Jacob Reuter knew he was being followed. 

He did not know why.

A truck tailed him as he drove through Maquoketa in his vehicle emblazoned with “Reuter Construction & Salvage” on the sides.

When he pulled up to his Maquoketa shop, Reuter saw the truck stop with him. 

Craig Skott exited his vehicle and asked Reuter to look at ways to shore up the dilapidated, graffiti-laden former Buckhorn Creamery located about 5 miles southwest of Maquoketa. Skott owned the property and buildings, which the Jackson County Board of Supervisors and Zoning Administrator Ben Kober claimed were nuisances and recently demanded he clean up.

Now little more than a month later, Reuter and his wife Stacy own the property and buildings constructed decades ago as a creamery and most recently used by hundreds of people as a group hangout, photo backdrop, haunted house, paint canvas, and more.

“I sure didn’t think I’d be buying it,” Reuter explained as he walked through the abandoned, two-story butter- and cheese-making facility that was built at the turn of the 20th Century.

Reuter will move his construction and salvage business from its Maquoketa location onto the Buckhorn property in the spring, but he has more work to do before he makes the move.

And many neighbors and curious onlookers have stopped by the old creamery to find out what he’s doing and to share what they know of the almost 120-year-old building’s history.

Buckhorn Creamery history

Shadrack Burleson of New York established a claim in what is now Buckhorn. He shot many deer and nailed the antlers to a post near the door of the inn he built there. The inn became known as Buckhorn, as did the school, cemetery, creamery and settlement that eventually sprung up in the area.

Velma Teeple wrote a brief history of Buckhorn Creamery. Her parents made their home in Buckhorn in 1892. In 1899, her father, Hans Skott, and 19 other area farmers obtained personal loans from a Maquoketa bank and formed Farmer’s Union Cooperative Creamery. (The first creamery in the state was built east of Manchester in 1872.)

The cooperative paid about $3,100 to construct the original building and purchase the necessary equipment. They harvested ice for refrigeration from a neighbor’s pond. Milk haulers were paid $2 per trip to haul cans of milk from farmers living as far away as Lost Nation. 

In the 1900s, the size of the average dairy herd was 15 cows. Common breeds were Holstein, Guernsey and Jersey.

Milk was separated at the creamery before farm-sized separators were in use by the 1890s. After that point, haulers would bring in cream from area farmers. When the cream cans arrived, they were graded, sampled and weighed. No. 1 cream was churned separately from the No. 2 cream, which was made into a lower-grade butter.

A by-product, buttermilk, was sold to farmers who used it as a high-protein feed for livestock.

Buckhorn Creamery produced 30,000 pounds of butter within its first seven months. That increased over the years. By 1935, more than 1 million pounds of butter had been produced.

At its height, Buckhorn Creamery had about 700 patrons supplying milk and 11 milk haulers covering 17 routes. Suppliers came from Jackson, Jones, Dubuque, Cedar and Clinton counties. 

Nearly 34 million pounds of butter had been manufactured at Buckhorn Creamery from 1899 through 1952. More than 6 million of that was sold in 1-pound prints within local markets, the carton emblazoned with “Buckhorn Brand Quality Butter” and the head of an antlered deer. The rest was shipped to eastern markets.

The first shipment of Buckhorn butter went to New York in 1932, according to R.A. Werden’s “History of the Farmer’s Union Co-Operative Creamery Company 1899-1963.” 

“We were the first creamery of the middle west to ship butter by truck for so great a distance. It being 1,152 miles from the creamery to the unloading dock in New York City,” according to Werden’s book. Werden was a secretary for the creamery. The shipment included 241 tubs of Buckhorn butter, each tub weighing 71 pounds and consigned to Watts & Sons of New York.

Creamery picnics became annual events with speakers, games and races for the children and baseball games in the nearby field, as well as instrumental music, solos, duets and readings in the nearby Buckhorn Church, which still stands. The Jackson Sentinel estimated crowds of 2,000 to 5,000 people at the picnics.

The creamery’s decline might have been due to farmers getting out of the dairy business or selling their cream to other small creameries. 

But in the 1950s and ’60s, bigger became apparently better. One-room schools began consolidating into districts, stores started merging, and some small farmers sold out to larger ones. And soon, big dairy businesses were attracting small dairy operations. Refrigerated tank trucks drove into cow yards to collect the milk and haul it back to the larger creamery.

Teeple’s research showed that by 1957, the volume of cream received at Buckhorn had “decreased to a point where it was not profitable to make butter.” The company changed strategies, instead producing cheese. 

Buckhorn produced cheese curds and shipped them in 500-pound drums to Wisconsin. The remaining patrons provided the milk. Teeple and her husband Paul were among them.

But cheesemaking was not a long-term solution. Buckhorn’s board of directors merged with Mississippi Valley Milk Producers in October 1962.

The building and acreage was sold at public auction in April 1963.

Creamery repurposed 

Werden’s book noted that at one time, Buckhorn Creamery was one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of creamery butter.

All that remains to even hint at the building’s creamery past are round cinder block patches in the wall where bulk tanks once likely stood. Holes through the ceiling point to heat vents, while some metal pipes still lead out of the building on the west side. 

Windows were broken, wood floors ripped up, holes punched in and through drywall, doors removed, and 2- to 3-foot piles of garbage and animal droppings covered the floor in most of the empty rooms.

But that didn’t deter Reuter, 30. He salvages what he can, either repurposing it, selling it, or pitching it; it’s his job.

“When I’m done, nothing will look the same out here,” he said, noting the bittersweet change.

He tore down the most dilapidated part of the original frame creamery structure on the north side and is tearing down some other areas. Neighbors have watched glowing fires at the site as Reuter burns junk, both his and that left behind over the years by people who didn’t want to pay to dispose of their own trash, he said.

He wanted to save the second-story portion of the building where the name “Buckhorn Creamery” still faintly can be seen, but the floors are rotten and support beams are missing, making it unsafe.

Reuter intends to add a shop on the property and in-ground heat to the concrete floors. 

The exterior frontage will look completely different, as Reuter plans to cover it with metal. He even inserted poles for the fence that will surround the property, making sure it isn’t “an eyesore” for the county, he said with a laugh, and keeping trespassers away.

He’ll set up his corner office on the second floor of the main building, which is where the butter makers once lived. The area needs some structural and cosmetic work, but Reuter said he can do that in his free time.

“You can see [Highway 64] and the airplanes flying in and out of the airport. It’s a great view,” Reuter said.

He plans to spruce up the inside of the building with photos of the projects he’s worked on, but Reuter said he also wants to dedicate a wall to the creamery’s history and photographs — one more way to salvage and repurpose the past.