Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Case L tractor and the early years of Creamers Dairy in Fairbanks, Alaska

Case L tractor in front of creamery at Creamers Dairy
When Charles and Belle Hinckley arrived in Fairbanks in the spring of 1904, they had no inkling that they would establish what would become a bird sanctuary 70 years later. They were just searching for their personal bonanza — not by mining gold, but by milking cows.

The Hinckleys (originally from Washington state) heard of Nome’s strike in 1900, but instead of sailing north with shovels and gold pans, they sailed with several Holstein milk cows. Charles and Belle ran a successful dairy in the Nome area until the gold strike began petering out.

Then, hearing of new opportunities in Interior Alaska along the Chena River, they packed up their cows and took the first steamboat of the 1904 season from St. Michael on the Norton Sound coast up the Yukon River to Fairbanks. It took 27 days to reach Fairbanks, during which time they helped pay for their passage by keeping passengers and crew supplied with fresh milk.

Charles and Belle originally ran a small dairy near Fourth and Kellum Street (what is now downtown), but eventually moved across the river to Graehl, (the old Steese Highway crosses the Chena River at Graehl) where they built a log barn and house. According to the book, “The History of Creamer’s Dairy,” during this period the Hinckleys couldn’t afford regular milk bottles, so they sterilized wine bottles and used them instead.

The Hinckleys soon were able to buy a 327 acre homestead three miles farther out of town, along what is now College Road. For several years, while they cleared additional land, the Hinckleys herded their cows to the homestead to graze in the summer and back to the barn in Graehl during the winter. Eventually they moved their entire operation, including house. The structure was disassembled and the pieces carefully labeled before being hauled and re-assembled at the new site. The log house (the dairy’s present farmhouse) was enlarged over the years and eventually covered with board and batten siding.

Belle’s sister, Anne; and Anne’s husband, Charles Creamer (who had grown up in Fairbanks); bought the dairy from the Hinckleys in 1928. They expanded the operation and in 1935 bought their first tractor, the Case L tractor shown in the drawing. Switching from horse-drawn machinery to powered equipment was sometimes trying. According to Don Creamer (Charles Creamer’s son) the tractor “had a habit of getting itself stuck,” and needed to be pulled out with the old reliable horse team. The Creamers eventually retired the Case and bought newer tractors, but hung on to the old tractor. It was restored by Robert and Barbara Moore and still has a home at the dairy.

In 1938 the Creamers had the largest and most modern barn in Alaska built for their operation. The new barn was 110 feet long, and 36 feet wide, with a huge hay loft capable of holding enough hay to get a 55-cow herd through a Fairbanks winter. To celebrate its completion, they held a barn dance with an estimated 1,000 people in attendance. In 1950 a second barn, nearly as big as the first, was constructed.

At the height of operations, the dairy employed between 12 and 16 people, producing 250 to 300 gallons of milk and dairy products, and 400 to 600 gallons of ice cream and sherbet daily. However, changing market conditions and new health regulations eventually led to the dairy’s demise. The Creamers were forced to close their dairy in 1966, but with support from the Fairbanks community it was brought back to life as Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge.

For information on the history of Creamers Dairy after 1966 check out this post, "Creamer's Dairy an iconic part of Fairbanks history and landscape."

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