Former Prestley Barn workers reflect on dairy farm days

jojacobs@tidewaterreview.com

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct agricultural acreage in Virginia in 2006 and 2015. There were 8.1 million acres of farmland in the state in 2015, down from 8.2 million acres in 2006.

From its commanding position beside Route 360, Prestley Barn is a prominent connection to the county's agricultural roots. With that legacy receding into the past as the barn assumes new purpose, the people who toiled at the barn reflected on the operation of the dairy farm.

The Townsend family built the barn in 1925. Operations kicked up a notch with an expansion shortly after World War II that allowed 61 cows to be milked at once, said William Guy Townsend, who was a co-owner and manager of the farm.

After the 800-acre working dairy farm ceased operations, the Townsends sold the property in the 1990s and it passed through several owners. Carroll Lee Walker, a local preservationist, bought the barn and renovated it in 2014. King & Queen native Tommy Adkins hopes to open Dragon Run Brewing, a craft brewery featuring a restaurant, in the barn sometime spring 2018.

The brewery is a second life for the barn that once housed more than 100 cows.

Among the four workers who milked the cows was George Washington Sr., who started at the dairy in the late 1940s and continued to work there for three decades, waking up in the wee hours of the morning to start work.

"That was some hard work in those days," Washington said.

At 90 years old, Washington is a rare link to Prestley Barn's historic mission as a working dairy farm, his son George Washington Jr. said. The younger Washington helped out as a tractor driver when he was a child.

On a typical day at the diary farm, milking began at 4 a.m. and ran until around 6:30 a.m. every morning. Milk would be collected and hauled by hand to a large 500-gallon storage container at the barn, Townsend said.

Workers would then go home for breakfast and then returned to feed cows and clean the barn. George Washington Sr, along with his father, would shovel cow dung into a cart pulled by a tractor piloted by George Washington Jr.

There wasn't much human company as workers went to and fro throughout the day. Much of the surrounding area was given over to cattle grazing. So few cars drove by that George Washington Jr. made a game of counting them in idle moments.

Another round of milking would take place from around 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. every afternoon, and workers would head home an hour or two after that.

When it came time to transport milk, workers would lug 20 or 30 gallon cans of milk onto a truck, which would then carry the cargo over to Richmond for additional processing. Sometimes people would hitch rides on the truck to do some shopping in town while the milk was unloaded, Townsend said.

By time Townsend stepped away from the dairy farm in the 1970s, it had around 110 cows. A couple cousins took over the operation until the facilities became obsolete and too expensive to upgrade.

Farming has not been an easy venture in Virginia in recent decades.

In 2006, 8.2 million acres of land were used for farms in Virginia. By 2015, that figure decreased to 8.1 million acres. About 20 years ago, there were 49,000 farms in the state, compared wit the 45,000 farms in Virginia in 2015, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Cattle numbers have likewise stayed about level. In 1989, cattle, both beef and milk cows, numbered 6,700 in Tidewater. By 2017, that number had decreased to 5,800, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette