Our next stop was just a few miles away in Plainsboro, to pay our respects to that great bovine marketing icon, Elsie the Cow.
Walker Gordon farm was not always the sprawling mass of willy-nilly “single family homes” that it is now—it once was a working dairy farm owned by the Borden company. Some background: In 1938, Borden introduced a cartoon spokescow known as Elsie to the milk-buying public, a marketing tactic intended to soften the company’s image after bad press over its dealings with striking farmers in New York State. It worked. Around the same time, Borden was also looking to build excitement over their invention of the “rotolactor,” a rotating platform/demented carousel that could auto-milk 50 unfortunate cows in 12.5 minutes, at the 1939 World’s Fair. Shockingly, nobody at the World’s Fair, or in the world, gave a flying leap about the rotolactor, especially between demonstration milkings. Something had to be done, and fast. Re-enter Borden’s crack marketing team.
Some poor schlump who drew the short straw of monitoring the rotolactor exhibit all day was also tasked with noting down questions asked by the visiting public. A whopping 60% of the questions were the same: which cow is Elsie? “Aha!” thought the devious marketers, and in short order one of the cows (a Jersey heifer born in Massachusetts under the name “You’ll Do Lobelia” to be exact) was picked from the herd, outfitted with a necklace of daisies and placed on the rotolactor during non-demonstration times. And as usual, the public fell for it. Elsie soon had a milking “boudoir,” a husband named Elmer (he appears on the glue bottles and other Borden household products) and was traveling to promotional appearances all over the country in her own “Cowdillac.”
Like many celebrities after her, Elsie’s flame burned bright but short. In 1941, she was en route to an appearance at New York City’s Schubert Alley Theater when her Cowdillac was rear-ended by a truck in Rahway (a fate we’ve all feared at some time or another). She was very badly injured, and ultimately euthanized back at Walker Gordon farm.
Elsie was buried on the farm grounds, and her grave marked by a traditional headstone. According to reports, this headstone has been moved around a bit, so who really knows which precise patch of grass Elsie’s remains are fertilizing today? Respects can still be paid at the headstone, knowing she’s not more than a few hundred feet away.
We had a spot of trouble finding the grave marker, and spent about 10 minutes first traversing and re-traversing the neighborhood’s overpopulated streets with bucolic names. It really shouldn’t be that difficult…because if you enter through the main gate, the first right is Heron Court, and then the grave marker is pretty much right in front of your face—just look for the gazebo off to the right—the headstone and commemorative plaque (which was a bit hard to read) are directly next to it. The wind really whipped up during our stop, somewhat unfortunately bringing with it strongly perfumed odors from the nearby Firmenich plant. We wondered how people live in the neighborhood not knowing which falsified aroma will greet them each morning…