Then I kissed her! Right on her beautiful black velvet nose I kissed her and said, 'Know all men by these presents I am a Jersey woman, from now, henceforth and forever, till death do us part. Amen!'
These celebratory words were spoken by entrepreneurial Eatonton native Louise Reid Prudden Hunt (b 1847) upon first churning milk from a Jersey cow on her journey to bring economic prosperity to her war-ravaged Middle Georgia homeland following the Civil War. The talented beauty leveraged her charisma, pen, and pioneering spirit to inspire 19th century regional farmers for a seismic shift in southern land management, making Putnam County the Dairy Capital of Georgia with lasting impact to this day.
During Hunt’s youth, after 27,000 Union soldiers trampled Putnam County on Sherman’s March to the Sea, Louise’s parents sent her and her sisters to paternal family in Connecticut to avoid the ruins of war. There, she met a charismatic Northern scientist and banker, Benjamin Weeks Hunt. Smitten with Louise’s poise, wit, and poetry, “what made me want to serve Georgia,” Benjamin married his Georgia belle in 1876. The newlyweds relocated to struggling Eatonton and joined Georgia voices advocating a “New South” vision of a diversified economy away from cotton.
Upon assessing the local climate, terrain, and market potential, the adventurous couple perceived significant opportunity in dairy. At the time, Georgia imported dairy from New York, 1,000 miles away. Small wonder, quipped Louise, since in her opinion, Georgians knew only “thin blue viscid liquid” called “milk” from “ugly … useless … diabolical” native cows. The Hunts believed that pedigreed cows bred for quality milk with infrastructure for mass production and sustainable land management could supply fresh dairy, reduce transportation cost, and add economic prosperity to the region.
To lead the way, the couple opened Panola Farm in Eatonton in 1876 with 111 acres and fifteen registered Jersey cows renowned for superior butterfat. The Hunts studied technical publications and travelled by steamship to the Isle of Jersey in England to select the first pedigreed Jersey cow imported to Georgia. Among other venues, they toured Queen Victoria’s state-of-the-art dairy at Windsor Castle in Britain, and they explored Marie Antoinette’s historic Versailles dairy built in the style of a Normandy village.
Panola Farm was science and poetry, technology and romance. It won the attention of the Atlanta Journal when the Hunts built the first Georgia springhouse to cool milk, constructed the first Georgia silo, and financed a rail spur to transport dairy from Eatonton to Atlanta. With every step, they solicited other farmers to abandon cotton and join them in prospering the nascent industry.
Rather than challenge cotton scions directly, Louise appealed to rural hearts by penning a precursor to the popular 21st century internet ‘blog.’ She used newsprint as a platform to reach a vast audience, including curious farmers. She understood the transformational power of humor and story beyond facts and figures.
She adopted an informal conversational eye witness style to build credibility and rapport. To that end, Louise penned first-person, fact-fable discovery narratives that unreservedly shared every colorful moment and rich emotion to illustrate nature’s magical process she described as “transmuting golden sunshine through the blossom and the grass into gold and butter.”
So enamored of the miracles she observed in daily dairy occupation, Louise boasted, “Marie Bashii herself kept a diary. Queen Victoriaiii keeps a diary. So do I. Just a transposition of two vowels differentiates us.” Her reading public was enamored. Louise’s dairy tales became a sensation garnering full-page press in the Atlanta Journal and other newspapers. Anecdote by anecdote, Louise smoothly and imperceptibly educated her audience. “The scientist’s microscope will tell you of ‘sugar of milk,’ of ‘cassein’ and of ‘richness,’” she explained, yet “In that invisible laboratory whose mystic ‘loaded jars and chemic vials’ turns the clod to a violet, and the worm to a butterfly …there the glint of a sunbeam and perfume of a flower are caught in an envelope of silk. This is a butter granule!”
In her popular “Posie” newspaper series named for her pet Jersey calf muse, Louise wooed Georgians toward new paradigms for prosperity. Through a fanciful mix of education and fable, she described how her gentle Jersey “Queen” methodically weakened “cruel old tyrant King Cotton” who killed all things green. In another newsprint pitch, “A Woman’s Fad,” published in The Alanta Journal, Louise humorously countered assumptions doubting a woman’s pioneering ability to manage entrepreneurial endeavors like dairy. After factually listing her impressive dairy accomplishments including the indisputable regional shift from cotton to dairy, Louise quipped “my woman’s hand and woman’s strength but sowed a little seed and happy indeed am I if it has taken root in the soil of my native South and spread the benefaction of the blossoming far and wide. ‘Twas only a woman’s fad.’”
All was not easy in the dairy venture. The Hunts suffered heartbreaking emotional and financial losses including the demise of more than half their livestock from splenic fever, and their herd was plagued by bovine osteoporosis. Benjamin relentlessly tackled each challenge with scientific experimentation to identify causes and cures for livestock disease, developed a splenic fever vaccine, and identified bone-strengthening supplements. Then, he published his discoveries in agricultural journals to benefit scientists and farmers across the nation. In parallel, Louise published her unabashed romance with dairy operations in popular news periodicals.
The Hunts’ visionary persistence delivered spectacular results. Numerous farm families replaced cotton fields with dairy pasture to create a tectonic shift in Southern land management that lifted the region from poverty to prosperity. By 1895, regional farmers exported 50,000 pounds of butter per annum. By 1901, the state of Georgia no longer imported dairy. In 1909, a co-operative Eatonton Creamery exported milk, cream, and ice cream. That same year, Putnam’s “Sweet Clover” butter was served to U.S. President William Howard Taft upon his request. Putnam had become the Dairy Capital of Georgia.
As achievements mounted, Louise commanded statewide respect as the “incomparable champion of the Jerseys.”iv In the same week, the dainty belle attracted society column admiration for her elaborate gowns at the Atlanta Grand Opera and male respect for her fearless rambles in dairy pastures with cows in pursuit of “putting the gold of sunshine into farmer’s pockets.” Bold on topic, the witty advocate informed The Atlanta Journal, “ ‘Jerseys’ have been up and ‘Jersey’ down, and men have sworn by them and at them. I have never changed.” Louise’s popularity and regional economic influence garnered praise at the 1915 Middle Georgia Agricultural Fair, which was detailed in the Macon Telegraph.
More than successful, the Hunts’ dairy vision proved providential. In 1918, the damaging boll weevil beetle pest arrived in Putnam County;v and in one year, Putnam County’s cotton yield plunged from 18,000 bales to less than 300. The sharecropping system collapsed and over one third of Putnam citizens abandoned the region in search of work. While many Americans celebrated the Roaring 20’s, the catastrophic agricultural and economic damage to the rural Southern economy exceeded that of the Civil War. Thanks to the foresight of the Hunts, the dairy industry and other non-cotton agricultural enterprise kept Putnam citizens and much of rural Middle Georgia alive, although barely.
Today, dairy farmers in the region and across the nation face new challenges: shifting market demand from dairy to plant-derived milks; improved breeding, animal nutrition, and pasture management generating three times more milk per cow than sixty years ago, furthering the need for fewer cows; and climate concerns over methane emissions from livestock manure.
Consequently, Putnam dairies number seven, down from seventy in the 1990s and over two hundred in the 1930s. Heritage farms like those of Jerry Swafford and Shannon Long now raise beef cattle. On remaining dairies, black and white Holstein cows dot the landscape rather than Louise’s beloved brown Jersey. The Holstein, imported from Ohio in 1953 by Shannon Long’s father, produces more milk and less butterfat than the Jersey admired for its butterfat advantage in cream, butter, and cheese. Innovative dairies like T&W Farms and Sunrise Dairy ship to private label companies that process drinking milk, and they also repurpose methane and dry manure. Equipment called a digester managed by Sustainable RNG is under construction to capture their methane biogas, scrub it, and pipe it directly to city natural gas providers. Another company, Super- Sod, repurposes their dry manure into compost.
Although the regional dairy industry is less prolific than a century ago, the Hunts’ seminal agricultural endeavor remains a valuable regional economic contributor and admired landscape aesthetic. Local residents are beneficiaries of the Hunts’ legacy of lush green treed landscapes and verdant pastures in place of rain-washed red clay terrain and gully scars from excessive cotton farming. Louise’s pioneering spirit reappears in the form of contemporary citizens nurturing new products and services to ensure a prosperous environmentally sustainable rural lifestyle that preserves and leverages the many appealing attributes of a bucolic homeland. So much inheritance from one tiny calf named “Posie” and a fearless romantic adventurist. Louise humbly yet wittily penned, “Twas only a woman’s fad.”
i “ ‘Posie’ of Putnam,” Atlanta Constitution, April 3, 1887
ii The word ‘panola’ signifies ‘cotton’ in Choctaw Indian language.
ii Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884)) was a Russian diarist, painter, and sculptor. Published in 1887 in France, her diary won immediate success. An English translation appeared two years later.
iii Queen Victoria (1837-1901) famously kept a detailed diary.
v “Cotton Production and the Boll Weavil in Georgia,” University of Georgia, Research Bulletin, P. B. Haney, W. J. Lewis, W. R. Lambert, Number 428, November 1996.
These stunning cows, similar to the Jerseys first brought to Eatonton by the Hunts in 1876, are at My-T-Fine Jerseys farm in Madison, Georgia.
Story by Michele L. Bechtell & photos by Katie Marie O’Neal
Published in the May-June 2021 issue of Lakelife Magazine