There are two telling moments in the lives of the first and current matriarchs of Chester Springs’ Milky Way Farm. On a clear night in 1947, Frances Matthews saw the Milky Way galaxy and found a name in the stars. Thirty-eight years later, Melba Matthews, her daughter-in-law, climbed the highest ascent, the crest at the front of the 103-acre farm, and took photographs in every direction of the vast open space.
Melba is fond of retelling Frances’ story—and her own. “In those days, there were no lights,” she says. “You could see the Milky Way. It’s still there—even today. There were no homes. Just original farmhouses.”
Milky Way Farm remains an anomaly—a piece of our vanishing rural past. It’s been owned and operated as a dairy farm by this extended family for more than a century. Today, it grows 20 acres of corn, 12 acres of oats, and 30 acres of alfalfa and orchard grass to feed 30 milking cows, heifers and steers. Seasonally, there are 9 acres of pumpkins and an acre each of squash, gourds and Indian corn.
Hay is dried, baled and stored in a traditional Chester County bank barn. The whole corn plant is chopped and stored in the silo, and ear corn is dried in cribs. Oats are ground and mixed with corn for cow feed, and the oat straw is baled and used for bedding.
On average, each Holstein-Friesian (black-and-white) cow produces 60 pounds (about 7 gallons) of milk per day. It’s stored in a refrigerated bulk tank for a truck that comes every other day to take the contents to various processing plants as part of the Land O’Lakes Cooperative.
In 1986, the Matthews began giving farm tours to schools, scouts and other groups. Carolyn Eaglehouse, Melba’s daughter, had the foresight to open the Chester Springs Creamery. Since 2001, premium ice cream has been made there and sold to the public in the spring, summer and fall. Flavors like Polly’s Pumpkin Pie and Bessie’s Black Raspberry are named after the farm’s cows.
“Raise your hand if you like milk,” Carolyn tells three groups of first-graders from a Lancaster County elementary school. “How about yogurt, whipped cream or sour cream? Raise them high if you like ice cream.”
Lori Beiler, one of the chaperones, grew up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm in Morgantown 30 years ago. Then her father sold out in the mid-1970s, when so many did. She’s most amazed by the newer automatic milking machines. “Years ago, all the farmers did was milk cows from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” she says. “You had no freedom as a farmer.”
The tour continues on two hitched hay wagons pulled by a John Deere tractor. It’s off to the pumpkin patch. “We’ve seen cows, chickens and pigs,” says teacher Jen Shaffer. “It was all visual and hands-on, and not just something in their books. This is my second year [at Milky Way], and even I’m amazed. We’re surrounded by farms [in Lancaster County], but at home we don’t have this availability or opportunity.”
In the fall and spring, there are usually two school visits a day. With some guidance from Sam Matthews, this batch is now holding their newfound pumpkins between their legs.
“Now, what do we say to Farmer Sam?” their teacher poses.
The school children respond in unison: “Thank you!”
An almost teary-eyed Beiler thanks Farmer Sam for a trip down memory lane. “Just to be in the barn and smell the smells, it made me miss it,” she says. “I guess it’s just being out in the country. I’m just sorry my dad couldn’t be here.”
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Members of the Matthews family often eat lunch at a 100-year-old bench table. It was made by a boarder who couldn’t afford rent. “They were poor as dirt,” Melba Matthews says of her in-laws’ parents. “They needed boarders. There was so much to do here.”
Her husband, who turns 70 on Sunday, gets emotional when he thinks about carrying on the farming tradition. “Generations of us worked here,” says Sam. “Each of us made improvements, and we’ve done it right. It’s such a nice farm—off the highway and not built right on the road. It’s good land. It’s not Lancaster County quality, but it’s pretty good for Chester County.”
The Matthews farm dates to 1902. Sam’s mother’s aunt and uncle, Mary and Elmer Stiteler, had it then. Then Sam’s grandfather, J. Garfield Matthews, bought it in 1929. His son, Elmer, continued the tradition, just as Sam has.
Sam’s mother, Frances Dinkel Matthews, lived on a parcel across Route 113 that’s now a townhouse development. J. Garfield actually bought the farm for Elmer and his fiancée, Frances. Neighboring farm children who later traveled together to business school in West Chester, they married in 1930, and then moved in. They had four children. Sam was the third, born in 1938. He had older sisters in Caroline and Martha, and a younger brother James Edward, now a semi-retired teacher.
These days, only Sam and Melba live in the 1823 farmhouse. A middle section was added in the 1830s, along with another addition in 1993. There are also an 1819 bank barn, the milk house and a springhouse. In the 19th century, a windmill on top of the barn pumped water to a cistern. In addition to the silo, there are a pole barn, corncribs and a machine shed.
In other words, it’s a working farm—not that Melba hasn’t looked elsewhere to help support her family. She’s in her 41st—and final—year as a second-grade teacher at Hillside Elementary School in Berwyn.
When Sam’s father retired in 1968, he first rented the land to other farmers. At the time, Sam had a desk job with the Chester County Development Council. Its focus: to bring business into the county by converting blighted sites, including—oddly enough—farms.
Sam and Melba began farming Milky Way in 1976, though they didn’t move into the farmhouse with Sam’s parents until 1994. By 1997, though, the Matthews were at a crossroads. Frances needed nursing care. Sam’s special-needs sister, Martha, had always needed it. They sold development rights and entered into the Chester County Farmland Preservation program. The move saved the farm and their family. They were paid a one-time fee capped at $10,000 per acre, which went into trusts for family care. Frances would die in 1999, and Elmer a year later.
Before that, Sam and Melba had bought the farm outright at its agricultural value. Melba’s grandfather was a Birchrunville dairy farmer, and an aunt and uncle farmed in East Nantmeal. That uncle sold Sam and Melba a herd of cows and retired them to Milky Way.
“You can have a farm without cows,” says Melba. “But you can’t have a dairy farm without cows.”
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On a typical fall weekend, sometimes 4,000 people visit Milky Way Farm. Many come for pumpkins, others for the ice cream.
Ice cream is sold by the ounce to keep things fair. Vanilla is the lightest—and cheapest. On spring school trips, children get a soufflé of ice cream instead of a fall pumpkin.
Milky Way’s shift to retail is emblematic of farms everywhere. People want to know their farm—and their farmers—so they know where their food comes from. “A lot of people say, ‘You live in that house?’” confides Melba from the farmhouse porch. “They think there’s nothing better than actually meeting the farmer. They love finding out we’re real people. In the summertime, we intentionally eat dinner on the front porch so they know we’re a farming family.”
“They want to come up and touch the house,” Carolyn adds. “It’s like a [Norman] Rockwell scene.”
The Matthews could have built the creamery on Route 113 frontage, but it’s set back so everyone can have the experience of coming onto the farm. “We want to educate people so they can become the farmers of the next generation,” Melba says. “Look at those children—they’re having a ball staring at that rooster in a wire coop. It’s the same rooster that wakes me up every morning at 6 a.m.”
Melba’s own children have searched and found lives off the farm, but they’ve also remained connected. Another daughter, Jane, is in charge of the young workers who help on weekends for pumpkin harvest. Her husband, Tim Ferris, runs a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) produce stand on the farm’s grounds.
“I tried it, and now I can’t leave it,” says Carolyn, who lives a mile down Route 113, though her kids say they only “sleep” at that house. “It’s such a centerpiece of my life, and a gift I’d like to extend to my own children.”
To learn more, visit milkywayfarm.com.