NC State to build dairy museum off Lake Wheeler Road

sgilman@newsobserver.comApril 28, 2014 

  • Dairy in North Carolina

    Number of milk cows: 45,000

    Number of dairy farms: 285

    Average herd size: 158 cows

    North Carolina has seven Grade A milk processing plants and one large commercial cheese processing plant.

    Source: 2011 report by N.C. State University

— N.C. State University’s dairy farm, 389 acres of rolling green pastures on Lake Wheeler Road, is poised to go public with the advent of the Randleigh Heritage Museum.

The museum will allow the university to accommodate people who want to see the farm, which is now limited to faculty, students and an occasional tour group. It would mean more parking, better fences and perhaps an outdoor teaching pavilion so that hundreds, or even thousands, of people could come through the farm starting next spring.

“We are wanting to make this a destination where people can come and spend a half day,” said Gary Cartwright, director of the university’s Dairy Enterprise System. “This is something very few people get to see anymore: What dairy farmers go through to put a glass of milk on the table.”

It fits with the vision of William Rand Kenan Jr., a 20th-century chemist and industrialist who willed his herd of dairy cows and money to NCSU with the provision that the university use them to teach students.

The purpose of the museum will be twofold: teaching the public about dairy farming and preserving the Kenan legacy.

Visitors will turn off Lake Wheeler Road and drive past black-and-white Holsteins and friendly, doe-eyed Jerseys toward the red roofs of the new milking barn and the museum. At the barn, they’ll be able to look through a glass panel to watch cows being milked, 20 at a time, with automatic machinery. In the museum, they will learn about the digestive system of a cow and various figures of the dairy industry in North Carolina.

Visitors will also learn more about Kenan, the impetus behind the educational farm.

A Wilmington native, Kenan graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill in 1894 with a bachelor of science degree. In college, he helped discover a way to extract acetylene gas from calcium carbide, a gas commonly used in lighting at the time.

Post-college, he helped found the company that became Union Carbide in Niagara Falls and lived in nearby Lockport, N.Y. He then married and bought 15 acres and a couple of Jersey cows.

“He got fascinated with the Jersey cow, being a scientist,” said Tom Kenan, a nephew by marriage to William Kenan. “He got very interested in cattle feeding, all kinds of diseases and in having a clean milk supply.”

Soon, he bought 450 acres outside Lockport and grew his herd to about 350 cows. He was always looking for ways to improve the cleanliness of the milking process and the health of his herd.

Kenan also loved to share what he knew with the public. On his Lockport property, he set up a glass-walled room where visitors could watch the latest automated milking process, complete with plastic tubes that swept the milk into a holding tank.

“People from the Buffalo area would drive out to the farm two or three times a week to buy the products, they were such high quality,” Tom Kenan said. “When I was a boy, I remember the ice cream. It was delicious.”

Kenan later went to work as chief engineer for family friend and business partner Henry Flagler when Flagler was developing the Florida East Coast Railway.

Kenan’s career left him wealthy. He donated much of the money for the Kenan Memorial Stadium that opened at UNC in 1927. He also left his farm to NCSU, along with millions of dollars in the Randleigh Foundation Trust.

“He was going to leave the farm and the cows to Chapel Hill,” Tom Kenan said. “But his family said Chapel Hill couldn’t handle it. N.C. State is the veterinary school.”

About 50 Jersey cows from the Randleigh Farm in Lockport were transported to a farm purchased in Garner. But when the metropolis began to close in around it, the cows were moved to the farm’s current location on Lake Wheeler Road. Currently, NCSU has 55 Jersey cows – direct descendants of Kenan’s herd – and 245 Holsteins.

The coming museum will be the “flagship” attraction at the farm, Cartwright said. Construction will begin around June 1 and should be finished sometime next spring. The whole project will cost about half a million dollars, he said. Most of the money has come from the Kenan family.

Cartwright said he looks forward to being able to share knowledge of the dairy industry with a public audience.

“The people in Raleigh are hungry to learn where their food is coming from,” he said. “This is the right time to create some kind of accessibility.”

Gilman: 919-829-8955

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