The Cows Came Home | Prairie Public Broadcasting

The Cows Came Home

Sep 7, 2019

One day in October 1907, a herd of milk cows belonging to townspeople in Pembina broke into a pasture that belonged to a farmer named Jim Kneeshaw.

“The town herd got into solitary confinement in Kneeshaw’s pasture on Wednesday,” the local editor remarked drolly, “because they seemed to like Jim Kneeshaw’s young timothy better than other feed. The matter was finally fixed up between Messrs Kneeshaw and Mr. Allen the herder -- and the cows came home as usual at night.”

Described here is an episode at the intersection of the legal requirements of herd law with the regional custom of the town herd. Herd law, which required livestock be fenced in or herded so that they did not damage crops, was established with the passing of frontier open range.

As explained in my last essay, prairie communities commonly had a herdsman who collected the milk cows kept by townsfolk every morning, took them to graze outside of town for the day, and brought them back to be milked by their owners in evening. The town herd was a workable practice because of the consistency of bovine habits. Cows in sheds along the alleys awaited the arrival of their herdsman and happily fell into the herd, knowing they were going out to graze. Come evening, each cow would peel off from the returning herd and walk into her stall, ready to be milked.

Provided, that is, the herdsman did his job and kept them off properties where they were not welcome. In this case, Mr. Kneeshaw impounded the tresspassers and forced the herdsman to pay damages.

I know from newspaper references that Pembina established a town herd some time before 1888, in which year one Martin Bentley advertised for the continued patronage of citizens in keeping their cows. I do not know just when the custom ceased, but in 1914 it was endangered. “The sale of town lots will cut off a large part of the pasture for the town herd,” reported the Pioneer Express, “and the question of keeping cows by townspeople begins to assume a serious aspect. This is particularly true with our Icelandic suburb north of the track.”

Wait, what, an Icelandic suburb north of the NP Railway? And presumably the Icelandic residents were fond of their dairy products, or more persistent in patronizing the town herd, or both.

They and the other citizens were encouraged by the city to enter into the town herd arrangement, rather than just turning cows loose. On April 19, 1895, the Express reported, “Thos. Grandbois started the town herd Tuesday morning. There is no excuse for letting stock run at large around town. Let the pound master and city marshal do their duty.”

Indeed, shortly after this there developed a situation of rival herdsmen, Grandbois versus the partnership of Alex Whitson and Winfield Sterns, each advertising services. It began with the notice in January 1896, “Tommy Grandbois says he intends to run the town herd again next summer. Tommy took good care of the cows last summer.” Through the spring, however, both Grandbois and the Whitson-Sterns partnership used the Express to “respectfully solicit patronage.”

Two years later the custodian at old Fort Pembina, Ora McCumber, brought Pembina’s cows there and onto additional leased land. In the drought year of 1900 farmers complained of the town herd getting into their scarce haystacks. And in 1911 the herdsman was making common recourse to road allowances to find grazing. By then even the Icelanders probably knew that the time for keeping cows at town residences was coming to a close. It was progress, so they called it.

~Tom Isern