The Town Herd | Prairie Public Broadcasting

The Town Herd

Aug 31, 2019

“The large amount of grain that has been seeded near town will necessitate the herding of stock now running at large,” announced the Dickinson Press in 1883. “Mr. S. Burnside proposes starting a town herd and will herd all stock at the low rate of $1.00 per head per week.”

Well into the middle of the twentieth century, prairie townspeople kept milking cows at their residences. They had fresh milk, but at the cost of some public nuisance and personal trouble. To take care of the problem, there arose an institution known as the “town herd.”

This is an arcane detail of community history, I’ll grant you, but it tells us something about town life in generations past. The institution of the town herd, too, evolved in ways that resonate with known themes in our historical development.

Samuel Burnside, the herdsman referenced by the Press in 1883, had a homestead claim not far from the city. In terms familiar to many communities, he offered to collect cows from residences, take them out to the country for the day, and bring them back for milking in the evening.

He had to promise to “herd” the stock because, as farmers moved into the country around town, the county activated what was known as the “herd law.” The herd law invoked what we know today as “animal liability.” Livestock not properly restrained by fencing or herding, and doing mischief to other people’s crops, made their owners liable for damages. Thus the passing of the open range opened an opportunity for Mr. Burnside.

Problem solved, for the moment, but progress precipitated new expectations. As the open range passed, it was more feasible to improve bovine bloodlines. To hold business, the herdsman in 1892, one Moses Lenneville, promised, “Full blooded Polled Angus bull will be with the herd.”

So there was good forage and bull service for the cows, but were they given attentive care? By 1906 there was a new sheriff in town, so to speak, in the person of Frances C. Holley, appointed by the governor as state agent for prevention of cruelty to animals. Mrs. Holley, who was active in several charitable causes, was less concerned about the cows than about the herdsmen’s horses. She issued the following pronouncement:

"All persons having charge of town herds . . . are hereby respectfully requested to regularly and often examine the saddles while on the horses of their herders, and if they find such horses with sore and irritated back or feet to relieve them at once; and also, not to allow the use of spurs. Furthermore to see that the herders do not recklessly race their horses, in pursuit of stock, through alleys and elsewhere, over tin cans, old iron and broken glass; and that their horses are amply rested from the saddle in the middle of the day, so far as practicable. “They have no voice to tell their woe.”

The progressive era had arrived. In 1912 the Dickinson police chief, in peevish terms, announced, “All parties are hereby notified that the town herd has started and there is no excuse for cattle or horses being found in the streets of Dickinson without keepers. It is contrary to the ordinance to allow stock to run at large in the city.” Animals found at large would be taken up and their owners fined. No doubt the citizens of Dickinson slept more soundly thereafter.

Other towns, too, had their cows and their herdsmen and their issues, a story worth taking up another day.

~Tom Isern