Spanns hold rich legacy with Jersey cattle
CALIFON — Dairy cows are rare on New Jersey fields today, but once the rolling hills were full of them, and not the big black and white Holsteins that have become the symbol of the dairy industry.
The cows were the smaller, friendly Jerseys that give less milk with higher butterfat.
Jerseys are seen today mostly snuggling with their teenagers at 4-H fairs, but in the late 19th century, they were being imported into the United States by a number of prominent breeders, one of whom was William Rice Spann, known as W.R.
The Spann name is known in Northwest Jersey by ubiquitous Max Spann real estate signs.
W.R. was Max’s grandfather and he came from East Texas where he started his “career” in dairying by walking cows to be milked when he was 10 years old, in 1872. He continued to take care of cows belonging to others while he had other “day jobs” until his first child was born and needed milk. He bought one Jersey.
From one dairy cow came a small herd and Spann became the first person to sell milk in glass bottles in Texas, he wrote in a series of articles in the Jersey Bulletin, the newsletter of the Jersey Association.
Texas farmers weren’t interested in importing Jersey cattle from the Isle of Jersey, Spann wrote. He discovered Nashville was the Mecca of Jerseys in the United States.
When W.R. Spann decided to move east, his first stop was Kentucky and it was from there he traveled to the Isle of Jersey for the first of what would be more than 100 times, bringing back cattle and selling them at auction.
He became known as an expert in the breed, judging at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Ore., the next year.
The eastward journey was complete when Spann arrived in Morristown with his wife, Regina McGinnis, and their nine children just before World War I. He was to lose one of his five sons, his namesake, known as Bill, in the war.
Spann’s first Jersey sale on the Morristown farm was on April 29, 1918.
His son, Paul, helped with the Jerseys and also made numerous trips to the Isle of Jersey over the years.
When the Spanns arrived in Morristown it was a haven for millionaires escaping the heat of New York City in pre-air-conditioned summers. Surrounding the town was plenty of open land for farming.
Most of the family drifted away from the cattle business, but Paul kept it going into the 1950s. He was in partnership first with Lamington Jerseys then with Hamilton Farms in Gladstone.
W.R.’s granddaughter and Paul’s daughter, Liz Spann Kneser, said her parents were married in Morristown in 1920.
She said she recalls her father managing the herd for Hamilton Farms and later for Brady Farms. He remained with the Bradys until the late 1940s when they sold their herd.
The farm Paul started on Cold Brook Road in Oldwick was Paul Spann and Sons, but only Max took an interest in the Jerseys, Kneser said.
For him, it was a hobby, but he had a nice Jersey herd when he moved to Washington.
He kept cows for the remainder of his life, his sister recalls, “he still had a few at the end.”
Both Paul and Max could tell the pedigree of a cow just by looking at her, Kneser said.
Trips to the Isle of Jersey continued. “For the Spann men it was Shangri-La,” Kneser said.
“I went along as extra baggage,” she said of her trips with her brother which occurred both before and after the death of her husband, Joe.
“I was on the last trip with Max,” she said noting that everyone knew it would be his last, about four years ago.
“It was a dreamy place, Kneser said of Jersey. But, she noted over the past 20 years there were fewer farms. “It’s a green place,” she said with hedges separating the fields and laws mandating the property be kept neat and tidy.
Many of the farms are in potatoes, she added, noting the taxes are prohibitive for many people on the island.
Kneser learned about the British class system from meeting the agents and travelling to Jersey, she noted. But, she noted the Isle of Jersey is really very French.
“It’s difficult to move class to class,” she said, noting things are better in Europe now than they were, but rich people still want fancy cows, horses and dogs.
She said she was horse crazy as a little girl and saw a mare she wanted on a trip to Tennessee with her grandfather. The farmer told her she was just like her granddad, she picked the best one. He gave her a horse, but a different one.
“There are two kinds of buyers,” she said, speaking from experience. The first is the farmer who wants to improve his herd. The second is a wealthy guy who wants a cow to show.
“Or occasionally a 4-H kid,” she added.
She said it was a great way to grow up, although girls were not expected to go into the barn like the boys were. She did learn the selling features of the Jersey: the fact they produced higher butterfat milk on less feed.
She and her husband did get a cow. They gave the calf to Max and milked her for themselves. Later she and Joe moved back to the Oldwick farm where she still lives and had Jersey cows. “Being a farmer was a choice not a necessity for us,” she said.
Although most of the Spanns are out of farming now, Kneser’s nephew, Paul, has made several Ebay searches and purchased many catalogues from the old Jersey sales.
Paul’s sister, Kate, is a middle school librarian and did a history project with her students last year. It involved World War I which led her to look into Bill Spann’s death during that conflict.
That led her to some of the history of the Jerseys.
Kate was fascinated by the prices of the cows even during the Depression. A few were upwards of $25,000.
She noted most of her family is not quite wealthy enough for them today.
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