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Thursday, February 28, 2013
If you’re like me, you’re finding the endless chatter about sequestration and transportation funding tedious. So let’s set it all aside for a bit and mark the centennial of a rancorous debate in Salem. For our great-grandparents, the issue of the day was not gun control, but cow control.
Let your mind go back 10 decades. Even a small town like Salem was experiencing growing pains in the modern age of horseless carriages. Outside of the urban metropolis of Roanoke and a few blocks of Salem’s Main Street, virtually all of the Roanoke Valley was rural, the residents self-sufficient small farmers. Folks ate food they or a close neighbor produced, and when it came to milk and butter, many people kept a cow. A family cow or two was a matter of survival, even for many town dwellers.
And if you lived in or near the town of Salem, you probably lived on a small lot with no pasture. Hence for time immemorial, your hungry cow was usually free to roam, making no distinction between grass in your own yard and a neighbor’s flower garden.
As much as we may associate such a thing with a third-world slum, most people thought it no more amiss than we would a stray cat. In 1913, this paper called the roaming cow a “time-honored tradition.”
But others saw the custom as hopelessly backward, unbefitting a progressive, modern town like Salem. Protests against itinerant bovines had been voiced for years, and were reaching a fever pitch by 1912. The anti-cow reformers demanded all cattle near town be penned or pastured behind a fence, and if moved through the streets, be herded by an attendant.
Salem was hardly unique in this debate. Virtually all American cities had (or would soon have) similar arguments while making the transition to the 20th century. Much the same dispute had occurred in Roanoke a decade before. The thriving railroad boomtown experienced her drive to turn the meandering bovine out to pasture in 1902. A public referendum in the Magic City endorsed the freedom of the cow, but by the margin of a single vote. With the populace so evenly divided, city council took the bull by the horns and required owners of cattle to keep them penned.
Council then suffered the wrath of local cow owners, for whom the expense of fencing and attending a cow that previously took care of herself was a hardship. Roanoke’s African-American population especially viewed the law as an attack on their livelihood. But eventually, Roanokers got used to keeping cows confined.
To 2013 ears, such a debate seems absurdly one-sided. We can’t imagine why anyone would favor wandering livestock in the neighborhood. But remember that milk for us comes nicely pasteurized and conveniently dated in 1-gallon jugs. A hundred years ago, many locals — perhaps even a majority, depending on how you counted — actually supported the wanderlust of old Bossie.
In fact, the debate came to be framed as one of class conflict. The high and mighty “uptowners” were accused of wanting to sacrifice the comfort and prosperity of their poorer neighbors just to keep hoof prints off of their sculpted lawns. The pro-cow faction did not silently endure such persecution of its beloved kine.
Salem’s elected leaders faced a political quandary. Any decision they made would tick off half the voters. Accordingly, they tried to punt the decision to the electorate in a referendum, as had Roanoke. In June 1912, Salem voters got to vote on a proposed herding measure, and the result revealed the division in the community over the issue: 196 for, 196 against. But soon thereafter some votes were summarily disqualified, resulting in a 10-vote majority against the nomadic livestock. You might guess the pro-cow forces felt victimized by foul play.
The referendum being only advisory, council still had to act. In October 1912, after rancorous debate, Salem’s council passed an ordinance prohibiting any livestock on the streets “without an attendant or herdsman” beginning February 1913.
A second referendum in January tried to stave off council’s action, but when the votes were counted, the anti-cow side had won a 13-vote majority. Council’s new law went into effect 100 years ago this month, and Salem’s cows went into exile.
The deflated cow clique continued to grumble, but in time the acrimony faded. Today, the idea of keeping cattle only in outlying pasture land is unflinchingly accepted. We forget that in our great-grandparents’ day, the very suggestion moooo-ved citizens into fierce debate.
Long, a Roanoke Times columnist, is director of the Salem Museum.
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