Editor's Note: While it has not been long since we ran a story on the flying cow, no conical of the tales of the county would be complete without Nellie Jay.
"Sing we praises of that moo cow,
Airborne once and ever more,
Kindness, courage, butter, cream cheese,
These fine things we can't ignore."
--From "The Bovine Cantata in B-Flat Major,"
by Giacomo Moocini and Ludwig Von Bovine
(Barry Levenson and the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum.)
Elm Farm Ollie--known locally as "Nellie Jay" by those who had the privilege of milking her at Bismarck's Sunnymede Farms--has become a bona fide bovine folk hero.
Quite simply, she is the first cow to fly in an airplane. It is not known, however, whether she flew first class or coach. She may not have even had a ticket.
Unlike other, perhaps more common, cows, Ollie's cause celeb centers around the airplane flight she took in February, 1930 to the International Aircraft Exposition at St. Louis.
Because she was such an unusually productive dairy cow--and required three daily milkings--she was put to work in-flight. As the story goes, she ate her usual feed and produced 24 quarts of milk.
In what may very well be the first, if not only, case of fresh air delivery, these quarts were carefully bottled, sealed and dropped from the airplane as it flew over St. Louis. Small parachutes were attached to keep her skymilk from spilling.
Celebrated as a pasteurized legend of the pasture, Ollie has for 60 years remained the star attraction at the Feb. 18 dairy festival held each year at Mount Horeb, Wisc.
In addition to having her praises sung in such works as "The Bovine Cantata in
B-Flat Major" (from Madame Butterfat) and the stirring "Owed to Ollie," she
has been the subject of stories, cartoons and poems. E. D. Thalinger even painted her
portrait for posterity.
"I probably threw some pretty important records about her away when I got the farm. I had no idea of the historical significance," said Bismarck Mayor Paul Hedrick, who now owns the barn where Ollie's star was born.
"I think it was all done to get a little publicity," he added. "It must have worked. I still have the fan they used to cool her in the plane."
While written reports are utterly impossible to come by, those who remember Ollie recall that she was a young guernsey of two when she was first thrust into the limelight of the public's eye.
"She was a really gentle cow, but of course she had to be in order to get in that airplane," said William Fields Grider.
"She was here at the (Sunnymede) farm when I worked in the processing plant. She was supposed to give six gallons a day, two gallons at each milking. That was a lot back then.
"They brought her here from another place and she went back over into the herd. She lived to be about 10 or so, and died here at the farm. A lot went to the slaughter house," he recalled.
The Spirit of Ollie has settled comfortably in Wisconsin's history books--where her dairy tale is churned out fresh each year when Elm Farm Ollie Day, her holiday, comes around.
But in Bismarck, her humble home before those days of corn and roses, those who even faintly remember her triumph have, for the most part, mooved on.
"It's amazing," agreed Mark Hedrick, city administrator, "Her story was picked up out of Wisconsin and they celebrate this every year. What gets me the most, though, is the kind of planes they had back then.
"You know, for 1930, it had to be a pretty big airplane to pick up a cow of that size," he concluded.
When plans began last month for the upcoming Second Annual Freedom Festival, some organizers jokingly tried to top the Elm Farm Ollie story.
A "grandcalf," they said, could probably be found to serve as the parade grand marshal--and then dropped out of an airplane with a parachute. A milker, preferably the mayor, could also be parachuted out of the plane to milk Ollie's offspring as both plummeted to earth.
When no further business could be completed because of the laughter, the organizational meeting adjourned early.
Perhaps Giacomo Moocini said it best, though, when he penned those timeless lines: "She flies through the air with the greatest of ease/Dropping her ice cream, yogurt and cheese."
Among the many notable "firsts" recorded by Wisconsin natives this feat might not make the top 10, but it was a high achievement nonetheless.
It occurred on Feb. 18, 1930, when dairy interests found an eye-catching way to promote milk at the St. Louis International Air Exposition. As the proud, if partisan, Milwaukee Journal reported on its front page:
"Elsworth W. Bunce, former Journal carrier and graduate of West Division High School, has the distinction of being the first man to milk a cow in an airplane flight."
It was, of course, a first for a cow, as well. Her name was Elm Farm Ollie, a Guernsey whose nickname became "Sky Queen" after her historic flight.
Accompanied by reporters, her mission was "to blaze a trail for the transportation of livestock by air," said a St. Louis newspaper, by allowing scientists to observe the effects of flight on her demeanor and milk production.
Elm Farm Ollie was fed and milked during the 72-mile flight from Bismarck, Mo., to St. Louis. This was years before promoters decided fake mustaches on celebrities could increase milk sales, but there was no shortage of cheesy promotions.
Her milk was sealed in paper containers and dropped over the city of St. Louis, and a glass was reportedly served to Charles Lindbergh, who knew a little about aeronautical firsts himself.
Ollie's stunt proved so popular that a large crowd, apparently thirsty for milk, gathered on the field where her plane was to land, forcing it to be diverted to another site.
Bunce was chosen for the airborne breakthrough because his father, William Bunce, worked for the American Guernsey Cattle Club. The achievement is celebrated every year on Feb. 18, its anniversary date, by a small group of Madison residents who belong to the Elm Farm Ollie Fan Club, which once commissioned an opera about the event.
They called it "Madam Butterfat."