The Great Udder Debate

By Stephen D. Bowling

January 10, 1916 – The January 10, 1916 meeting of the Jackson City Council attracted a great deal of attention. Over the next few weeks, the people of the city raised their voices loudly in support of and in opposition to a controversial proposal presented to Dr. Wilgus Bach.

Dr. Wilgus Bach

Dr. Bach, Jackson’s lead physician, introduced an ordinance that changed more than 70 years of practice that Monday evening. Since its founding, Jackson allowed the free-ranging of cattle in the street. Until the passage of an ordinance passed on April 3, 1915. The 1915 ordinance was a compromise and required all cattle to be penned from 7:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. Dr. Bach sought to change that completely.

In his short presentation and exposition on the matter, he asked the Council to support his ordinance to outlaw cows from roaming freely on the streets of Jackson and within the corporate city limits.

The proposal set off a loud and often contentious debate between old friends including Kelly McGuire and William Bailey, who immediately supported the prohibition, and Mitchell S. Crain and James B. Stidham, who supported the continuation of the free-range option. Mike Jones, the Council representative from South Jackson, was not present and the discussion ended. A special called meeting was called for Tuesday night, January 11.

Between the meeting on Monday, January 10, and the call to order on Tuesday, the “free-rangers” in the community had organized and managed to fill the Council chamber with unhappy, cow-owning Jacksonians.

A cow stands on the sidewalk in front of the James Hargis house on Court Street. The P.E. Gym of Breathitt High School is now at this spot.

Dr. Bach again presented his argument that free-roving cows were unhealthy to them and anyone who drank their milk. He said he knew from experience around his home and hospital that many grazing cows found grass and flowers to pull and eat in unfenced yards. More importantly, he told those gathered, the unattended bovine wandered into trash piles and “ate paper box wherever they might find it.” Bach noted several recent issues with cows that had become sick or died from eating trash within the city limits.

The Council stayed late into the night and heard from the citizens who expressed many concerns about housing and feeding cattle that were not allowed to “roam and pick.” A straw poll taken of the Council found an unbreakable 3-3 tie. One compromise proposal suggested that the proposed ordinance be amended to require cows to be penned at night and allowed to roam during the day. Dr. Bach asked that the matter be tabled until a second special called meeting could be held on Tuesday, January 18, giving the Council members time to contact other cities to examine their current livestock laws.

The Council met on January 18 and adjourned without any action taken on the bovine debate. Over the next few weeks, numerous articles, letters, and statements appeared on the pages of The Jackson Times, primarily in support of the effort as illustrated by the paper editor’s choice in placement and the size of the headlines in favor.

A letter in the January 21, 1916 edition of The Jackson Times, written by Albert Sidney Johnson, highlighted the impact the proposed ordinance would have on the “poor people of Jackson” and lectured the Council on what public service included. He asked the Council to consider the milk supply problem for the children and to ponder the cries of “Mama, where is my milk?” that would be heard from those who “went to bed hungry night after night.” He suggested that they would have to answer for prohibiting cows on the streets when they had to “render an account of their stewardship” before the “Bar of Justice” when “the Great Day comes.”

A much less emotional plea was printed the following week from R. A. Allen, the Director of the University of Kentucky Department of Agriculture. Allen presented his ideas on the negative health impact of poor grazing habits and the dangers of what cows might eat on the quality and toxicity of the milk produced by free-ranging cows. In his lengthy response, he declared the day that cities take roaming cows and hogs off the streets of Kentucky would be “the day of a new Kentucky.”

The City Council moved at their usual rapid pace and finally amended the April 3, 1915 ordinance to still permit cows on the street but only between the hours of 7:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. After months of debate and speculations, the Council voted unanimously on Tuesday, July 18, 1916, to reaffirm the 1915 Ordinance. The only change concerned the exact definition of a cow as determined by the Kentucky Legislature. The Ordinance did empower the City Marshall to impound any cow he found out between those hours and charge $1.00 per head (not to exceed $5.00) for feeding the animal until it was claimed. It remained illegal to “permit horses, mules, jacks, or hogs” to run at large in the streets or alleys.

The Cattle Running At Large Ordinance outlawed the free-ranging of cows on the streets of Jackson on April 3, 1922.

The “Bovine Beef” persisted with two more Council debates and ordinances in the ensuing years. The Council finally outlawed the practice of unpenned cows roaming the streets of Jackson with the passage of the “Cattle Running At Large Ordinance” on April 3, 1922. After the discussions, time spent in debate, and several trial runs, the final measure passed narrowly on a 3-2 vote. Mayor Lewis Hays, Jr. signed the ordinance, and it officially took effect on May 2, 1922.

Hays, our first Mayor, served until June 30, 1922, when he resigned and moved to Arkansas. He and the City Council spent a great deal of time in the early days charting the proper course as Jackson transitioned from a town council to an incorporated city in 1912. In a 1958 interview looking back over his tenure, Mayor Hays mused that he could have accomplished so much more “if we hadn’t kept on fighting about those da***d cows.”

© 2022 by Stephen D. Bowling.


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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