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Column: Once upon a time, there were cows at every turn

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared May 12, 2007.

WORTHINGTON — Gertrude Fenske Little remembers an evening from the summer she was 14 years old. The Fenske family lived on a farm at the west edge of Bigelow. If you drove west along Bigelow’s main street and continued on over the crossroad, past the lumber yard and past the elevator, over the railroad track, you were at the Fenskes’ lane.

The father made arrangements to have his girls, Gert and her sister, one year younger, deliver milk to Bigelow residents. When the Fenskes were done with their evening milking chore, fresh milk was poured into small tin pails with tight lids. Every evening the sisters brought eight of those tins to Bigelow houses.

In the evening Gert remembers best, there was a powerful storm. The girls delayed their rounds. When the storm passed and the wind died, it was night. The sky was black. “And Bigelow had no street lights,” Gert says.

If they continued along main street, the girls would have to walk past the pool hall. By that hour there would be a circle of men standing outside, maybe some with beers. “We were old enough that we would be embarrassed to have men see us going down the street barefoot.” The sisters diverted to the alley, behind Wicks’ store, behind the pool hall.

“Suddenly,” Gert remembers vividly, “a great black form lifted right out of the grass, right ahead of us. It came right at us.” This was not something imagined. It was real. The girls froze. Then they recognized the black form was a cow. Moo-ooo.

One of these columns recently was directed at dogs, which were part of the local scene even before white settlement began. It is hard now to appreciate that cows also were a part of everyone’s life until recent decades.

I have told before of Clyde Fronk’s story from the time he was a boy. There was a barn or shed behind every house along Okabena Street in Worthington’s new Dayton Addition. Each morning Clyde would set out, going barn to barn, milking each cow and then assembling them into a herd that he directed down Grand Avenue to the city pasture at the end of the street. In the evening he would get the cows together once again, herd them back down Grand Avenue and back to their barns. When he had milked them another time, Clyde was done with cows until morning.

Nelson Coyer arrived in Nobles County’s Indian Lake Township in June 1871, 10 months before the first train arrived at the Worthington townsite. Coyer and his wife had five children. Nelson recalled his earthly possessions when he arrived:

“… a span of Indian ponies, an old wagon and a 2-year-old heifer giving milk …”

It is hard to visualize an America which was like India, with cows at every turn, by day and by night. (In Chicago they will tell you it was four months after the Coyers arrived in Nobles County with their heifer — Oct. 9, 1871 — that, “Old lady Leary took a lantern to her shed. The cow kicked the lantern and this is what she said, ‘There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.’” Chicago burned. The cow did it.)

Nearly seven decades later — 1934, modern times — Mr. and Mrs. Paul Warner were riding on the road to Brewster about 9:30 on a May Saturday night. Mr. and Mrs. E.F. Michel were in the back seat. Suddenly, there was a cow in the road directly before them. Warner braked but it was too late. The car rolled several times. Everyone was hurt. The paper reported “painful but not serious injuries.” Oh, and the cow was killed.

My great uncle Carl Popken was but one of many farmers through passing years who told of times when blinding blizzards swept across their farmsteads. The farmers would knot a loop of twine around the knob on the back doors of their houses and then unroll the twine from a ball as they moved toward their barns. They could follow the twine back to the houses; otherwise they might become lost. They might even perish.

“Why did they go to the barn in weather like that?” a boy wondered.

Oh, well: they had to milk their cows.