Wednesday 31 May 2023

Close encownters: Urban cows and their regulation in the Royal City

They gathered furtively at the residence of Albert Fred Farley in Guelph, to discuss the foundation of a Communist Party of Canada (Easterbrook 1995). Discussion was held in Farley's barn in order to allow space for the number of people involved. Of course, the barn already had several residents, whose presence sometimes intruded on the proceedings:
“They brought food to us from the house in pails, so people would think they were feeding the cows,” said Dolgoy,” There were cows alright; I remember that whenever a cow urinated, the speaker had to stop for a minute.”
Besides the cattle's disregard for the delegates, what is perhaps most surprising is that there were cows in Guelph at all. Since its early days, and even in 1921, when this meeting occurred, it was not uncommon to encounter cows in town. Today, meeting with a cow in Guelph would be startling. (Well, apart from the OAC.)
(The former home of Albert Fred Farley, now 257 Metcalfe Street. The historic barn is no longer present.)

So, it is interesting for us to look back to ascertain what cows were doing in Guelph in its earlier days and what changed in the meantime.

Cattle had a number of uses in nineteenth century Canada. They were used for muscle power to haul heavy loads or sometimes to provide power for machinery. They were the source of beef, a food much prized in the Anglo-American world. And, cows could provide milk, which was an important part of most Canadians' diets.

(Two oxen yoked in front of the Albion Hotel, ca. 1895. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2009.32.2163.)

For city residents, using cattle for muscle power was not usually necessary. Steam power, and later electricity, were available where human or horse-power were not adequate. Beef cattle require large investments as they normally take several years to grow to a size where it would be profitable to sell them to a butcher. However, milk cows pay off immediately in the form of regular milk production, which can help to meet the immediate nutritional needs of families and where any excess can be sold to generate extra income.

Ogle (2013) explains that it became common practise in the United States (and in Canada) for urban cattle to be pastured more-or-less where they lived. Early settlers got used to the idea that free pasture was never far away in what they regarded as the wilderness just outside of their towns. Cattle could simply be turned loose, forage for themselves, and be rounded up when need be. The habit proved enduring.

One obvious problem with this arrangement is that urban cows "running at large" can be a nuisance. No respecters of manners or property, cows eat whatever looks good that they can get at. This would be not only food and pasture provided for them but also their neighbour's lawns and gardens.

(Allan's bridge, ca. 1880. Note the two cows near the left-most pier. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1997.21.1.)

Towns and cities in Ontario passed "cow by-laws" since their early days. A typical cow bylaw made it an offence for citizens to allow their cattle to run unrestricted ("at large") in city limits. They had to be either under supervision of a cowherd while in pasture or going to or from the same in the streets. When at their owners homes, cows' movements had to be restricted with fencing or similar measures to keep them from wandering off. The consequences of violating a cow by-law were usually a fine and damages.

In 1876, Guelph adopted such a bylaw. It is not clear what precipitated the move at this time. Bradbury (1984) argues that animal bylaws were a symptom of class conflict. Urban livestock were kept mostly by poorer residents, who relied on them for non-cash support for their prosperity. Mainly urban chickens, pigs, and cows provided food and thus helped families to retain cash earned by wages for other needs. Restrictions on urban livestock constituted a way of disciplining such families and thereby ensuring their dependence on wage income, which the capitalist class controlled. So, controlling the domestic livestock or urban wage-earners was a way of controlling those people themselves.

Interestingly, there was an awareness of the class issue in Guelph. Debate in Council about the bylaw made note of the dependence of poorer urbanites on their cows (Mercury, 16 May 1876):

Town Council.
Mr. Hart moved the third reading of the By-law forbidding cattle running at large.
Mr. MacMillan spoke strongly in opposition to such a law being put in force at once, without any previous warning having been given. There were a great many cows in town mostly owned by poor people, who had at considerable expense managed to winter them, and if they were forced to sell now, just at the time they were beginning to be of use, it would be a hardship.
Mr. Hood although opposed to cattle running at large considered it would be a great hardship to compel people to sell off their cows at once, without having some time wherein to dispose of them.
A clause was then added to the By-law providing that it does not take effect until the 1st of Sept., next.
The news suggests some concern for the poor cow-owners of Guelph but also implies that Councilors expected most of them to have to sell their animals to comply with the bylaw, probably because those people often allowed their animals to forage "at large."

Of course, passing a law is one thing, enforcing it another. Remarks about the bylaw in the next few years often convey complaints of official laxity on the matter. Consider, for example (Mercury, 22 May 1877):

Cattle running at large.—On several occasions the Mercury has called the attention of owners of cattle to the provisions of the By-law prohibiting cattle running at large on the highways of the corporation, and to the proper authorities, whoever they be, to see that said provisions are rigidly enforced. Almost every day there are parties complaining about cattle breaking into their premises, and if not destroying anything they tramp down lawns and otherwise render themselves obnoxious to those who wish to live in peace with their neighbors. It is said that those who have suffered should impound the cattle, and assess damages. That would answer very well, and parties aggrieved would be justified in doing so, but by so acting they would incur the displeasure of their neighbors who might be proprietors of the cattle. If there is no official whose duty it is to see to the enforcement of the By-law, one should be speedily appointed.
Besides such editorials, citizens wrote letters to the paper to decry insufficient enforcement. In one such letter, we also learn of a connection between the bylaw and attempts by the city at civic beautification (Mercury, 19 October 1878):
Cows at large.

To the Editor of the Mercury.
Two or three years ago the Council offered a premium to parties who would beautify the town streets with trees, and on taking care of them for three years would be rewarded. I don’t suppose that many would claim the reward and that most of us were only too pleased to see that our City Fathers were alive to the necessity of making the place attractive as well as in future years rendering us a pleasant shelter from the sun. however, unless more stringent steps are taken to prevent cattle and horses running at large we shall never attain success.
In the ward in which I live there are four or five cows, and sometimes a couple of horses tramping round the entire night, and sometimes during the day, so that one is compelled to be always on the watch to prevent one’s trees being stripped of leaves and tender branches—our ornamental casings, however high, cannot prevent a horse doing what he likes. This annoyance is not confined to one ward and should receive attention.
If there was an enclosure or pound in each ward the annoyance could easily put an end to—driving animals down to the market is rather too far.
Guelph, Oct. 18, 1878
In its early days, the Guelph townsite had been nearly clear-cut so that it looked almost barren. By the 1870s, the city had decided to encourage reforestation through establishment of parks and planting street trees. This was the job of the Parks and Shade Trees Commission. In addition, private citizens were encouraged to plant trees and establish lawns and gardens to beautify the streetscapes and enhance the reputation of the town with respect to its provincial neighbours (and competitors).

Adoption of the cow bylaw could be understood as a part of this project. Cows (and horses and pigs) tend to eat and degrade the lawns, trees, and gardens vital to urban beautification. So, their movements or even presence must be restricted.

This association could be viewed, as Bradbury (1984) suggests, as a manifestation of class conflict: Fancy lawns, trees, and gardens are mainly bourgeois concerns, whereby middle- and upper-class citizens distuinguish themselves from their poorer neighbours (and compete for status). If urban livestock make this distinction difficult, then they must be removed.

At the same time, parks and shade trees are civic amenities that should, ideally, benefit all citizens. But, they can be promoted only with control of hungry, urban herbivores.

One welcome feature of coverage of the cow bylaw in The Mercury is that we can get some idea of where the cows were. Explicit mention of locations is sometimes made. W.H. Jacomb (a housepainter) complains that it is particularly common in the West Ward for residents to turn their animals out to roam at night (Mercury, 15 June 1877). An editorial claims that St. Patrick's Ward (in the east) is "particularly blessed with bellowing bovines" (Mercury, 27 March 1879). Waterloo Avenue gets several mentions as a street where roving cows may be found. Another article makes mention of cows being a persistant nuisance on the streets behind Horsman's Hill (Grange Road) (Mercury, 28 May 1886).

("View of Guelph, Ont. 1874." The perspective is from Horsman's Hill, now Grange Hill. Note the cows in the field in the lower, right-hand corner of the image. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1973.48.1.)

One item points out numerous complaints of roving bovines at "the Park," meaning Exhibition Park (Mercury, 1 October 1895). The article continues on to observe, "It is said the police arrested one cow last night, but there are still several at liberty."

Even so, cows were not always fugitives in Guelph. Vacant lots were considered fair game for hungry cattle. Also, some open areas were considered pastures where they could graze. There was a pasture near London and Woolwich Streets. Before it became a park in 1909, St. George's Park was also available for pasturing cattle.

(A real photo postcard view of Guelph, ca. 1910. The photo was taken by Guelph photographer D.H. Booth, apparently from the top of Idlewyld, a manor at 27 Barber Avenue, looking towards the back of the Church of Our Lady and Central School. The foreground shows a number of barns and small fields in the London Avenue and Yorkshire Street area, a likely place to find urban cows.)

Another place where roaming cattle seem to have been easily found was at the Speed River in the vicinity of Well's bridge (or The Three Bridges). Today, this site is the location of the Edinburgh Road bridge over the Speed.

The real photo postcard above shows several cows, with the derriere of a black one featured prominently, on the north shores of the Speed River, with the three spans of Wells's Bridge in the background. A message is written on the front: "Yours truly // Helen A. Bollert // Guelph Ont." The recipient's address, recorded on the back is, "M.elle Bertaux // 17 rue des Bastions // Cherbourg // France." The card is postmarked 18 May 1906.

It seems that this postcard was sent by Helen Amelia Bollert of Guelph, then 16 years of age, to a young woman in France as part of a postcard exchange. Such exchanges were often arranged through clubs, newsletters, etc., and allowed prospective recipients to identify the kind of postcards they would like to receive. Anyone who sent a postcard would receive an appropriate one in return, so that everyone could build up their collection. What was M.elle Bertaux's request? Did she like cows?

Remarkably, this image was reprinted in as a commercial postcard by Warwick Bros. and Rutter of Toronto.

The card above was postmarked on 13 April 1907. It is also notable because the caption misidentifies the bridge in the background as Gow's Bridge. Later versions of this card carried a corrected caption. (This is also a reminder that you cannot always believe postcard captions.)

In any event, by 1880 the police seemed to take enforcement of the cow bylaw more seriously and hired someone for the express purpose of impouding guilty cattle. This may have been Andrew McLeod, described as a "boy," who joined up for this assignment. Not everyone was grateful: young John Hollaran was brought before the judge on the charge of throwing stones at McLeod during the discharge of his duties (Mercury, 3 May 1880).

Nonetheless, over the next few years, the Mercury reported regularly on prosecutions under the cow bylaw. For example (Mercury, 25 September 1885):

Police Court.—John Armstrong, having a cow running at large, paid a fine of $2 and costs for the privilege.
Many reports are similarly brief, suggesting the matter had finally become a largely quotidian affair.

The number of milk cows in Canadian cities dropped steadily in the final quarter of the 19th century and into the 20th (Kheraj 2015). As the human population grew, space for cows started to shrink, thus squeezing them out. The effect of cow bylaws in making cows more difficult to keep may also have played a role, as did increasing sanitary concerns. Of course, another factor was no doubt the increasing availabilty of bottled milk. As urban and nearby rural dairy operations scaled up, delivery of fresh milk came increasingly easy and within reach of urbanites. The benefits of keeping domestic milk cows decreased.

Still, cows could be found wandering the streets and fields of the Royal City into the 1940s. This report from the Mercury (4 August 1943) would not sound much out of place in 1880:

Page Boy Blue—Cows on the lawn

Two large, healthy, contented cows calmly occupying a fine lawn on Paisley Street, drew the amused attention of pedestrians this morning. Oblivion [sic] to rain, wrath of the owner, and the fine points of etiquette, the bovine ladies were munching succulent grass with a sly nip now and then at relish in the form of garden plants.
Today, you would be astounded to find cows at large on the streets of Guelph but, in earlier times, you could cownt on it.
Works consulted include: