Butter factory, the beginning of the end?

butter factory fajã da Ovelha

In our daily view from our house and garden features a very characteristic building. It is the old ‘fabrica de manteiga’, the butter factory of Fajã da Ovelha. The building is 110 years old. As the name says, it was used to make butter, and also cheese, in the days that it was still worthwhile keeping cows for milk.

the old butter factory of Fajã da Ovelha, as it was up to last week.
the old butter factury as it wasa up to last week.
cows high up in the area of Campanário
Cow near a levada in Paúl da Serra
cows along the Fontes walk

Anyone who knows the geography of Madeira can tell you that there is hardly any flat space, so keeping cattle near a farmhouse is not obvious. Today, since most people have motorized transport, they keep their cattle more or less half-wild in the high region of Paúl da Serra, where there are larger pastures. The altitude of Paúl (= plain) da Serra (= mountains) is between 1000 and 1400 metres. When it gets too cold there in winter, they bring their cattle down to escape the cold.

Dairy production left Madeira

Those who have more than one cow need to scatter them as there are no larger feeding grounds in the lower areas. One can easily imagine that this makes milking the cows very time consuming and inefficiënt. That’s why there is hardly any dairy production left in Madeira. The Azores are much better suited for cattle, so that’s where virtually all butter and cheese comes from nowadays. Another cause for this is, of course, that transport nowadays is much more efficiënt and regular. The arrival of refrigeration made transport of milk over longer distances possible. But fresh milk is another matter as the movement of a ship on a wavy ocean would turn it into butter soon – as we have experienced ourselves when sailing our yacht Heerenleed. That’s why there is a wide range of UHT milk brands available in Madeira, but hardly any fresh milk.

cows grazing in Terceira (Açores)

Uncertain fate for the butter factory

The butter factory of Fajã da Ovelha ceased operations, leaving the building empty. It has changed hands various times. We don’t know exactly how many, but we do know it ended up being bought by an American. He probably had wild plans with the building, but his plans never came to fruition.  The American owner has passed away in the meantime, leaving children, a widow and an ex-wife. As he had foreseen trouble, especially with the ex, he has put his assets in a trust. The heirs now can only dissolve the trust when they have sold all assets. And as you may have guessed, the butter factory is still unsold.  There also is an American bank involved in the trust. They now get impatient and want to get rid of the burden. So they have to get rid of the building and it is put up for sale. But there is a catch.

Ownership dispute

As no-one was using the building, some clever clog from a neighbouring village started to use it as storage for village party decorations. Under Portuguese law, that could cause a dispute about the ownership. I won’t go into that matter here because it’s quite complicated. But the long and short of it is, that you can claim ownership of real estate if you can prove you have been legally using it for a specific period. Of course, the man claims the American owner gave permission to use the building, but there is no written proof. And as the owner is dead there is no way to verify the claim.

party decoration materials stored in the back of the building
Nicely decorated window sills
An old building with beautiful details


View through the rests of the roof
The butter factory still has beautiful details. This tree destroyed the roof
no more roof for the butter factory
a tree fell on the roof. This is the culprit

There have been several interested parties, but since there is a dispute over ownership, the building still has not been sold. As nobody wants to invest in it under the circumstances, the building is slowly deteriorating. And now, Philomena, the storm that hit Madeira the day before yesterday, has begun to finish the job that time already started. An uprooted tree fell over the roof, creating a hole. Philomena did the rest. Imagine a building with a wooden floor and a half-open roof. It will quickly deteriorate further and can soon be added to the list of sorry ruins. A sad witness of the lack of decent legislation protecting national heritage.

meaningless protection of heritage

The building is on a list of ‘protected real estate’ but if no-one looks after it, this is meaningless. As it is, this list only says that you can’t change the looks of the building on the outside, but it does not oblige the owners to do proper maintenance. We fear the end of a beautiful and characteristic building is near.   

not the only one

If you check the comments you will find that the existence of another butter factory in our area was brought to my attention. It never occurred to me, but if you look at the geography of Madeira and its infrastructure, or rather the lack of it in the days when mere mortals definitely could not afford having a car, the other shoe drops. Of course, they needed butter factories close to where people lived and held their cattle.

So here it is: the butter factory in nearby Estreito da Calheta. Owned by John and Sue Armstrong, who found it in about as sorry a state as the one this article is about. John confirms the lack of support by any authorities where the restauration of historical buildings is concerned. As he put it: you are on your own. All the more praise to them for saving the building and giving it a new span of life. We can only hope that this will be the fate of ‘our’ butter factory as well. For those who missed it: we received a comment from Nicholas (the real estate gagent who is dealing with the property) that the rightful owners have sent a representative to assess the damage and have asked for quotations for the repair of the roof. Also, they have spoken with a representative of the Guarda Florestal, responsible for the forests on the island, to talk about some trees to be felled in order to avoid future damage.

the buttr factory in Estreito da Calheta, before restauration
Estreito da Calheta butter factory restored
Old butter factory in Estreito da Calheta: restored with vision

By Peter Groen

Peter was born in Amsterdam in 1949. He has a history in PR and copywriting. Now, part time resident of the Island of Madeira of over 10 years, he writes about Madeira, its culture, its overwhelming nature, its food and drink, and about everything concerning travel to and on this beautiful island.


  1. Hi Peter
    Thanks for publishing that. It made interesting reading, especially as I have often wondered about that building having driven past it numerous times over the years.

    Appreciate you didn’t want to go into lengthy detail, but do you know roughly how long someone can legally use your land before they get a right to claim ownership?

    1. I believe it is ten years, Jody, but after that you will have to legally claim your rights. In this case, the illegal user is illegal because he omitted to do that.

  2. Hi Peter, thanks very much for writing this article. The butter factory belonged to my great-great grandfather, Augusto Cesar de Gouveia. I’ve popped you an email with further information. Regards, Andrew

    1. Thank you for your feedback, Andrew. As you already know, I will gladly use this new information to update the article. Give me a week or so!

      1. If anyone knows about such a number, it will be Nicholas Ponte, who is the real estate agent dealing with the property. I’ll ask, need to contact him anyway for other details about the factory.

    1. Sadly not, Maurice. But we know the real estate agent dealing with it, and when next we bump into each other I’ll ask him if ther are any developments. It would be sad if another beautiful and authentic piece of heritage would be lost.

      1. Things do move slowly there. Sometimes that is nice when getting away from the rat race of London but other times it is frustrating.

        1. Indeed they do, Maurice, as we learned during the period that our house was being rebuilt. We quickly found out that ‘amanhã’ usually means next week, and ’em quinze dias’ usually means never.

  3. We bought the Butter Factory in Estreito da Calheta in2006 and restored it to an award winning property. It has taken a long time and a lot of money but it is now a very beautiful building. Local authorities are quite happy for them to be restored but will offer no assistance, it is down to you. The Butter Factory we own looks very much like the one in the article, at one stage we even had a tree fall on the roof!

    1. Thank you for this, John, I never knew there was one in Estreito da Calheta. Could you send some photos or give me a link to your website if there is one? It would be nice to see how such a magnificent building could be. Thanks in advance. You can use my email for images, if you have some to send me: peter@heerenleed.com.

  4. The representatives of the legal and rightful owners of the Butter Factory, the Kunkel Family and Fifth Third Bank have been to the site assessed the damage and has sought a quote from a local builder to repair the roof. We have also been on-site with the Guarda Florestal to seek permission to remove other trees that are at risk of causing further damage to the building.

    1. Thank you for this snippet of information, Nicholas. For an unknown reason, your comment landed in the spam folder and I only discovered just now. It has been approved and published. Really good news and I hope that the efforts of the owner’s heirs will result in a sale and a new life for this iconic building.

    1. It is. But they probably have no legal frame to interfere. We know the presidente of Fajã da Ovelha pretty well, so next time I see him I will ask is anything can be done at all.

  5. Zo jammer dit. Dit is het gebouw waar je op uitkijkt bij jullie van het terras af!
    Alle nostalgie gaat weg maar dat is niet alleen op Madeira zo hoor in Drachten blijft ook niets heel. Maar oké als het dan toch erg verwaarloosd eruit gaat zien kunnen ze het maar beter afbreken anders is het ook geen gezicht in de mooie natuur. Als je Drachten binnenkomt vanaf de rijksweg staat een hotel nou nu dus zonder ramen en alles wordt vernielt is ook geen gezicht dan maar plat.

    1. We zijn het hier wel gewend, Anneke. Het verschil met Nederland is dat de afbraak en het verval veelal door vandalisme wordt veroorzaakt. Hier is het alleen de natuur en de tand des tijds. Maar dit is een iconisch gebouw, alleen – jammer genoeg – op een ideale plek voor een boterfabriek, die er meteen voor zorgt dat het een slechte plek is voor een hotelletje of restaurant, of zelfs een woonhuis: heel weinig zon.

  6. Sadly buildings all over the island end up abandoned and neglected. When ever I go for a stroll around the back streets of Funchal I encounter dozens. Some seem to be left intentionally so they get beyond economic restoration and can be demolished to make way for ugly modern architecture instead of traditional Portuguese architecture. A great shame.

    1. Indeed, Maurice, that’s exactly what happens here. The only fortunate thing is the location of the butter factory. It is positioned to catch as little sun as possible, making the plot uninteresting for any development aimed at tourism. On top of that, the location is just within the Parque Natural da Madeira, where construction permits are very limited (until of course there are Avelinos or Sousas involved, to name just two)

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