Sometimes, it's easy to forget about cows. They're just kind of there – big, lumbering beasts that stand around, constantly chewing and belching, with those mile-long stares. They're a bit like your weird uncle Walter of farm animals: stubborn yet sweet, a little smelly, a little spacey and always the first at the table when supper is ready.

Beyond the tired bovine stereotypes, cows are also complex and intelligent animals with big personalities that often belie their docile reputation. And while not as cuddly or colorful as some of their barnyard brethren, cows can occasionally be full of surprises. In fact, some are bona fide celebrities.

We've wrangled up seven headline-grabbing heifers that have stepped out of the pasture and into the national spotlight – and even the history books – over the years. (Our apologies to Clarabelle, Ermintrude, Gladys, the Cowntess, Milky White, the cows of "South Park" and other famous make-believe cattle, but we're strictly focusing on the real deal here.) The stories of how each of these (mostly) celebrated, cud-chewing gals achieved fame are inspiring, odd, even heartbreaking. 

Have any further suggestions to add to our bovine it-list?

1. The alleged city-leveler: Mrs. O'Leary’s cow

An illustratrion of Mrs Catherine O'Leary and her cow

An illustration of Mrs. Catherine O'Leary and her cow starting the Chicago fire. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Here we have a question for the ages: Did the most maligned cow in American history actually do it? And by do it, we mean did she – whoops! – kick over a kerosene lantern sparking a deadly two-day inferno that pretty much destroyed Chicago in 1871? The short answer: most likely not at all.

While there really was indeed a Mrs. Catherine O'Leary who owned property, including a barn, where the Great Chicago Fire originated, the O'Leary cow – there were actually five O'Leary cows – had nothing to do with the blaze, contrary to folkloric belief. Essentially, Mrs. O'Leary and her cow(s) were scapegoats. After all, it was easier for Chicagoans at the time to wrap their heads around such an unfathomable tragedy – the blaze destroyed over three square miles of the city, killed hundreds and left nearly 100,000 homeless – by believing it was the fault of a barnyard animal owned by an Irish immigrant who, according to rumor, was drunk-milking at the time. Years after the fire, Chicago Republic reporter Michael Ahern admitted that he had fabricated the whole "cow kicking lantern" bit. Mrs. O'Leary, who claimed to be asleep in bed when the fire started, died a heartbroken recluse. So what, if not a cow, started the Great Chicago Fire? The jury is still out on that one, as the Board of Fire and Police Commissions ultimately concluded that "whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night, or was set on fire by human agency, we are unable to determine."

However, Richard F. Bales, an attorney with the Chicago Title Insurance Company who spent two years combing through 140-year old accounts of the fire for his 2005 book, "The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," believes that a neighbor of the O'Leary clan named Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan inadvertently started the blaze when he snuck into the barn during the middle of that dry and windy night to smoke his pipe. Catherine O'Leary – along with her mythical lantern-kicking cow – was posthumously exonerated from any blame in 1997 by the Chicago City Council.

2. The celebrity spokescow: Elsie (a.k.a. 'You'll Do Lobelia')

An illustration of Elsie the Cow for Borden

An illustration of Elsie the Cow for Borden. (Photo: Steve Snodgrass/flickr)

Best known as the jubilant, daisy necklace-wearing face of Borden and as the beloved wife of Elmer the glue-pushing bull, Elsie the Cow isn't simply a cartoon used to sell cottage cheese. Before being launched into anthropomorphic animal stardom, Elsie was a living, breathing cow – a Jersey heifer, to be exact – born in 1932 at Elm Hill Farm in Massachusetts as "You'll Do Lobelia."

The real Elsie made her public debut at the 1939 New York World's Fair, not long after Borden first introduced the popular Elsie advertising concept. At the fair, Borden exhibited an array of dairy machinery including the futuristic Rotolactor. Fair attendees, however, were most interested in discovering the true identity of Elsie. Which of the 150 Jersey cows that accompanied the high-tech display was the one that inspired the brand mascot? Under pressure to produce a real Elsie, Borden reps selected the most attractive – and alert – of the demonstration cows. And with that, "You'll Do Lobelia" was rechristened as Elsie. The long-lashed beauty quickly became the talk of the World's Fair and, after the fair ended, she traveled around the country in a swank trailer making public appearances. In 1940, the same year she made her film debut in "Little Men," Elsie married her sweetheart, fellow spokescow Elmer, and gave birth to a calf named Beulah.

Elsie's grave marker

Elsie's grave marker. (Photo: slgckgc/flickr)

Tragedy struck in 1941 when Elsie was injured in a traffic accident while en route to a "public engagement" in Manhattan. Having suffered grave injuries to her spine, Elsie was euthanized at her home farm in Plainsboro, New Jersey. Following a period of nationwide mourning, the original Elsie was replaced by a bright-eyed successor and the campaign marched on, only increasing in popularity with a highlight being the live birth of another progeny, Beauregard, inside of Macy's Manhattan flagship store. 

3. The presidential pet: Pauline Wayne

Pauline Wayne, President's Taft's cow, grazing on the lawn on of the State, War, and Navy Bldg.

Pauline Wayne, President's Taft's cow, grazing on the lawn on of the State, War, and Navy building. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Although a handful of heifers have had the honor of grazing the grounds of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, none have managed to achieve the same level of notoriety as Pauline Wayne, a purebred Holstein belonging to William Howard Taft.

To be clear, Pauline wasn't Taft's first cow – she was brought in to replace a recently deceased cow, Mooley Wooly, who had struggled to keep up with the heavy milk-based demands of Taft (a gentleman who appeared to have seriously enjoyed dairy products) and his family. Weighing 1,500 pounds, Pauline – or "Miss Wayne," as she was called – happened to be prolific in the lactation department and was kept around, as both food source and presidential pet, from 1910 to 1913. When Taft left office, Pauline didn't transition to the Democrat-led Wilson administration. Instead, she retired quietly to her ancestral homeland of Wisconsin as the last cow to ever live at the White House.

During Pauline's productive residency at the White House, the Washington Post treated her as a bona fide celebrity. The National Journal notes that the newspaper mentioned her more than 20 times between 1910 and 1912, much like "US Weekly would a Kardashian." The Post even bestowed Pauline with a rather eloquent voice in several exclusive (and ridiculous) interviews. In an article from Nov. 4, 1910, Pauline muses on the nature of fame: "I have been much amused, and I confess, rather bored by the omnipresent photographers. Civilization has developed so many irritating conditions."

4. The 'Sky Queen:' Elm Farm Ollie (a.k.a. Nellie Jay)

Elm Farm Ollie as she boarded an airplane

Elm Farm Ollie as she boarded an airplane. (Photo: DairyMoos)

Sure, she didn't jump over the moon but Elm Farm Ollie got as close to the heavens as an otherwise ordinary dairy cow can get when she became the first bovine passenger to fly in an airplane on Feb. 18, 1930. And not only did the Bismarck, Missouri-born gal – the 1,000-pound Guernsey also went by "Nellie Jay" – make history as the first cow to fly … she was also the first cow to get milked while en flight. Impressive!

The sky-high milking session took place during the International Air Exposition in St. Louis, the same city where Ollie ended her 72-mile journey from Bismarck aboard a Ford Trimotor piloted by Claude M. Sterling. During the relatively short flight, Ollie, with the assistance of a steady-handed gentleman named Elsworth W. Bunch, produced 6 gallons of milk. The milk was then placed in individual paper cartons and parachuted over St. Louis during the plane’s approach. But seriously, can you imagine this happening today?

While the whole thing served as one giant, attention-grabbing publicity stunt for the air show, Ollie's journey was not purely spectacle: her behavior, along with the plane's performance, were both monitored throughout the flight. Thanks to the bravery of Ollie, livestock is still transported by air to this day with varying degrees of success.

Cincinnati Freedom, a cow who escaped from the slaughterhouse in 20025. The cow-on-the-lam: Cincinnati Freedom (a.k.a. Charlene Mooken)

While we'll never know what exactly was going through the mind of a nameless, middle-aged Charolais cow the day she hopped over the six-foot-tall perimeter fence of a Cincinnati slaughterhouse and made a run for it. Maybe she knew. Maybe she didn't. Maybe she'd been reading up on her Camus: "The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion."

Whatever the case, the cow's daring escape and her subsequent 11-day standoff with animal control officials in February 2002 captivated not only Cincinnati residents but the entire the nation; everyone, even the steak lovers amongst us, rooted for her (and a happy ending). When the brazen bovine was eventually tranquilized and taken into custody by the SPCA, she became an overnight folk hero and was brandished with the name Charlene Mooken. (Cincinnati's mayor at the time was Charlie Luken). There was no way she was being sent back to the place from which she bolted, but finding an appropriate forever home for this feisty gal wasn't so simple.

Eventually, New York-based pop-art icon and environmentalist Peter Max stepped in with a donation of $18,000 worth of original paintings to the SPCA – a sum that enabled Charlene, renamed by Max as Cincinnati "Cinci" Freedom, to spend the rest of her days in a safe and loving environment amongst other rescued farm animals. And so, in April 2002, Cinci made the journey from Ohio to Farm Sanctuary's facility in New York's Finger Lakes region where she spent the next several years socializing with new friends, grazing in the pastures and reflecting on that one time when she escaped certain death and eluded the authorities in suburban Ohio for nearly two weeks. Cinci was euthanized in December 2008 after being diagnosed with spinal cancer. In the years since Cinci's escape, other slaughterhouse-bound cows have earned themselves badass fugitive status including the Unsinkable Molly B and Yvonne, a dairy cow from Germany who, after a daring getaway from a Bavarian farm in 2011, spent three months hiding out in the forest with a herd of deer before surrendering to authorities.

6. The homecoming queen: Maudine Ormsby

Maudine Ormsby in 1926

Maudine Ormsby in 1926 on the campus of Ohio State University. (Photo: Ohio State University)

In 1926, Maudine Ormsby, a rather homely farm girl with big brown eyes and a sweet disposition, was named Ohio State University's homecoming queen. Nominated by her peers in the College of Agriculture, Maudine gladly participated in the homecoming parade in which she rode through town on the back of a float with a crown perched atop her head. She was, however, a no-show at that night's big dance – and not because she was too modest, too meek or too much of a lady to shake her sizable caboose on the dance floor to the "Muskrat Rumble." Maudine's absence from the homecoming dance mainly revolved around the fact that she was, well, a Holstein.

Maudine's coronation as 1926 homecoming queen resulted from some rather blatant electoral fraud (12,000 votes were cast in a school with an enrollment of less than 10,000). The actual winner of the crown, a non-bovine beauty named Rosalind Morrison, bowed out due to the shady nature of the election. The runner-up, Maudine Ormsby, apparently had no qualms with voting discrepancies and, in turn, was named homecoming queen.

Based on her appearance in the parade, OSU officials had a sense of humor about the shenanigans. They did, however, draw a line at permitting a cow to attend a school dance. And so, Maudine spent that night weeping and binging on chocolate in the comfort of her barn. Despite her banishment from the dance, the memory of Maudine Ormsby, the cow who became homecoming queen, lives on at OSU – there's even a conference room at the student union named in her honor.

The cover of a book about Grady the cow7. The cow in a predicament: Grady

It's a story that inspired children's books, put the farming community of Yukon, Oklahoma, on the map (sorry, Garth Brooks) and prompted a very tricky question concerning livestock logistics: how does one go about freeing a 1,200-pound cow that's trapped inside of a steel-encased grain silo? Try axel grease, sedatives, rope, a ramp and pushing. Lots and lots of pushing.

In the winter of 1949, Grady, a 6-year-old Hereford cow, found herself in a pickle. After being tied down during a difficult birth that yielded a stillborn calf, the disoriented cow charged at owner Bill Mach, who managed to jump out of the way to safety. During the confusion, Grady somehow managed to charge her way through a 17-inch wide, 25-inch-tall (!) feed opening that led from a shed and into the silo.

Grady's plight captured the attention of the nation – sort of a bovine take on the Baby Jessica story. National news media descended on Yukon as did dozens of looky-loos and folks offering creative solutions as to how to get Grady out of the silo, unharmed, as demolishing the structure was out of the question. After three days, it was ultimately decided that Grady, who spent her time in the silo merrily munching on grain, would have to come out the way she came in. With the help of Ralph Partridge, farming editor for the Denver Post, a sedated Grady was covered with about 10 pounds of axel grease – a team of men pushed the slippery beast from behind while more men pulled on ropes attached to her halter. And with that, she squeezed through the small silo opening with nary a scratch. Even after her liberation from the confines of the silo, well-wishers continued to flock to Yukon to pay their respects to Grady, who went on to birth several healthy calves before passing away from old age in 1961. The silo was razed in 1997.


Cincinnati Freedom: Wikimedia Commons

Grady: Amazon

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.