Sacred Cow

ca. 1880

“HOLSTEIN HEIFER, 2 years old.” Hand-colored engraving printed ca. 1880.

I recently received an inquiry from a longtime reader of the blog. What did I know about Wellington’s most famous bovine citizen, the nineteenth-century Holstein cow called Molly Bawn? I had to confess that I did not know much. A quick Google search uncovered a parcel of self-described “legends” about the animal. Local cheese dealer Charles Horr went on a trip to Europe, where he discovered that Holstein cows produce much higher volumes of milk than their American counterparts. Impressed, he bought a two-year-old specimen called Molly Bawn (or Mollie Baun, or any combination of variant spellings) and brought her back across the ocean. Horr thereby introduced Holstein cows to America/Ohio/Lorain County…you get the idea. Molly went on to produce record-breaking amounts of milk, perhaps the most milk ever produced by a cow, and that is why Wellington became famous for cheese production–and why we still remember Molly to this day. The trouble is, existing historical documentation does not support any of those assertions.

Holstein Friesian cows (rather confusingly known as Holsteins in America, but Friesians in Europe) are the highest-production dairy animals in the world. The breed originated in the northern provinces of what we today call the Netherlands, namely North Holland and Friesland. The enormous black-and-white or red-and-white animals were being shipped to America as early as the 1600s, when Dutch settlers in New York brought or sent for “Dutch cows” to fill their pastures. The Holstein Herd Book, first published in 1872, noted that the initial import of “pureblood” breeding stock occurred with the shipment of a single cow to Massachusetts in 1852 (pg. 19).

Map of Holland province

Map of the northern provinces of the Netherlands, showing Holland and Friesland. Holstein Friesian cows originated as a breed in this region, and Molly Bawn was born here.

The first eight volumes of the Holstein Herd Book are available digitally, spanning the years from 1872 until 1885. Every breeding-stock Holstein cow or bull that was registered by its owner is found in the Herd Book, described in great detail and assigned a unique and sequential identifying number. Examining the first two volumes, I was able to determine that by 1875, there were nationally-registered Holstein cows in fourteen of the thirty-seven states then in existence. They grazed from Maine to California, though admittedly were predominantly concentrated in the northeastern quadrant of the nation. So Molly Bawn was certainly not America’s first Holstein, by two centuries or more. What about Ohio, then? I’m afraid not. The same series of volumes shows that by 1880, these overachieving milch cows could be found in at least fifteen different communities across the state, including Wooster, Franklin, Xenia, Toledo, Canton, Painesville and Hudson.

Charles Horr was a very successful businessman who made his fortune selling other people’s cheese and butter after the Civil War. His company, which had multiple names over the years but is most often referred to as Horr-Warner, at its high-water mark managed thirty cheese and butter factories in the region. The most visible signs of Horr’s status were luxurious offices in the busy commercial district of the village and an enormous estate on its still-rural outskirts. Horr visited Europe in 1877 and “made permanent arrangements for an export trade” of Ohio cheeses to foreign shores (Wellington Enterprise, 10/10/1894, pg. 1). While he certainly already knew about Holstein cows and their reputation for stupendous and reliable milk production, it is possible that Horr took a side-trip to Holland to see a few in person. As we have already established, though, there were multiple specimens a great deal closer to home.

One thing is certain: Charles Horr did not see Molly Bawn on this 1877 European trip, nor did he purchase her there or bring her back to Ohio. Molly was not “calved,” or born, until February 24, 1880. This is reflected in both her official Herd Book entry, and in another volume called the Holstein-Friesian Advanced Registry.

Holstein Herd Book v5 1881

Holstein Friesian Register 1886

Though Molly did enter the world in North Holland, six months later she was on her way across the ocean, courtesy of a breeding operation called Smiths & Powell, based in Syracuse, New York. It was from Smiths & Powell that Charles Horr purchased Molly, along with two of the three other animals that made up his initial Holstein herd. The fourth cow, graced with the lyrical name Lady Ethelind, was purchased in Painesville, Ohio.

The name “Molly Bawn,” incidentally, probably originated from an Irish folk song–alternatively sung “Polly Vaughn”–commonly known since the late eighteenth century. A popular novel had also been published under that title in 1878, by Irish writer Margaret Wolfe Hungerford. (The novel was later made into a silent film in 1916.) Charles Horr christened his opulent home Bawndale–or Baundale–and while we know that construction on the house was completed in late 1872, we do not know if Horr named the house after the cow, or vice versa.

Barn cropped

This magnificent wood-frame barn, possibly once home to Molly Bawn, stood behind the Horr residence at 563 South Main Street. It was dismantled in the mid-twentieth century and relocated to the Hayden family farm, 1.5 miles north of the village. Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum.

In 1883, the Wellington Enterprise published an editorial about getting the maximum return on investment possible from cattle purchases. Choose the breed best suited to the task at hand, the paper advised. Holsteins were well understood to be superior milch cows. The Enterprise offered as an example C. W. Horr’s three-year-old “Mollie Bawn” who had birthed a calf of her own that winter and was reliably yielding more than sixty pounds of milk per day. In the following week’s edition, “to answer the many questions” that resulted from the previous report, a table was printed showing Molly’s production tallies for the first ten days of May. It was nearly seven hundred pounds of milk.

I believe this editorial and follow-up piece may be where Molly’s fame was born, not necessarily in the nineteenth century but perhaps in the twentieth. Ernst Henes, the editor of the Enterprise in the mid-1900s, liked to scan old issues of the newspaper and write about what he found, both in special commemorative issues and in print publications. I would hazard a guess that it was Henes’ work that ensured Molly Bawn a place in the current memory of the town. (She also served as de facto mascot of the now-defunct Wellington Cheese Festival for nearly two decades.) Charles Horr gave a lengthy speech to the Ohio State Board of Agriculture in 1891, describing how he had built a herd of 130 exceptional Holsteins over a decade. He mentioned several animals by name, but Molly was not one of them. When he wished to advertise the sale of cattle from his “Bawndale Herd,” it was not Molly’s image Horr published in the paper, but instead a cow called Nundine. In another advertisement, Molly’s name was one among many “celebrated” breeders including Aaggie, Lady Netherland, Sadie Vale and Saapke.

So Molly was not America’s first Holstein. Nor Ohio’s. Nor even Lorain County’s. Oberlin’s Ohio Weekly News is filled with early 1880s notices and advertisements referencing Holsteins with thoroughbred status and the Herd Book numbers to prove it. But surely Molly must have been Wellington’s first Holstein? Charles Horr must have been the first person from Wellington to import the breed? In fact, he was not. According to the 1881 Herd Book, O. P. Chapman, a breeders association member, was the first Wellington resident to register a Holstein. His bull, Captain John, was purchased in Painesville, Ohio sometime after its birth in 1880 and was the 619th registered in the country. (Horr’s first Holstein bull, Syracuse, was 822nd on the list.) Chapman’s cow, Queen Anne, was born in North Holland in 1880 but bought from the same operation in New York patronized by Horr. Queen Anne was the 1,256th female Holstein registered in America. The 1,292nd spot belonged to Chapman’s cow Mildred. Horr’s Molly Bawn occupied slot 1,298.

The most wonderful thing about this, at least from my perspective, is that O. P. Chapman spent a quarter-century living in the house next door to my current home. He built the carriage house that is now part of my property. When it was completed in the spring of 1883, the Enterprise noted, “O. P. Chapman has the best arranged and finest finished horse and stock barn on his place on South Main St. we ever saw. It will pay any admirer of good things to call and see it. He has also some very fine blooded stock, and is giving special attention to their growth and improvement” (5-9-1883, pg. 3). I never realized that our cattle stalls once housed Wellington’s first Holsteins. Queen Anne, Mildred and Captain John may well have lived out their lives in my backyard.

Carriage House

O. P. Chapman’s carriage house. Originally built as part of the property for 318 South Main Street, it is now included in the parcel for 326 South Main Street. Photo by author.

Charles Horr spent nearly fifteen years building up a renowned collection of what he termed “deep milkers.” Initially he imported animals from locations in North Holland and Friesland with names like Purmer, Hoorn, Bovencarspel, Westwoud, Beemster, Wieringerwaard, Schermerhorn and Harwerd. But soon he felt that the quality of his stock was advanced enough that he no longer required outside blood. While in volume one of the Holstein Advanced Register, for the year 1886, he imported eleven of the fourteen cows listed, by volume two (1887 to 1889) he “owned and bred” twelve of the nineteen submissions.

He entered members of his herds (Horr also raised Ayrshires, Durhams, Herefords and Aberdeens) in cattle shows and agricultural fairs; served as president of the Holstein-Friesian Association of America; and was an organizer of the National Dairy Union. After Horr’s untimely death in 1894, the Enterprise commented on the speed with which his Holsteins were being purchased and shipped around the country. But the Bawndale Stock Farm endured under the leadership of his son, also called Charles, who continued to breed, sell, and host annual visits of faculty and students from the agricultural department at Purdue University in Indiana.

I suspect Charles Horr would be amused by the mythology that has grown up around the humble animal known as Molly Bawn. It was Horr’s considered opinion, after all, that “a dairy cow should be regarded as a machine designed for the conversion of food, air and water into milk” (Enterprise, 1/21/1891, pg. 4).  Whatever else may be said about Molly, the milk-producing machine discharged her duties exceptionally well.

UPDATE: I just finished rereading Frank Chapman Van Cleef’s excellent article, “The Rise and Decline of the Cheese Industry in Lorain County,” published in 1960. Van Cleef’s father was a longtime employee of Charles Horr, and the author himself also worked in the local cheese industry. In his twenty-five page examination of what made Wellington a national hub of cheese production, Van Cleef never mentions Holstein cows. In fact, he argues persuasively that the industry peaked in the late 1870s, and was already in decline by the time Molly Bawn and her herdmates came to town. Van Cleef also mentions Charles Horr’s 1877 trip to Europe. As the result of a visit to Wellington by a provisions dealer from Glasgow, Scotland, Horr-Warner agreed to produce five to eight hundred boxes of cheese for weekly or semi-weekly shipment overseas. Later that year, Horr made a reciprocal visit, to Glasgow and Liverpool. No day trips to the Netherlands to shop for cattle are mentioned.

7 thoughts on “Sacred Cow

  1. Renee MacDermott Baker

    My name is Renee MacDermott Baker. I grew up in Wellington, at 533 So Main St. My father was Richard P. MacDermott. My grandfather was Col. James C. MacDermott 539 So Main St. Wellington, Ohio. As a little girl, I remember Mr. Charles Horr (son) and his dairy cows. We shared pastures with Mr. Horr’s cows and our horses behind our homes and the Greenwood cemetery. At times, the animals would meet and greet, break down the fences and we would have fun getting the animals back into their own pastures! Mr. Horr was a very nice gentlemen and neighbor. Sincerely, Renee A. MacDermott Baker

    Reply
    1. Donna M. Adam

      Dear Nicole,
      For very obvious reasons, this is truly my favorite post to date, even though this “debunks” a “folklore myth”. I absolutely LOVE how you researched, arranged, and included photos/pictures to illustrate this story that became the foundation of many wonderful things that later contributed to my own unique family history. Yes, I am quite biased about this being my favorite post since I have now learned so much more about my Great Grandfather than I ever expected could be possible in my late 60’s! Please remind me again how I can order a copy of your book, and I can hardly wait to meet you at the Wellington Bicentennial celebration next year.

      It is equally special to view the post above from Renee McDermott Baker who speaks so kindly of my Great Grandfather. This post goes into my Family Archive Album, for certain, and likely at the very beginning where it all began. I am so sincerely appreciative of your amazing talent as the 19th Century Wellington Armchair Historian!!
      Kind Regards,
      Donna M. Adam

      Reply
      1. Armchair Historian Post author

        You are extremely kind, Donna. I am glad you enjoyed reading it. RE: the book, it is at the printer as we speak. A box should be arriving at my door within the next couple of weeks. I will then post about how to obtain a copy. Thanks again for being a supporter and encourager of the blog!

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