WHITESTOWN, NY — Three candidates for Oneida County Dairy Princess sat at the head table at Hart’s Hill Inn on the evening of May 2, the eyes of 200 people studying their demeanor, their attire, their attitude and their manners.
As each one was called upon to give a brief, prepared speech and later answer an impromptu question posed by the master of ceremonies, each candidate demonstrated her knowledge while remaining poised in front of judges, family, friends and strangers.
Also in the the audience were approximately 25 experts, all former dairy princesses, who could easily sympathize with the nervous candidates. By the end of the evening, the crown was bestowed on Kristen Gallagher of Sangerfield, NY, who became the 50th in a long line of Oneida County dairy princesses. Mackenzie Holbert of Sauquoit and Caitlin Hilts of Marcy were named alternates.
Gallagher, who turned 17 on May 3, is a senior at Waterville Central School. She lives with her parents, Paul and Cindy Gallagher, and two siblings, Kathleen and Robert, on a 100-year-old farm on State Rt. 20 in Sangerfield. Her older sister, Jean, lives in Washington County.
Her mother, Cindy, was among the former dairy princesses who attended the event, except in 1979 she represented Schuylerville, NY, near the Vermont border. Kristen’s younger sister, Kathleen, is an Oneida County Ambassador and part of the princess’s court.
In her prepared speech, Gallagher referred to America’s changing demographics and a steady decline in milk sales in the last 20 years. The percentage of the population under age 19 has declined (the group more likely to drink milk), while the Baby Boomer generation, those over age 50, has increased significantly. The Hispanic population, too, has grown in the U.S., but studies show they have a low rate of milk consumption.
She also cited a study that showed that the nutritional benefits of milk correlates to learning in the classroom. “We need to tell students, it’s a healthy way to start the day,” she said.
Later on, each candidate was presented with a question to see how well she could think on her feet. The master of ceremonies selected one princess-to-be at a time, while the other two were escorted to a room out of earshot. Each one answered this question: “If you could choose to travel to any country in the world, where would you go?”
Gallagher responded, “I would go a big city removed from agriculture and tell them about what it’s like to be a dairy farmer… because I don’t think they would understand our business and way of life.”
Afterwards, she said she anticipated this part of the pageant and had rehearsed some answers to sample questions. Her planning paid off.
The new Oneida County Dairy Princess has been working on her family’s farm since she was 5 years-old and grew up in 4-H. Yet even though she lives in a rural area of central New York, a majority of her fellow students do not live on farms. She said she plans to attend SUNY Cobleskill this fall and major in agricultural business.
Cindy Gallagher didn’t remember anything significant about her reign as princess, but watching her daughter go through the process is nerve-wracking.
“It’s way more challenging now,” she said. “I don’t think we had as much knowledge and training, especially when it comes to greeting the public. There’s an image of farmers, a (different) public perception because so few people are involved in the production of agriculture.”
Cindy Gallagher also shared an interesting observation from her aunt, who was herself a dairy princess in the 1960s. “She told me that she thinks women today are much more accepted in agriculture. You will find more women involved in farming and they’re more respected.”
First Oneida County Dairy Princess reminisces
Mary Lou Leuenburger Heeney, originally from Vernon Center, was proud to be the first to wear the Oneida County Dairy Princess crown in 1964.
When she was called on, unexpectedly, to make a few remarks to the audience just before the princess was announced she commented, “I’m just glad to see the dairy princess pageant go on and on. This is an awesome group of people.”
She marveled at the poise and skills displayed by today’s dairy princesses and ambassadors. “When we were called on to speak to a group, we didn’t have any materials to educate others,” she said. “I think the girls today have a lot more help. We didn’t have any court or ambassadors, not even a chair!”
The pageant was held at the Oneida County Fair in Boonville, not at a restaurant. Heeney (nee Leuenburger) was 18 when she was selected. In a later interview, she recalled that life on the 200-acre farm in the 1950s and 1960s consisted of many long days and hard work with equipment that seems quaint by today’s standards.
“My father had registered Holsteins,” she said. “We had 50 cows, maybe; I can’t remember. My father would be shocked to hear that. Of course, we had milking machines.”
The role of dairy princess was not easy either. “It was difficult to be the first one,” she added. “It was a new endeavor and the people who oversaw (the pageant) were as new at it as me.”
In the 1960s, American consumers were just starting to hear messages about nutrition, calories and fat. She was shocked to hear people insist “that milk is bad for you… because of the cholesterol. There was not a lot of information out there (for the princesses) to dispute what the so-called experts were telling people. I had to struggle to counteract those messages. With the Internet, the girls today are much better prepared.”
She and her second husband, Buzz, just moved back to central New York from Vermont a few weeks ago. They’re living in Oriskany Falls, only a few miles from her old homestead, and want to start a horse farm.