VAN STOCKUM: John Elmer Kalmey, the diaryman

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If you know anything about dairy farming in Shelby County, surely you have heard of the Kalmey family.

By Ron Van Stockum

John Elmer Kalmey, whose family has been in the dairy business in Kentucky for at least three generations, was introduced to the dairy as a toddler.


He recalls being 5 years old, accompanying his father in the fields, being seated on a tractor and told to hold the steering wheel steady while the tractor moved slowly ahead, with his father on one side and his uncle on the other, each picking corn.

But the seeds of that role on the farm were planted long before that, when his great-grandfather, born in Germany, came to this country in 1841, settling in Jefferson County, leading to Kalmey’s grandfather, John Christian Kalmey (1860-1940), and father, George John Kalmey (1890–1948).

George John Kalmey joined the U. S. Army after the declaration of war against Germany in 1917. He served overseas as a combat infantryman, participating in the final Meuse-Argonne offensive.

After his return home, in 1921, he started a dairy on Ralph Avenue in Louisville, where he milked 80 cows, and delivered bottled milk.

Following his marriage and the birth in 1924 of his son, he bought his first registered Holstein cow in 1928 and in 1933 bought 114 acres of bottom land on the Ohio, near Kosmosdale.

That’s where John Elmer Kalmey, who will be 88 in a couple of weeks, learned to drive that tractor and to milk cows by hand long before the installation of milking machines. And it’s where his career as a great dairy showman began.

In the Great Flood of January 1937 the Kalmey farm was totally submerged, except for a knoll where a few cows were rescued before the waters engulfed it, too. The overflowing Ohio, at its peak, covered the farm to a level much higher than 8 feet.

John Kalmey and his mother, along with about 300 other residents of the area were picked up by a large steel barge provided by the nearby Kosmosdale Cement Company. The barge was towed down the Ohio to Brandenburg, where they all got off. They were trucked to Fort Knox, where they stayed in the barracks for about two weeks.

John’s father Kalmey remained behind on the farm to try to save as many cattle as possible. He did succeed in saving about half.

The flood did not deter young Kalmey. I quote from a newspaper clipping in the scrapbook, headlined “Young Farmer Beats Flood,” accompanied by his photo with the prize-winning cow.

 “Although nine of his herd of thirteen cattle were swept away in the January flood, John Elmer Kalmey, 12, of Valley Station, Jefferson County, came back Tuesday to be crowned the 4-H Club Dairy Champion of Kentucky.”

With that encouragement to participate in farming by his father, Kalmey had become active in the 4-H Agriculture Club for young farmers but had to reach the age of 10 before being allowed to show cattle.

But once he began, he found amazing success.

Ilda Kalmey, John Kalmey’s aunt who never had married, kept a scrapbook covering her nephew’s life from birth to marriage. On the first page is his photo, at age 5 months and on the last page are photos of his wedding.

It is replete with news items and photos highlighting his accomplishments as a young dairyman, which have been invaluable as a source of information in the process of writing this story of his early life. Photographer Jim Cleveland was able to convert much of that scrapbook to digital form.

But Kalmey doesn’t need to look at that scrapbook to recall the name of his first champion, Von Allmen Lady Wase and its serial number, 1212012.

During his remaining prize-winning 4-H career, which continued until he became 21 years old, he won four more Kentucky Dairy championships, in 1938, 1942, 1943, and 1944. He was also the 4-H Corn Champion in 1841,1942 and 1944.

He emphasizes that there is more to showing cattle than generally may be understood. It was necessary to tend to the animal’s needs, keep detailed records, and groom it as well, even polishing horns and hoofs.

He recalls exhibiting a heifer and a young bull in the grand ballroom of the Brown Hotel in 1936 and accompanying his uncle on a visit with a cow to all the Louisville elementary schools.

Kalmey credits the 4-H club for its guidance and support. He still can recite from memory the 4-H Pledge of his youth, which has been only slightly modified since:


I pledge:

My head to clearer thinking.

My heart to greater loyalty.

My hands to larger service.

My health to better living.

For my club, my community and my country.


And its motto:

In all things, I pledge to make the best better.


Moving to Shelby

It is obvious to those who know John Kalmey that this is a pledge he has honored throughout his long life.

Following the death of his father in 1948, Kalmey sold the Kosmosdale Farm and came to Shelby County and purchased his present farm on Zaring Mill Road.

Also in 1948, on June 18, he married Nina Mayfield of Finchville, a Louisville schoolteacher and direct descendant of Squire Boone’s father. After their marriage in the First Presbyterian Church in Shelbyville, Kalmey took his bride to his farm, where she became an active partner in the operation of Kalmey Dairy.

And so it seemed 1948 had been a memorable year. John Elmer Kalmey had used his formative years well. He had truly “made the best better.”


Today on the farm


Today on Kalmey Dairy Farm, John Kalmey has turned over the operation of the farm to his son John Charles, a graduate of the University of Kentucky’s animal sciences program.

As a young man, John Charles, like his father and his sisters – Janet and Joyce Kalmey – went on to be active and successful in the 4-H dairy world. He won also the National 4-H Holstein Championship and for 6 years has served on the board of the National Holstein Association.

In 1948, when the Kalmeys established their dairy in Shelby County, theirs was one of 10 on Zaring Mill Road.

Today there is only one, the Kalmey Dairy Farm, which milks 125 Holsteins out of a total herd of 250.