Holding A Cow By the Tail

By Flora Strong Farmer - 1990

I was eight years old in 1910, when Pleas Isaacs' third son, Robert, tied his wrist to the milk cow's tail and created such excitement in our little community that it is still vivid in my memory, even after all these years.

I will admit that living in an isolated community called Chinquapin Rough (now Annville), nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky, was not prone to produce a great many events that would excite an eight-year-old girl, but Robert Isaac's escapade on that wonderful summer day surely did.

I had seen Halley's Comet that same year, but no one knew, at the time, exactly what it was. People could only conjecture about the fiery star, with a tail that lit up the sky for several nights. It was not until the Courier-Journal newspaper from Louisville came by mail, about a week later, that we knew what we had seen. No eight-year-old is going to be excited about something that happened last week, even if she understood about comets, which I didn't.

I guess I would have to say the circus that came down our little country road was also exciting, but it was the expectation of its coming, as much as the actual arrival of the circus, that made it so thrilling. For weeks, we had known that the circus was coming to our fairgrounds, because of the posters tacked to the walls of my father's store.

When the circus finally arrived, the thrill of hanging on to the fence and just watching everything were certainly fond scenes to remember. There were horses pulling the beautiful circus wagons full of wild animals, and elephants pushed the calliope, with its raucous music, through the mud holes.

Pleas Isaacs was our neighbor, and he had a house full of children, just as we did. Therefore, we played together a great deal. I suppose you could call Pleas a stubborn man; he certainly was a prideful one.

Shortly after the events portrayed in this story, he decided to run for a county office. I think it was for the county court clerk's job, but I'm not sure. As part of his campaigning, he stated that if he was not elected to this office, for which he was so eminently qualified (his analysis), he would leave the country. Unfortunately, he lost the election. True to his campaign promise, he moved his family to Saskatchewan, Canada.

This character trait probably had nothing to do with Robert's experience with the cow, but maybe he did inherit a tendency to do things a little differently; probably listened to a different drummer.

One of Mrs. Isaac's many chores as a housewife, as it was for most women of that day, was to milk the cow. On this eventful day, she took Robert to the barn with her, so he could bring the cow up from the pasture to be milked. It was a warm summer evening, and the flies were buzzing around the cow, causing enough irritation that she would swat them with her tail. This tail swatting made it difficult for Mrs. Isaacs to finish her milking, so she told Robert to "hold that cow's tail," therefore, Robert took hold of the tail. Now, why this young man decided to take the long hair at the end of the tail of the cow and tie it to his wrist has never been satisfactorily explained, but that is exactly what he did.

From this point on, events happened so fast and furious that it became total confusion. The cow tried to swat the flies, but when she realized that her tail had suddenly lost its ability to move, she panicked, which is somewhat understandable.

The cow wheeled around to attack the unknown source of her tail paralysis, and the surprised Robert was thrown against his mother, who was knocked from her stool, and the milk buckets went flying. The cow, unable to see the cause of her affliction, since Robert continued to be behind her, decided that the best place for her, under the circumstances, was away from the barn, with its demons; and go to her safe, serene pasture.

To permit the cow to get from the pasture to the barn, Robert had lowered two of the rails from the fence, and the cow removed the rest with the shins of the boy, who was trying desperately, but unsuccessfully, to extricate himself from what had become a perilous situation.

The mother, from her sprawled position on the floor of the barn, had no idea of what was taking place. All she could see was what appeared to be her number three son chasing the milk cow down through the pasture. I guess all mothers, at one time or another, expect their offspring to go berserk or have some kind of "fit." This time, it looked as though it was Robert.

She yelled, "Robert, you bring that cow back here this instant," not realizing that under the rapidly deteriorating circumstances, nothing would have pleased her son any more than to comply.

By this time, me, my brothers and sisters, and his brothers and sisters, all became involved. We didn't know what was going on, but from our vantage place in our yard across the road, Robert had invented a new and exciting game; consisting, primarily, of holding on to a cow's tail and running through the pasture. We decided to join the game, because with all the noise that he and the cow were making and all the yelling and carrying on, it certainly seemed like great fun.

Pleas Isaacs, sitting on his front porch after a hard day's work in the fields, heard the commotion. When he saw his son, who seemed to be deviling the cow by holding its tail and chasing it through the pasture, he yelled at Robert to "turn that darn cow loose, before she gets hurt." Pleas' priorities were obviously well-established.

It was about this point in the chase across the pasture that Robert lost the race with the cow and tripped and fell. I don't know exactly where "Uncle Remus" and "B'er Rabbit" lived, but I guarantee that the briar patches in Pleas Isaacs' pasture, if not more dense, were at least equal to those that "B'er Rabbit" loved so well. The cow dragged poor Robert through the thickest of them, with dire results.

Suddenly, it seemed as though the whole community was involved, either chasing Robert and the cow, or as enthusiastic spectators. The mother, realizing her son was not in control of the situation, ran screaming through the pasture that the cow was "killing" her son; the same son that she herself was ready to dispatch a few minutes earlier, when she thought he deliberately caused the cow to bolt and spill the milk.

When Pleas recognized that his son was very willing, but unable to obey his order to turn the cow loose, he joined in the chase to rescue his unfortunate heir. The stampede continued across the pasture, with the cow in the lead, dragging a scratched and bruised, but wiser young man with her.

The episode ended only when the cow either ran out of breath or accepted the fact that she was destined to go through the rest of her life with a little boy attached to her tail. When she finally stopped, Pleas cut the grateful, chagrined boy loose with his pocket knife, and with the help of the relieved mother, assessed the damage.

Fortunately, Robert suffered little harm, but the emotionally-scarred cow did not recover quite as rapidly. She refused to give up her milk for an indefinite time, and seemed never again to be quite comfortable in the company of young boys.

As is true in most incidents that happened in childhood, the tale grew more and more involved as it was told and retold over the years. The participants in the little drama would take great pleasure, in later years, by opening a conversation with "Do you remember when Pleas Isaac's boy tied his hand to the cow's tail?" It is amazing that this little episode, involving a young country boy being dragged through a pasture by a cow, is something that I remember so well, even after 80 years.

But when I was eight, and without the impressions created by movies, television, radio, or other communication devices, the glorious run by my friend, Robert, and the cow will always be engraved on my memory; and this memory I cherish.


Frank Farmer, 10510 Homestead Drive, Tampa, FL 33618, shares with our readers this delightful story, written by his late mother, Flora Strong Farmer.