Roy Vataja — Why you don’t see cows in downtown Aberdeen: The Cow Ordinance of 1905

Before there were lumber mills, canneries, or even commercial fishing, the primary industry in what is now Aberdeen was farming. When Sam Benn settled here in 1867, he cleared a pasture, brought in some beef and dairy stock, and supplied butter to Olympia and the sparsely populated Puget Sound region. It would be another 17 years before the arrival of the A.J. West family from Michigan and lumbering began to take hold. The town was platted, streets were laid out and a business section grew along with the population, and cows, descendants of Aberdeen‘s first industry, continued to wander whenever and wherever the mood struck them. By 1905, the free-roaming cow was Aberdeen’s most divisive political issue.

As the city was becoming more urban, cows ambling about unrestrained and creating havoc in the central shopping district and residential areas were increasingly becoming a news topic and an issue of heated debate. In December 1903, The Vidette reported that “a frenzied groceryman, making a vicious attack upon a cow, which is allowed to run at large, and which had eaten the greater part of his vegetable supply, was one of the amusing sights in a main business thoroughfare of Aberdeen on Tuesday. It will take some time for Aberdeen to get over its rural habits, but the day of reform is promised.” In October, 1904, the Grays Harbor Post reported on a cow found mired in deep mud near the present location of the Becker Building, and “it took the combined efforts of Policeman Birmingham and several laborers to extricate. While Policeman Birmingham grasped the bovine’s tail and steered, the other men tugged and pulled and the animal was finally extricated.”

By late 1904, the battle lines were drawn between the pro- and anti-cow factions. A considerable number of complaints had been received about cows running at large in the night, annoying people with the clamor of bells and damaging residential yards and gardens, and that November an ordinance was proposed prohibiting cows and heifers more than 1 year old from running at large between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. A city council vote on the new law was laid over for a week. Then another week. And another.

The anti-ordinance forces included Mayor John Lindstrom who was resistant to a sweeping ordinance that would encompass the entire city, and a coalition opposing the law, the Aberdeen Stockgrowers Association, was formed. Their contention was that cows do not hurt anyone and that a far-reaching law would create hardship on those living in the relatively rural reaches of south and west Aberdeen.

Those supporting the creation of regulations barring the free passage of bovine in Aberdeen included the Aberdeen Bulletin and the Chehalis County Vidette. The argument in favor of a law was based not only on the annoyance of residents whose fences had been broken down by animals running at large, but the welfare of the animals themselves.

The depth of passion can be found in an editorial in the Aberdeen Bulletin in March 1905: “It would be a god send to the cow if the ordinance was passed for many animals are allowed to roam at will half or most of the time without proper shelter and the milk supply is thus endangered by the scanty food which the animal receives and the lack of care and consideration. Some of the cows have perished in the swamps where they have sunk in their search for food.

A cow ordinance would be the saving of a considerable sum to property owners who are obliged to build and maintain fences, whereas a fence is a thing of the past in progressive cities. The people on account of the pestiferous cow are also deterred from planting shrubs and keeping their lawns in proper shape, thus depriving the city from that attractiveness which it should have and to which its people are entitled.

If the council does not pass it each and every individual member thereof should be taken out and strangled”

As 1905 dawned, the heated issue was passed to the newly seated councilmen who continued to lay it over until March when the even further-reaching Ordinance 213 prohibiting stock from running at large anywhere within the city limits, and providing a penalty of from $2.50 to $10.00, was passed overwhelmingly.

A petition with 49 signatures was immediately filed protesting the ordinance, and Mayor Lindstrom announced that he would veto the new law. The mayor’s contention was that while he supported a ban on the animals in the residential and business districts, it was unnecessary to hinder the animals in the rural parts of south and west Aberdeen. He questioned the capacity of the police to enforce the ordinance in every corner of the growing city, and there was the issue of where to put the wayward bovines when they were “run in.”

Soon after, Lindstrom left town on business and the council opted not to readdress the issue until he was present. Thus it went until finally on April 12, 1905 with the mayor present, the city council took a vote overriding the veto, and on May 14, 1905 the new law took effect. The Aberdeen Transfer Company created a “cow pound” to care for the estrays at 60 cents a day until their owners made bail.

It took a while for cattle owners to realize that the city was serious as the Grays Harbor Post reported “Wm. Loucks on I street, paid $4.00 to secure the release of his cows Thursday night. Mr. Loucks doesn’t believe in the cow ordinance.” Those who found strays in their yard would place ads such as this: “TAKEN UP ASTRAY - Came to my home on W. Hume, June 10, one red cow and one red calf. Cow has horse-shoe mark on right hip and inverted figure 9 on left hip. Owner can recover property by paying for advertising. JOHN HORTON”

There were a number of court challenges but the ordinance was ultimately upheld. It was also largely ignored in the rural parts of the city, as many had predicted, until 1911 when a heart-rending tale led to an amendment allowing cattle in South Aberdeen to once again roam free. It seems that one day the police took custody of 25 cows, the majority of which belonged to a South Aberdeen widow who relied on the sale of the milk to support her six children. It cost the woman $37 to gain their release which added to her hardship. The city council, ceding to pressure from constituents, amended the law and gave the widow her $37 back.

So there you have it. If you ever wondered why you don’t see cows wandering freely on Heron or Wishkah streets, you can thank the Cow Ordinance of 1905.

Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and, with summer hours now in effect, will be at the Aberdeen Museum of History from noon to 4 p.m. pretty much every Sunday until November.


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