations for at least a decade. In 1850, he was listed as fifty-six years of age and so born about 1794. By the close of the decade, he was planning disposal of his property and thereby relinquishing responsibilities. McMinn County Deed Book M (p. 331), dated 1 Sept. 1859, records Charles Metcalfe deeded the "land on big Mouse Creek, including all the mills, factories, machines, buildings, and water privileges, that Metcalfe has heretofore enjoyed upon said land to C. L. King and Thomas B. McElwee for the sum of $21,000.00." This was a vast fortune at that time.

The following day, dated 2 Sept. 1859, (p. 335), Thomas B. McElwee and C. L. King are recorded as deeding "the one fourth undivided interest in the property in deed on page 331, above" to Hugh McElwee, a relative of C. L. King's wife Julia (McElwee) King. M. L. Phillips had also acquired interest in the properties as revealed (p.337) where Thomas B. McElwee deeded to M. L. Phillips 3/8 undivided interest in property in deed on page 331. So, Thomas McElwee sold half his shares in said property to Phillips thus resulting in Charles L. King being the major share holder. Chancery Court Records later show that Charles King and Thomas McElwee became openly staunch enemies.5

It is believed that Charles L. King (13 Nov. 1810 - 6 March 1892), a savvy, shrewd, litigious, and ambitious businessman named in numerous McMinn County Court lawsuits and disputes, owned and directed operation of the butter factory. Court records prove his ownership of other businesses such as the former Metcalfe Cotton Factory which was later called the Mount Verd Spinning Factory. By 1863, he and his partner named the operations simply the Mt. Verd Cotton Mills. He and his wife Julia R. (McElwee) King (8 January 1813 - 28 April 1889) were enumerated in the fourth civil district as family #377-557 in 1860. McMinn Chancery Court Records, filed 13 Aug. 1866, prove the Kings leased the Mount Verd Factory to Thomas B. McElwee but continued to live in the house adjoining said property. Their stately brick home stood near the double bridges, and crude log cabins of the butter factory workers were scattered round and about on the sloping hillsides. Some residents were renters or else may have accepted shelter as wage payment.

The Kings were listed as parents of nine children, four being sons and five daughters. Also living in their household was Hugh M. McElwee whose occupation was bookkeeper, the only person so listed. Hugh, with real estate valued at $9,000 and personal property at $300, was obviously employed by C. L. King, one of the district's largest property owners with $23,000 in real estate and $10,000 in personal property. The value of his holdings was surpassed only by Elijah Cate's estimated at $60,000 realty and $25,500 personal property and, of course, Alexander Cleage's with $43,500 realty and $55,000 personal property.

Cate was a rich farmer and slave owner whose farm lay north at Fountain Hill, now known as Niota. Cleage owned several farms around McMinn County including his Mouse Creek farm and home situated between Athens and Fountain Hill. By 1870, Charles L. and Julia King still resided in the fourth civil district, and despite heavy losses during the Civil War with factories set ablaze twice by raiders, 6 they still owned realty valued at $29,000 and personal property estimated at $4,812. In contrast, Cate's holdings had shrunk to $14,000 with only $6,100 in personal property by 1870, largely resulting from the Civil War.

Locally, the Cook and Thurman families furnished more workers for processing butter in the factory than did others living at Mount Verd. Widow Nancy Cook's older daughters Mary aged 40, Melvina aged 26, and Matilda aged 25 worked there to support their mother and family of nine including their mentally handicapped sister Martha. Since none of the older Cook daughters were wed by age twenty, they were already considered spinsters with few, if any, matrimonial prospects. Their illiteracy further narrowed opportunities and limited wage earning. William Thurman, a native of Virginia, also had three daughters processing butter. They included Nancy aged 25; Phoebe J., 23; and Elizabeth Thurman, 18. Their father was a farmer with only meager household property.

Their neighbor Caleb Longley Turk had moved from Monroe County, TN in mid 1850 and served as Mount Verd's only "saddler," making and repairing saddlery. His young daughter Mary "Polly" Turk was only sixteen, but she held a job making butter. The 1860 census enumerators were required to list in column seven of a spreadsheet the occupations of all residents more than fifteen years of age. Two of A. H. Gregory's daughters Charlotte E., 22, and Elizabeth, 18, worked at the factory; the Gregorys lived on property near the Turks. A. H. Gregory was employed as a factory watchman; his wife Lucinda was listed as a tailoress. Widow Agnes Fore's family lived only a couple of households from the Gregorys, and her two older daughters labored in the factory. Margaret was eighteen and Patience Fore was only sixteen.

Widow Elizabeth Howard's daughter Lucretia, well past her prime at 39, was an older worker employed. Living near the Howards was Widow Martha Foster and daughter Nancy A., 19, a butter factory worker; also, living in the Foster household was Jane Martin, 30, who tried to support her three children with butter factory earnings.

The last of the families in the fourth civil district having members employed in the butter factory was that of E. M. and Catherine Robeson. Their daughters Mary E., 18, and Adeline, 16, were both butter workers. To their advantage, however, they attended school at least part time and thus were able to read and write. By 1870, E. M. Robeson was probably deceased since he was not enumerated in the 1870 census; his widow, five daughters, and one son were left to support themselves entirely.

Others depending on a livelihood from the King industries included Andrew R. Snider whose occupation was listed as cotton spinner. Residing nearest the Kings was the family of James Shell, a carpenter whose woodworking skills were vital. Palmer Brannon lived with the Howard family and worked as a wood cutter. A local sawmill operating nearby supplied rough lumber for construction. Three families from the King's home was McKamy Shell's household. His occupation was listed as "machinist," so he was employed, no doubt, in the factories.

Also, living nearby in the third civil district, but also having an Athens Post Office, was the G. W. Million family. He served as one of only two "coopers" in the area. Apparently, his was a viable occupation since his real estate was valued at $3,200 and personal property at $650. Located at Pine Ridge was W. A. Robison, age 21, who with limited assets, was only beginning to ply the trade of cooper in 1860. Their products were essential not ony for individual household use but especially for the many buckets, firkins, barrels, kegs, etc. needed in the factories. Coopers relied on blacksmiths who wrought iron rings for barrels. So, Robert Snider, Mount Verd's smithy in the fourth district, was well-established with assets of $4,000 and personal property worth $3,000 in 1860. Robert Snider, aged 28 and married to Martha (Guthrie) Snider, also worked as a blacksmith alongside his father.

From a perspective of 152 years later, it is interesting that descendants of the commoners above not only miraculously survived the Civil War but also thrived. They and their descendants fill the cemeteries of McMahan Calvary, Union McMinn, Pond Hill, Clearwater, Buttram's, Tranquility, and many others throughout McMinn County. The same remarkable perseverance and extraordinary will power compelled their descendants through the throes of the Great Depression. Hard-working common people shared the same stirring patriotism as their forebears. And, the same enthusiastic spirit drew young men down from the hills and out of the "hollers" to fight and win two colossal World Wars. Current surnames in local phone books, church directories, and tax records reveal an overwhelming abundance of these very same surnames. Names like Brannon, Cook, Foster, Gregory, Howard, Martin, Robeson / Robinson, Snider, Shell, Thurman, etc. abound. By comparison, there are few, if any, Metcalfes, McElwees, or Cleages in the county hereabouts.


1. [Click link above for online source.]
2. [Click link above for online source.]
3. [Click link above for online source.]
4. Robert Alonzo Brock & Virgil Anson Lewis, History of Virginia from Settlement of Jamestown to Close of the Civil War, p. 742.
5. Reba Bayless Boyer, editor, Chancery Court Records of McMinn County, Tennessee, (Athens, TN 1980). See index for many litigations.
6. [Click on link above for online source.]

This site is dedicated to the memory of my mother Beulah Cline Nipper, a beautiful product of the Knobs.

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Sandra Ratledge

This site is dedicated to the memory of my parents,
Tommy and Beulah (Cline) Nipper.