When the cream was ready, Ma scalded the long wooden churn-dash, put it in the churn, and dropped the wooden churn-cover over it. The churn cover had a little round hole in the middle, and Ma moved the dash up and down, up and down, through the hole.
She churned for a long time. Mary could sometimes churn while Ma rested, but the dash was too heavy for Laura.
- Little House in the Big Woods, Chapter 2: Winter Days and Winter Nights
In Little House in the Big Woods, Laura tells about how they churned butter with a churn and dash, but as a young girl, the dash was too heavy for Laura to use to churn butter, and it is implied that it was taxing enough that Mary would churn if Ma would get too tired.
Making butter using a traditional butter churn and a “churn dash” is a physically demanding task, as it requires manual effort to agitate the cream and separate the butterfat from the buttermilk. However, when Laura was a young girl, this was the common way to make butter.
Using a churn and dash can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the amount of cream being used and how quickly Ma (and Mary) could move the dash up and down. The faster the cream is agitated, the faster the butter will form.
In our crafts section, we have an activity for “churning” your own butter – and even this way of making a small amount of butter can be pretty tiring!