On June 12, 1906, citizens of Olympia worried that Washington State Governor Albert Mead might punish the city. After all, he was very angry because his cow had gotten loose and been seized by local authorities. Mead had come down personally and paid his $1.00 fine and taken his stray animal home from the impound yard. The city’s fears would prove unfounded, but this incident shows the importance that farm animals once had in Olympia life. As a rural community, the capital city was in the past home to many farm animals. Over time, various laws that regulated these animals, especially cows, show the development of the community from rural to urban.
Early records of Olympia’s cow laws are scarce, but cows were definitely commonplace. Millard Lemon, president of the Washington State Historical Society, remarked in the Daily Olympian on January 30, 1942, that in pioneer days Sylvester Park was used as a cow pasture for neighboring families.
Cattle restrictions would become stronger as Olympia expanded. A notice in the Weekly Echo on October 27, 1870, reported that the City Board had passed an ordinance that prohibited cattle from “running at large” within city limits, but these restrictions only applied to milk cows at night. Violating animals would be impounded, but the law was rarely enforced. The fine for stray cows, according to the Washington Standard on August 6, 1880, was $1.00 It is important to note that these laws only prohibited people from having their animals on public and other people’s property. Cows could legally be kept behind fences or tied up on private property within city limits.
However, by 1890, the Olympia cow ordinance had become caught up in a swirl of controversy. With a growing urban population, many people in the capital of the new state wanted the town to look less rural.
In February 1890, the Olympia city council received one petition against the current cow ordinance and two larger ones in support of it. But those who wanted the law changed or enforced were very vocal. Writing anonymously as “An Eastsider” in the Washington Standard on June 6, 1890, one individual complained to the city council that it was a “crying evil” that the current ordinance was not strictly enforced:
“To-day I counted fifteen cows, two of them with bells, in the immediate vicinity of the intersection of Fourth and Plum streets. These cows are continuously browsing the ornamental overhanging foliage of our front yards, littering the sidewalks with filth and disputing the right of way of women and children.”
The law and its enforcement remained the same despite protests. On March 28, 1891, the editors of the Morning Olympian railed against the “wicked cow” that ran wild, calling for the enforcement of the ordinance so that house fences could be removed and the streets converted into boulevards. “The city with fences is a barbarism,” they complained, but with cows under control, “Olympia will be what her matchless location intended her to be, the most beautiful state capital in the Union.”
The cow ordinance came up in debates over the next few years, but despite petitions for its modification or enforcement, nothing really changed until 1896, when a new, stricter ordinance was passed, complete with a ban on cows running loose in downtown Olympia and increased impound fees and costs.
However, not all were pleased by the actual enforcement of this new ordinance. On September 16, 1899, Marshal George Savidge defended himself in the Morning Olympian, explaining that there was only one officer on patrol at day or night and that cows were impossible to find in the dark. In June 1900, Officer Sylvester LeBarre, a bicycle cop, was hired to enforce the cow, chicken and bicycle ordinances. Others found it all rather amusing, as reported in the Morning Olympian on November 6, 1901:
“C. J. Lord is evidently of the impression that the average pedestrian is a selfish being. Yesterday morning, Mr. Lord struggled all the way from his house on Sixth and Washington streets having in charge a healthy calf he had caught browsing on his lawn, the destination of the calf, of course, being the pound. When at Sixth street the calf became obstreperous and Mr. Lord hailed several people, requesting that a policeman be sent him. But to all his entreaties for help he only received a laugh and suggestions as to the best way to handle the brute. People generally thought that the calf-herder was having a good time and they did not want to beat him out of any of the fun. Finally at Fourth and Washington the president of the Capital National ran into an officer, who took charge of the calf to the relief of its first custodian.”
In the next few years impound fees and costs increased for roaming cattle, but protests continued. The controversy slowly faded away in the early 20th century as Olympia became ever more urban, and cows disappeared from the cityscape.
In recent years urban farming has become increasingly popular, and although chickens, ducks, rabbits and miniature goats are allowed, cows are now illegal within city limits.
The days when the town would worry that the Governor might punish the city for impounding his cow are long over.