We are butter churn people

October 15, 2021


In the high-end world of décor, sofa styles come and go and coffee tables are rustic one year then sleek the next — yet in the South, butter churns are eternally chic.  

Sitting in the corner of your aunt’s living room, it’s a staple that doesn’t cause us to blink an eye. Everyone has one. They are as common as the kitchen sink. 

Once belonging to our great-great grandmothers, they’ve been passed down through generations and have spent decades just standing guard in the corner. It isn’t as if we think the stores will suddenly run out of butter and we’ll have to return to churning our own, but we hang on to them for other reasons. Is it sentimentality? Family history? Nostalgia? To spite our cousin for grabbing the cast iron? 

We honestly don’t know why we keep them, but may the dear Lord help us if we ever get rid of the family butter churn. Surely there’s some type of dairy curse associated with giving the churn to Goodwill. I don’t want to be the weak link that makes that mistake. 

Polling three of my friends who grew up in Chicago, Wisconsin and somewhere else far away I can’t exactly remember, they all replied, “Oh, heavens no!” “I’d never have a butter churn just sitting in my house.” One even went as far to call the tradition, “country bumpkin” (this is from the woman who has plastic on her sofa, by the way). “Isn’t that rather “Amish?” one asked. Well, no. The Amish are still using their churns. We only display them as . . . art. 


My Wisconsin friend even pointed out that although she’s from the “Dairy State,” using the butter churn as décor never crossed her mind.

My family churn belonged to my great grandmother and sat for a few decades in my grandmother’s guest bedroom, and now my mother has it. Panicked it was sold during a recent downsizing, I called to confirm she still had it. “Oh yes,” she said, then reassured me it was tucked next to the bookcase in her retirement cottage. Then, she launched into the story of how her grandmother churned fresh creamy butter for hot biscuits and pancakes. 

I guess I’ll be the next one to take ownership of the churn, but then again, do I really want it? My husband from New Jersey thinks it’s odd, but I’m sure he’ll warm up to it, or ignore it like my other family quirks.

I’m going to have my mother tell me the butter churn story, for the 100th time, but this time, I’ll write the details down, including operational instructions and tuck the story inside the churn. That way, if there’s a future butter crisis and my descendants are choking on dry toast, they’ll be rescued with their low-tech yet brilliant inheritance. 

If your family has a churn tucked in the corner of the back porch or living room, you are a real-deal Southerner who comes from hardworking rural roots. Odds are my people knew your people. Perhaps their fields of cotton and peanuts adjoined. Better than “democrat” or “republican,” our yard sign should read, “We are butter churn people.” It’s the same as saying, “we’re living the American dream.” 

This story first appeared in Advance Publication newspapers.

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