Historicist: "The Bull in a China Shop Had Nothing on This Cow"
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Historicist: “The Bull in a China Shop Had Nothing on This Cow”

One cow's Sunday morning adventure along the streets of Toronto.

Illustration by Brett Lamb.

Illustration by Brett Lamb.

It was the kind of story that spurred the imagination of headline writers:


We’d include one from Toronto’s other daily newspaper in 1913, but it seems reporting the exploits of a cow exploring the city on a Sunday morning was beneath the dignity of the Mail and Empire. Perhaps they were offended by the cow’s willful transgression against any form of entertainment other than houses of worship on the Lord’s Day.

Milking cow on D.D. Reid farm, North Toronto, 1908. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1984.

Milking cow on D.D. Reid farm, North Toronto, 1908. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1984.

We suspect Moses Granatstein had little inkling of the adventure to unfold when he let his cow out of her stable at the rear of his home at 488 Wellington St. W for her morning drink on June 15, 1913. Granatstein was among the dwindling number of residential cattle owners in the city. A series of nuisance bylaws, starting shortly after Toronto’s incorporation in 1834, curtailed the free-roaming days of cattle, pigs, and sheep found in the streets of Muddy York. By the time the “cow gate” was erected around Osgoode Hall during the 1860s (which probably wasn’t built to keep out cattle), animal pound keepers were allowed to capture any cattle on the loose, and by 1876 all free-range animal husbandry was banned within the city. The number of dairy cows kept by residents declined from just over 1,100 in 1861 to 500 in 1891 to only 29 counted during the 1911 census. Beyond laws restricting how they roamed, this decline could also be attributed to the difficulty of keeping large animals in ever-shrinking spaces, the general growth of the city, and the industrialization of the dairy and meatpacking industries.

Maybe the cow’s genetic memory recalled the days when her kind wandered the streets undisturbed. Maybe she’d had a lousy night’s sleep. Maybe it was the heat that morning. Whatever it was, the cow ignored her thirst and gave into wanderlust. Granatstein, according to the News, “was horrified when that usually quiet beast became suddenly possessed with some strange demon.” Instead of slurping water from a tap at the side of the house, the Telegram reported that she “went mad before obtaining it, therein differing somewhat from the human thirsty one, who first gets a drink and then goes mad.”

The cow threw her tail to the air and raced off, heading east before turning north along Spadina Avenue. At King Street, she indulged in window shopping and contemplated sightseeing further east. “Her reflection in the glass, and the heat of the day maddened her,” the Globe noted. “She would have preferred to journey down King Street to see the new C.P.R. building, but the crowd headed her off.”

But the cow defiantly continued her wandering. “The cow commenced the turkey trot up the broad roadway of Spadina Avenue,” the Telegram observed. “The churchgoers near the corner of College Street and in the vicinity of Knox College [now U of T’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design] were sufficiently numerous to make Mrs. Cow consider again for a minute what she had best do. Her decision was to bolt the crowd, narrowly missing many women and children in her rampage.”

Map of the cow's trek across town. Toronto Star, June 16, 1913.

Map of the cow’s trek across town. Toronto Star, June 16, 1913.

At City Dairy’s plant on Spadina Crescent, the cow either contemplated enjoying an ice cream (Telegram) or took umbrage at the building’s red front (Star). Either way, she briefly munched on some grass before resuming her trek northward. Attempts to subdue her failed miserably.

She decided to take a closer look at The Annex. When she turned west onto Bernard Avenue, the cow toppled a male cyclist. “She rolled him with her head and pawed him with her feet,” the Globe reported. While rumours the cyclist were gored were unfounded, since she lacked horns, his injuries were severe enough to require medical attention. The Telegram employed baseball analogies to describe this incident, comparing the cow’s ability to connect with the cyclist with the skill of New York Giants pitching ace Christy Mathewson.

By now, a large crowd trailed the cow to see where she would wind up. “The Brunswick-Wells-Kendal district attends church as a rule,” the Star noted. “If some of the five hundred residents witnessing the antics of the sorrel cow forgot the services for an hour or so—well, it was a sensational period.”

Upon entering Kendal Square (present-day Jean Sibelius Square), the cow toyed with anyone in her path, including police officers trying to end her adventure. The Star compared her actions to a dancer showing off their portfolio of moves: “Policeman Samuel Todd remonstrated with this suffragette cow, and she performed a turkey trot, a tango, the hootchie-coo, and kindred dances, in the foliage and the bloom. She saw a lady with a red parasol, and charged both. An elderly lady was in her path, and, stepping aside, strained her foot. The patient was taken to her home in a motor car.”

Todd’s attempt to corral her via bicycle failed when she knocked him over. He tried to defend himself with a baton, but the cow knocked it and his helmet out of the way. He fled to a tree.

Settling into a geranium bed planted the week before, the cow fended off anyone disrupting her appreciation of neighbourhood gardening, including the daughter of a local florist. Attempts by police and Granatstein to lasso her only fueled her ire, sending her out onto Wells Street. “The way of the transgressing cow is hard,” the Telegram noted. “It was also hard for the police, several of whom, pulling on a long rope, gave the huge crowd that had gathered a merry time.”

Oddly, the previous day's edition of the Telegram featured a cattle-centric cartoon by George Shields, which also depicts future Toronto mayor Thomas Foster. June 14, 1913.

Oddly, the previous day’s edition of the Telegram featured a cattle-centric cartoon by George Shields, which also depicts future Toronto mayor Thomas Foster. June 14, 1913.

The crowd, the Star observed, split between those attempting to bring the situation under control and sideline pundits dispensing advice on how to do so:

“That cow is mad,” declared one man, who heard of a cow once or twice, but scarcely knew one by sight. “Shoot her.”

“Mad nothing,” scoffed another. “I was brought up on a farm, and I know. If the cops would chase the crowd and give the poor animal a chance to cool down there would be less trouble.”

Among those on hand was former inspector of police detectives Walter Duncan. Bemused by what he watched unfold, he told the press that bullfighting might attract as many Torontonians as lacrosse, and deduced that attendance at nearby churches was on the low side.

The cow was finally subdued near Brunswick Avenue. As the News put it, “she became entangled in a mesh of ropes which were distributed from her nose to her left hind hoof.” While being trussed up like poultry, one of her capturers caressed her cheek to restore calm. A horse ambulance Granatstein ordered from the Ontario Veterinary College (then located downtown; it would move to its current home in Guelph in 1922) came to transport her home.

From the June 16, 1913 edition of the Toronto Star.

From the June 16, 1913, edition of the Toronto Star.

Summing up the incident, the Star observed that “it is only fair to the modest animal to admit that she created almost as much excitement as the justly celebrated bovine that kicked over the lamp that burned Chicago.”

The next day, Granatstein reported that the cow had recovered from her excursion. “She is just as quiet as quiet can be,” he noted.

Additional material from “Living and Working with Domestic Animals in Nineteenth-Century Toronto” by Sean Kheraj, from Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region, L. Anders Sandberg, Stephen Bocking, Colin Coates, and Ken Cruikshank, editors (Hamilton: L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History, 2013); and the June 16, 1913 editions of the Globe, News, Star, Telegram, and World.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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