Borden Bankruptcy Stirs Memories of Old Lyme’s Elsie the Cow

in Old Lyme

OLD LYME — “My father had a cow that he had actually purchased off the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, and brought it back here. He was a little [smitten] because of how beautiful she was and her face just called to him,” said Old Lyme resident Jane Marsh of her father, Edward Marsh, a lawyer and prominent state legislator, and who raised dairy cows on the family’s farm in Old Lyme.

In 1964, that face won the title of Elsie the Cow, the longtime mascot for the Borden Dairy Company, and represented the company for two years at the New York World’s Fair followed by cross-country touring.

Marsh’s cow, originally named Keeper’s Winter Fairy, competed against 10,000 others for the title, and was the ninth Elsie since the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

“It was no small thing that Keeper’s Winter Fairy would become the new Elsie. My father was floating around in heaven … and very proud,” said Jane Marsh, in a phone conversation with CT Examiner on January 6.

Jane and her twin sister, Elizabeth, aged 12, accompanied their parents to New York City to present Elsie to the Borden company at Macy’s Herald Square.

“My mother had fancied us all up in silk dresses, brushed our hair and everything. We really looked very important,” Jane laughed. “When we got there, there were all kinds of newspaper people there and they were not interested in Dad and his account of how much milk the cow had made or who their ancestors were or anything like that, which he was all prepared for. They just wanted to take a picture of the twins on either side of the cow’s head.”

On March 26, 1964, the photo landed as far as the Winnipeg Free Press. “For a long time people would find this picture and mail it to us,” Jane commented.

Edward Marsh kept track of the pedigrees of his Jersey cows and hired a famous livestock photographer to document the herd.

“Harry Stromeyer was this very well-renowned photographer and he still had the kind of camera that was on legs and you had to put the cloth over your head in the back,” Jane said. “He used to come to the farm for various publicity that my father wanted to do about his cows and take pictures, so he obviously had done one for Keeper’s Winter Fairy and Dad entered her face in the competition.”

Elsie was kept in the Better Living Center at the World’s Fair, but Edward Marsh was unhappy with the way she was handled, Jane said.

“My father was a Jersey breeder and was very interested in bloodlines and how to get the Jersey breed to be better and to last, so he really took care of the cows and he was very interested in how they looked and didn’t want any aspect of them to be spoiled,” she said. “I don’t know who it was they had hired to take care of Elsie, but obviously they didn’t know much about cows and if they did they weren’t thinking of this as a very fine specimen, just [as] a cow.”

In her second year at the fair, Elsie developed milk fever and other ailments, but survived and went on tour with Borden as the company mascot along with a bull named Elmer.

After a number of years, Borden retired Elsie and returned her to Edward Marsh.

“Dad promised he would take care of her, so she spent her final days at the farm and she’s actually buried at the farm,” Jane said. “Most of Dad’s animals were not buried, they were sent to the slaughterhouse. There was a few of them — and Elsie was one — that no matter how long they lived, he took care of them and they were allowed to live out their natural life there.”

Borden Dairy Company’s recently-announced bankruptcy has brought attention back to Elsie the Cow and her history in Old Lyme.

“Nowadays you can mention Elsie and only the old folks think it’s anything,” said Jane. “But I guess it’s one of the things about Old Lyme, it got us on the map.”