THE BUTTER LADY

written by BRENDA ATHANUS
photography by LAUREN SHAW

Sylvia Holbrook, the Butter Lady, was Maine’s best butter maker for more than 63 years. To rural Central Maine, she was a legend. My sister, Tanya, and I tried for months to buy her butter to sell at our store, but she never returned our calls. We thought perhaps an introduction from a mutual friend would help her to consider selling to us—so quirky, but not an uncommon trait in Maine. We asked around, hoping to find someone who knew her, or a friend of a friend who would introduce us. We found no one. She kept to herself.

We became preoccupied with acquiring Sylvia’s butter for our store after tasting some we bought at another store. The packaging was old-style parchment paper, even though plastic wrap had become the new norm used by most local butter makers because of price and availability. Her butter’s vivid yellow color glowed through the semi-transparent wrapper, signaling that happy, pastured cows were intimately involved. Our first taste was heavenly: sharp salt crystals in all the right places, a touch of buttermilk not all washed out, a hauntingly intense buttery flavor. The perfectly folded corners of the parchment paper added to its reverent beauty.

Tanya and I drove north for 45 minutes over back roads to the butter maker’s tiny town of North New Portland. We hoped to find her farm and persuade her to let us sell her butter. We asked at the only local store if they knew Sylvia. “Yup. It’s a hard place to find.” Then silence. “Will you give us directions?” They did, like they were protecting her from the outside world; more likely, they were worried their own butter supply would be affected.

We followed the directions to a long dirt road rough as a dry streambed in August. At its end was Sylvia’s farm: a chocolate-brown shingled house nestled between a forest of old growth oaks and open fields; fawn-colored Jersey cows grazing and pink clover flowers framing all this beauty. A weathered sign on her front lawn announced a single word: BUTTER.

Aswe parked, her old dog barked to announce the outside world was visiting. The dog led us up the brick walkway, stopping at the front steps. Sylvia’s front porch was cluttered with old farm equipment, a multitude of stainless-steel milk buckets and half a dozen barn cats lazing in the afternoon sun. We knocked gently and waited. We knocked again, a bit louder. A tiny gray-haired woman came to the door wearing an apron and tall, noisy rubber boots. The screen door remained closed. We explained we had a store and we would like to buy her butter.

“How many pounds are you looking for?”

“200 pounds a week, maybe more,” I said.

She opened the screen door and invited us in.

“Do you drink tea?”

Her house was old and untouched by the years, a telescoping cape allowed her to go to the milking room and the barn without having to go outside in inclement weather. Her kitchen was large with four jumbo chest freezers lining one wall. Sylvia smelled delicately sweet. As we entered, the whole room smelled of cream as its sweet summer scent infused the air.

We watched as Sylvia finished up her butter making, carefully placing unmolded butter squares onto wooden boards and stacking them, board upon board, into her waiting chest freezer. These were to be frozen overnight and wrapped in the morning. Pails of cream from her morning milking were set out to clabber with dish towels covering them. Lined up along the front of the freezers, these awaited her butter making the following day. Her teakettle whistled as Sylvia closed the freezer cover.

We sat down to tea and discussed business at her small kitchen table, cluttered with reams of parchment and recycled grocery boxes rescued from a local store for packing up future orders. Three cups of hot water, two tea bags; when we removed our tea bags from our cups she put both into her own cup.

Tanya and I watched her hands as she lifted her dainty, chipped teacup. I said, “You have the most beautiful hands I have very seen.” She smiled slowly. “I have been milking my cows and making butter twice a day, every day of the week, for 63 years.”

She held both hands out to take a look, like she had never taken the time to notice. “You think they are beautiful?” Her hands were smooth, the skin tight and shiny without a wrinkle, not even an age spot. They were not the hands of an 80-year-old. “Yes!” we answered. “You have the most beautiful hands.”

“They are working hands!” she laughed.

Sylvia left the table and came back with a big plate of sugar cookies made with her butter; a wordless invitation to stay for a while. We nibbled slowly as Sylvia talked about living in the same farmhouse for 63 years. We listened for most of the afternoon.

Sylvia had met her future husband a handful of times before they married. She had long forgotten the details but that didn’t matter to her in the least. She continued telling us her story. The couple exchanged vows at the old church we passed at the beginning of her road. She laughed and said, “It was even old then.” Sylvia picked up a cookie and leaned back in her chair. “No honeymoon for us. Money was tight and there were cows to milk, firewood to cut, hay to bale, vegetables to put up and, yes, butter to make.”

She recounted her years enthusiastically like she was an observer to her own life. “Instead of taking a honeymoon, we spent what we could spare on a black walnut tree. So rare around here. We planted it in the corner between the house and the milking room to get the best sunlight and protection from the strong winter wind. I thought my new husband was foolish. What if it died, would our marriage be doomed? We dug and prepared the hole together and he promised me it would be just fine. It grew to be a fine tree with walnuts on every branch. It’s spring bloom flowered at the same time as our anniversary.”

 “Come look,” she ordered us, as she stood up from the table. “Please, come see!”

Yes, the black walnut was a fine tree, considering it was at least two growing zones from where it could easily thrive. For years it had grown protected between the house and the milking room. Sylvia said, “Love made that tree grow, no magic or miracles, only hard work and love.” She shook her head, “I sure do miss him; there’s a lot of work to do around here by myself.”

My sister and I were silent on our ride home with our boxes of butter filling the trunk and the back seat. Sylvia had agreed to sell us butter. We had passed her test, but more than that we were the lucky ones to share the afternoon at Sylvia’s table. I believe she liked us because she sent us home with biscuits from her woodburning oven for dinner. She knew we had plenty of butter.

We think of her often, especially when we try a new butter maker’s butter. We bought butter from her for four years. Once our customers tried her butter nothing else compared. We were all hopelessly addicted. The specific taste or terroir of Sylvia’s farm was like no other and the handwritten label, in proper cursive script, felt like a present with a beautiful bow you couldn’t wait to open.

Then, one day, a newly hired food inspector came to inspect Sylvia’s operation. This didn’t happen very often. The first thing he asked was why her milk room didn’t have a washable floor. “It’s dirt, young man”—and that’s when her troubles began. The inspector looked at everything, including the clabbering buckets of cream lined up on her kitchen floor. He declared it was spoiled and ordered her to pour it down the drain. She got madder as he made more notes on his “official” clipboard in red ink. She failed his inspection and he drove off in a huff.

Sylvia was shaken and defeated and told her family that she was done, all done.

Sylvia’s forced retirement lasted all of two weeks. Her many longtime customers came to her begging for her to resume making butter. She confided to the trustworthy that out in the back shed in her freezers there was still plenty of butter to sell. She never mentioned this to the inspector because he never asked.

We continued to sell her butter for another year but only to customers we knew. It wasn’t on display but hidden in our backroom freezer, just like in Sylvia’s back shed.

The Butter Lady easily outsmarted the State by making butter early in the day before the inspectors got on the road and sold it after 5pm, when the inspectors had left for the day. More and more, she’d start making butter knowing that no one worked overtime at the State. That always made her laugh: Her day continued and theirs ended.

After all, what was she supposed to do with all that milk from her herd of Jersey cows?

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