The Life of a Cow in the Northwoods

Jan 15, 2020

How many stories about cows in Wisconsin history can you think of? In this weeks Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz reveals that the most memorable stories regarding cows, are usually dramatic ones.

History is the study of written documents. That is why any past event that took place before the development of writing is known as pre-historic. But written documents never give us a complete picture of the past and are, at best, fragmentary evidence of what happened. After all, few people keep diaries or journals of their daily lives, and even the best of those never record everything that happened in any given day. What we are left with are snippets, and it is up to historians to put those bits and pieces together in order to narrate and explain what happened in the past. When looking at those fragments, however, it is equally important to go beyond the surface of what the document says and confirm that it is both honest and accurate. If it isn’t and further research isn’t done, then the historian is apt to spin a wildly inaccurate picture of the past.

For example, a while back I did a story on cattle drives in the Northwoods, but a simple surface search of the documents did not reveal much. It took deeper digging to get a good story, but had I stopped with the basic search the conclusion might have been that cows met frequent and tragic ends in the Northwoods. Here’s some of what turned up.

In 1921, a Rhinelander area farmer had a test for tuberculosis administered to his cows. The test revealed that one of his cows had a leach encased in its liver. The cow was killed so the liver and its unusual occupant could be placed on exhibit in the agricultural agent’s office.

In 1927, an Oneida County veterinarian was called out to treat a distressed cow. The vet was unable to relieve the animal’s suffering, and it died. An autopsy revealed that the cow had eaten enough nails, staples, bits of screening, wire, and iron bolts to fill a small jar. Apparently, the farmer in question tossed his discarded hardware in the same trough where he fed his cows.

In 1930, another careless farmer tossed an electrical cord and light socket into his cattle feed bin. One cow bit into it and was chewing when the farmer decided he needed some light and hit the switch. The cow was electrocuted.

In 1935, two Rhinelander neighbors got into an argument over cows. One man let his cows roam free, and they liked to frequent the neighbor’s garden. The two men confronted each other on the roadside, a fight ensued, and the man who let his cows roam free killed the man with the garden. This time the cow escaped injury.

Finally, in 1952 two cows had the bad judgement to stand under a bolt of lightning as it struck the ground. But this time they weren’t alone as they took two horses with them.

There is more to each of these stories than the sensational surface information, but the conclusion to draw from them is not that Northwoods cows frequently met tragic ends. Rather, no one really remembers cows unless something dramatic happens to them.