The World’s Largest Guernsey Cow

The Guernsey Cow Sign in Exton PA

The Guernsey Cow Sign in Exton PA

I’ve been meaning for a long time to post a photo of the actual Guernsey Cow sign since, for many (or most), it is what defined The Guernsey Cow. I actually have very few photos of the famous sign.

While it was still known as The Exton Dairy Grille, in 1927, Frank B. Foster, the owner of the dairy business that my grandfather, Ilario Polite leased, had a large cow billboard across the street. Soon after, though, a real estate man convinced Mr. Foster to sell the land on that side of the road. As a result of the sale, they needed to take the sign down.

“My gosh, that broke my heart to see that big cow sign come down,” Polite said. “But I said, ‘Some day, some how, I’m going to put that cow back up.'”

1941 Exton Dairy Grille Calendar Card

1941 Exton Dairy Grille Calendar Card

On this 1941 Exton Dairy Grille wallet calendar made by Whitehead & Hoag it reads: “At the Sign of the Guernsey Cow.” There was a smaller billboard of a cow by the entrance of the Dairy Grille parking lot in the intervening years.

Later, in the 1940s, Polite changed the name from The Exton Dairy Grille to The Guernsey Cow. In 1983 he told a story about repeat customers that came from far away that would always tell him on their visit: “I don’t know why you call this place the Dairy Grille — when we come here, we say ‘We’re going to see The Cow.’ You ought to call it that.” And so he did.

In the 1940s, Polite was able to purchase the land across the street where the sign once stood. On the day World War II ended, he called Pottstown sign-maker, Harry Reed, about constructing a billboard of a giant cow on that land. While he had owned the land for some years, due to war-time rationing of steel and other materials he had been forced to hold off on building The Cow anew.

The next day he and Mr. Reed went to Philadelphia to buy steel for the sign. Later they took a little picture or drawing of a Guernsey cow and projected it on the wall of of Harry Reed’s house to determine how large to build the sign. Mr. Reed completed the entire project on his own: dug the holes for the footers, built the sign and painted it all for $600 in 1945. As my grandfather recalled in 2005: “Harry was a good man.”

The sign itself was about 35 feet tall and 48 feet long and actually consisted of 2 giant cows in a wedge form to give it depth and the best visibility when traveling from both the East and West on the Lincoln Highway.

Sometime after the billboard construction, the Pennsylvania Department of Highways (later PennDOT) demanded that the Cow billboard be moved back from the road because the head of the cow stuck out above highway property.

A company from Lansdale was brought in to discuss moving the Cow sign and the owner and some engineers came to Exton and “stood around and did a lot of talking.” They proposed dismantling the sign,  then re-assembling it further back from the road and repainting it.

Polite didn’t like the engineers’ idea. He wanted to bring a crane in to lift it off its three supports and move it back from the road. They wanted $2500, but ever the haggler, he got them down to $1500.

Today where the sign once stood, a regular billboard stands advertising health insurance, I think. What’s left of the cow lies in pieces (and headless — the head stolen in 1985 before the sign was dismantled) in a West Whiteland township barn. I am hoping to visit it and get some photos soon.

The article and photo below appeared in The Daily Local News March 16, 1996.

The Guernsey Cow sign in pieces in 1996

The Guernsey Cow sign in pieces in 1996

In a letter to the Editor in the newspaper a few weeks later, Emily J. Kirsch, then Director of Public Relations at Immaculata College (now Immaculata University) wrote:

“The Cow,” as it was affectionately dubbed by the students, served as one of the few off-campus attractions in the less-sophisticated ’40s and ’50s, a respite after a long week of classes and research papers, a place to relax, luxuriate, and enjoy a dish of incredible ice cream. Piling into a car for a drive to “The Cow” became, over the years, a veritable tradition for Immaculata students until its closing in 1985. 

The Guernsey Cow sign, at one time, was Exton [emphasis Ms. Kirsch’s]. It is truly a piece of Americana that should not be left to rest in a barn…

If you have photos of The Cow you’d like to share, you can email them to me at busboy@TheGuernseyCow.com@ .

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A Sign of Summer

This sign is one of my favorite relics of The Guernsey Cow. Hand-lettered on a stiff board, it is a sign of times gone by.  I love the use of four different typefaces and the decorative border. More than that, it speaks to the kind of business my grandfather wanted to run and represent. I can’t imagine the run-ins he might have with customers were he operating the business today.