Wapsie Experience (3/9/17)

Ken Donnelly · Tuesday, March 7, 2017
On March 19, 1931, an eleven car special train brought 438 farmers from twenty-five eastern Iowa counties to Des Moines. Led by Cedar County, the group formed a three block long procession and headed for the state capitol.

The vanguard of this public assembly featured a big red banner which announced: "FAKE, FAKE, FAKE, The vets condemn our cattle and to the packers take, FAKE, FAKE, FAKE."

"Fake news" eight decades prior to President Donald Trump? No, in 1929, the Iowa legislature passed a new law requiring that all dairy and breeding cattle be tested by veterinarians. Any animal that proved to be infected had to be destroyed.

The law was designed to reduce instances of where dairy cattle with tuberculosis could infect the milk supply and pass the disease on to milk drinking humans.

I found a second source that stated the march took place a month earlier in February and it attracted an estimated one thousand farmers brought by train from Tipton. The marchers request that the Iowa General Assembly revise the law and make the testing optional rather than mandatory fell upon deaf ears.

Iowa and America were in the midst of the Great Depression; farmers were already getting lower prices for their milk as well as beef sales. This new test was seen as detrimental to their income. It was also claimed by some farmers that the test was unreliable and caused abortions in cattle. Some dairymen argued that the test affected the quality of milk and cut down on the cow's milk output.

What became known as the "Cow War" broke out on Monday afternoon, September 21, 1931 as sixty-five sheriff deputies approached the farm of J.W. "Jake" Lenker, north of Wilton Junction.

Quoting from the Cedar County Historical Review in their July 1998 issue which had published an article that was originally published in "The Iowan", Volume 7, Number 4 for April-May 1959; referring to the deputies:

“Their purpose was to insure safe conduct for Dr. Peter Malcolm, state veterinarian, who was to arrive later in the afternoon to test Lenker's cattle for tuberculosis."

"Warned of their coming by an elaborate signal system, more than 500 militant farmers were on hand to greet the officials. Their welcome consisted of a shower of mud, rocks and rotten eggs. The state men responded by leveling tear-gas guns on the mob. As they fired, the farmers rushed at them with pitchforks, knives, and clubs of every description. Several cases of rotten eggs were used up in the melee."

"The cars of the deputies were smashed, as well as the men themselves. Lights, fenders, and hoods were demolished by stones and clubs; and tires were punctured by knives and pitchforks. Before they withdrew, the deputies. almost to a man, wore welts and bruises from angry farmers."

"A little later the same afternoon. Dr. Malcolm drove in from Iowa City, expecting to find the situation well in hand. He was immediately surrounded by objectors to the testing and was subjected to "vile epithets" His state-owned car was badly damaged; the farmers filled the radiator with mud, slashed the tires, and broke the windows and headlights. Fortunately, Malcolm himself escaped injury, but was held until nine o'clock that night."

Ironic that at the time of this disturbance, the president of the United States was none other than Herbert Clark Hoover who had been born in Cedar County, Iowa.

That fateful afternoon, the Governor of Iowa, Republican Dan Turner, was enroute to Des Moines from a visit to Washington. D.C. The following day, he proclaimed martial law, and sent no less than thirty-one companies of Iowa National Guardsmen to Tipton. Brig. Gen. Paul Findly announced the governor's edict from the steps of the Cedar County Courthouse.

The Iowa City paper quoted Gov.Turner as follows: "I will not go to Tipton. The state has plenty of officers there to run the show....If the state of Iowa can not enforce its laws, there will be no stability of any kind.”

“If enforcement is lacking, we are without security and citizens fear for the safety of their lives. I recognize the fact that people in Iowa look to me for enforcement of laws and we cannot and will not recognize a group of men who propose to stand out as superior to the laws of the state."

The West Liberty Index for that contentious week offered readers a five paragraph story headlined: TROOPS TAKE UP CEDAR COUNTY'S TESTING PROBLEM"

"Martial Law Prevails--Those Opposing T.B. Test Told It Must Be Made."

“Some 2000 state troops took over the situation...Tipton is entertaining a large number of newspaper writers from over a wide area." NBC, the National Broadcasting Company even had a presence in Tipton for national radio news.

The nearby Iowa City paper shared with its readers, the following scary headline: "CENTER OF CATTLE WAR IS MADE RESTRICTED ZONE AND MACHINE GUNS GUARD AREA." Newspapermen were barred from going within a mile of the Lenker farm.

It was 125 guardsmen from Iowa City, commanded by Major Will J. Hayek (the grandfather of a recent Iowa City mayor, Matt Hayek) who marched into southeastern Cedar County and set up the blockaded sector. In that zone, machine guns were trained on the roads. Each was ready for action.

A machine gun squad was ready at each weapon and groups of 25 additional soldiers were at every crossroad. There was ammunition in each gun. So complete was the guarding to the Lenker farm that a driver for a Durant creamery was stopped by a sentry and refused permission to make his usual rounds.

September 24 newspapers reported that farmer Lenker had been arrested and was held for a short time at "Camp Bovine." He later returned to his farm after posting a $10,000 bond. "Camp Bovine" was the name given to the Cedar County Fairgrounds where the men were stationed for a few days.

By September 28 newspapers reported: 'CEDAR COUNTY TEST WAR NEARS END." No less than 454 guardsmen left for home that day.

Frances Frymoyer, Cedar County resident,wrote a letter in 1994 recalling her memories of that time. "They (the national guard) went out each day to accompany the veterinarians who were doing the testing...By October 1st, the testing was practically complete. In a few days the rest of the soldiers returned home."

Further quoting Frymoyer: "Jack Lenker, as chairman of the group, and Paul Moore, a member of the Farmer's Union, were charged with conspiracy and found guilty. They were sentenced to a term not exceeding three years of hard labor in Fort Madison. They began serving the term in July of 1934.

The Jones County Sheriff took the men to Ft. Madison,as the Cedar County Sheriff had promised Jake he would never take him to prison. After serving 40 days, the two men were released on parole. However, Jakes' health was never the same again, and he didn't live very long after this tragic affair. (Jacob Lenker died March 17, 1938.)

It was later reported that the State of Iowa paid for the cost of the "war"; around 1,800 guardsmen serving a handful of days cost about $40,000.

This was only the third time in the 85 year history of the state of Iowa up to 1931, that the National Guard was mobilized in peacetime. Gov. Kendall in 1921 sent troops to Ottumwa during a John Morrell packing plant strike; in 1911 Gov. Carroll sent the Guard to Muscatine during a strike in the button manufacturing industry.

Fortunately no human beings perished in this Cedar County "war" and I never did see any figures as to how the cows fared!

My grand-parents were living in Cedar County at this time; my mother was a freshman at Springdale High School; but they never spoke of this episode.

Were any of my reader's families involved in this struggle?
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