Admiral Byrd’s Cows

Deerfoot Guernsey Maid being milked by a machine aboard Admiral Byrd’s flagship S.S. Jacob Ruppert , Bayonne, NJ, October 1933. Negative number 1984.187.66145F by Morris Rosenfeld and Sons, 1933

Rear Admiral Richard Byrd was a naval officer, polar explorer, and aviator whose first Antarctic expedition was 1928-1930. For his second expedition (1933-1935), he brought with him three cows and a milking machine.

Historically, animals have been aboard ships for many reasons. Connecticut’s West Indies trade was, in part, horses and other livestock. Long before refrigeration, goats, chickens, and pigs were aboard as provisions for milk and meat. The goat started as a provision for the U. S. Navy and became the U.S. Naval Academy’s beloved mascot after a 6-3 Navy win over the Army team in 1893. (El Cid, the goat, was a spectator.)

The first elephant in America arrived in New York as a curiosity aboard ship America (Captain Jacob Crowninshield – Commander and owner) from Bengal, India, in 1796. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s father wrote in the logbook while in St. Helena, “This day begins with moderate breezes . . . latter part employed in landing 23 sacks of coffee . . . took on board several pumpkins and cabbages, some fresh fish for ship’s use, and greens for the elephant.” Below the entry is written in large letters “ELEPHANT ON BOARD.” The elephant was sold in New York. She went on tour beginning in 1797 and became famous.

In 1935, three cows became famous – not because of a land tour – but for a round-trip cruise they were on to Antarctica.

The exotic and faraway status of Antarctica enticed newspaper and radio audiences since the 1899 Southern Cross expedition, which was financed by a publishing magnate. Other big names of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration such as Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, and Mawson had book contracts and exclusive newspaper deals back home – they knew the value of the narrative. On Byrd’s first expedition, Russell Owen, writer for the New York Times was embedded in the expedition filing reports from Little America. He gained a large enthusiastic following and subsequently won the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for his Antarctic dispatches.

Byrd’s second expedition (1933-1935) has been described as “the most media-saturated event in the history of the geographical exploration of Antarctica.” Expedition supporters included the New York Times, Current News Features, and several senior executives from the National Geographic Society. Two cameramen shot extensive footage for Paramount Pictures with which several films were made including the documentary Into Little America. The second expedition faced challenges, however. With the flight over the South Pole already achieved during the first expedition, it was necessary to find storylines that would capture the public’s imagination. It was felt that the three golden Guernsey cows aboard had the “definite advertising and publicity value” Byrd sought. In a 1933 press release, the American Guernsey Cattle Club described their upcoming 12,000-mile journey as being “the longest trip that any cows have ever taken since the well-known cow jumped over the moon.”

Two of the cows were loaded on Byrd’s flagship S.S. Jacob Rupert in Bayonne: Deerfoot Guernsey Maid from Deerfoot Farms in Southboro, MA and Foremost Southern Girl from Emmadine Farm of Hopewell Junction, NY.

Pictured here is Deerfoot Guernsey Maid being milked by a machine made by Surge Milking Machine Co. aboard Admiral Byrd’s flagship S.S. Jacob Ruppert. Foremost Southern Girl is behind her. Klondike Gay Nira, the pregnant Guernsey, boarded in Virginia during a stop for more supplies after Bayonne, NJ.

There were many dispatches sent back to the U.S. regarding the cows. Paramount took movies of the “crossing the line” ceremonies after which the cows were awarded certificates as Shellbacks. Klondike was chosen for the journey because she was “well along in motherhood” and was expected to give birth in Antarctica. Instead, she gave birth to the bull calf, Iceberg, just north of the Antarctic Circle. The news of the birth was telegraphed home where it appeared in the New York Times and other publications. The cows, especially Iceberg, became media stars. Unfortunately, Klondike did not return to the U.S. with the others in May 1935 as she was shot in December 1934 after “she got down and could not get up on her feet” again. The cows went on successful tours with Surge Milking Machine Co., the American Guernsey Cattle Club, and the General Mills product Larro Feeds – a few of the many sponsors of the expedition.

Carol Mowrey