Visit The Cow at Chester County Library

Over the past year there’s been a lot of interest in The Guernsey Cow locally and on the web.

My brother, Kevin, measures The Cow

Last summer we helped some folks from West Whiteland Township Historical Commission with piecing together and cataloging the remnants of The Cow sign they have stored in a local barn.

Over the past many months, the Chester County Library main branch in Exton has been undergoing interior renovations. One result of their work is the newly installed wall seen below that memorializes The Guernsey Cow and its place in Exton history. Copy was provided by my brother, Brian at McGlinchey Communications.

Most of the images come from the various bins of material that my grandmother kept over the years. She and my grandfather would be very pleased to see and know that The Guernsey Cow remains in the hearts of many and that lots of new people will be introduced to something they and many others put their hearts and lives into for so many years.

photo provided by Jess Church, the designer at Merje who created the wall.

Stop by the library in Exton, get some books and look for The Cow!

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Remembering Willie Minor

Willie Minor, an icon and goodwill ambassador for Exton, Downingtown, Coatesville and beyond is now riding that great bicycle in the sky. He was greeted into heaven with endless high fives and locked thumbs — Willie’s traditional greeting for our family whenever we met.

In the late 70s and into the 80s we often joked with Willie that he was the Fonz from Happy Days and he wore this sweatshirt all the time. Like the Fonz, everyone wanted to hang with Willie and all the chicks dug him.

He was a loyal friend to all and especially to my grandfather who he accompanied on many trips far and wide to pick peaches and other fruit, run errands and check in on people.

A few years ago my mother wrote this profile on Willie Minor and it remains one of the most popular posts on this blog.

His obituary is here and the guest book is the truly the best tribute to Willie.

Willie, Easter morning, 1966, overseeing the Easter basket hunt — from our family’s home movies.

Remembering Marmsie

I started this blog New Year’s Eve 2007, a little over a year after my grandfather, Larry Polite, died about six weeks short of his 98th birthday. As we moved my grandmother, Gladys Polite (or Marmsie as we and many others knew her), out of their apartment and into assisted living we needed to move a lot of the things they collected and kept through the years to new homes. My initial interest in just uncovering a fresh look at the things they held dear over the years turned into an effort to show her it was worth saving it all.

She had always been concerned about the things she saved and who would want them. Early on I convinced her that there are people out there that are interested in such things, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, and they will find them if we put them ‘out there’. Multiple explanations of ‘the Internet’ and ‘the World Wide Web’ were met with the same blank stares that my job descriptions garnered through the years. “Honey, you know I don’t know what you are talking about,” she would often say with the slightest of smiles.

As I started going through their things that marked their history with The Guernsey Cow and Exton, PA and Chester County in general, I would send her printed copies of the blog posts and the comments that people left. I would tell her how many people visited the blog, how far away people visited. What pleased her most is that people remembered and were actively out there searching for information about The Guernsey Cow and the history of Exton, PA. I think it also pleased her that saving “all this stuff” had been worth it.

In 2009, I launched another blog dedicated to her “stuff”. The Amercian Gothic Parodies blog is a showcase of her collection of parodies of the Grant Wood classic. When they were living in Exton, my grandmother had a wall in the basement dedicated to magazine covers, ads, greeting cards and more that used parodies of American Gothic. She continued to collect them on her own and from friends and family that knew of her obsession.

In December 2009, a student at The Arts University College at Bournemouth, England got in touch with me and asked permission to use the collection in her dissertation on Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. She also asked some interview questions of my grandmother that I relayed. My grandmother was shocked and thrilled that her collection would spark the interest of a college student in England and that she would be included in it as well.

Last weekend, my grandmother, Gladys Polite, passed away at the age of 95. I have fresh boxes of the things she left behind to go with the many boxes that I’ve had for several years now. I’m actively digitizing things as I can and will share fresh material from The Guernsey Cow as I get to them. Know that your visits, your comments, your memories of The Guernsey Cow and Exton pleased her. Thanks for sharing here and on The Guernsey Cow Facebook page.

The Guernsey Cow From Above – New Photo

The Guernsey Cow Property ca. late 1940s

Both the beauty and sometimes agony of going through my grandmother’s collection of things she’s saved over the years is that I often find nuggets of gold among things that I wonder why she saved. I know they all meant something to her and she had her reasons for saving either to look at later or to share with me and the rest of the family.

I found the negative for this photo with a few other negatives in a pile of Christmas photos from the 1970s. This is an aerial photo of The Guernsey Cow and Sleepy Hollow Hall (aka The Massey House) shot from the South side of the Lincoln Highway (Rte 30). I’m guessing that it’s late 1940s. Perhaps someone with a keener eye for cars can pinpoint it better.

If you click on the photo you can see a larger version and see the shadow of The Cow billboard at the bottom as it appeared at the time.

Note that The Cow billboard was built once World War II ended, so this could have been shot soon after The Cow was put in place. Also note the position of the sign. This was taken before the highway was widened and The Cow sign had to be moved. See the difference in position based on this photo from 1974.

The Guernsey Cow Property circa 1974

For other aerial shots of Exton and The Cow see my previous post.

Making & Selling Famous Cream Caramels

In the mid to late 1930s, when The Guernsey Cow was still known as The Exton Dairy Grill, Larry Polite was already making a name for himself and his place with both his ice cream and his famous cream caramels. Of all the materials both my grandparents saved from The Cow the largest gap consists of the recipes for ice cream and caramels.

Cooked up in huge copper kettles, the caramels became truly world famous as tourists stopped, heading East or West along the Lincoln Highway, before turnpikes and bypasses. When they couldn’t bring ice cream home to places like Michigan, California and beyond, customers brought tubs of the caramels with them. Letters soon followed requesting delivery of caramels from all over. Flavors were chocolate, vanilla and black walnut which seemed to be a the most popular request in the letters we have.

This was an early card that was handed out to customers encouraging long distance orders of caramels and candy. Note the proprietors’ names, “Polite & John”. This was early on when my grandfather had partnered with Jimmy John who later went on to make a name for himself in the hot dog and sandwich business south of West Chester. The reverse side of the card reveals a typical request:

"June 17, 1935 - My wife just found this card in an old purse. Last summer we stopped at your place and found the best caramels we ever tasted. If you still make them please send me a dollar's worth. - Harold C. Brooks - Marshall, Mich."

In September of 1935, Polite had sent caramels to Frank B. Foster’s assistant, Sara Osborne, in Philadelphia. Osborne had been very helpful in the transactions that led to Polite purchasing the business from Foster and she stayed in close contact through the years. My grandfather routinely sent gifts and was also probably, in this case, showing off his new caramel product. Her letter began, “Your caramels are very good, and I presume you are now making these yourself. In fact they are bout the best I ever tasted.”

She then went on to suggest he improve his packaging since they “were received in rather bad condition…” and went on to say, “your paper was too thin and the string too light to carry them.” No doubt this led to the need to proper containers that would travel well and could be shipped as well.

Later, the caramels were sold in waxed cardboard tubs with a die-cut cow head in the top to give it a fun way to dispense the candies. The cow head was an easy reach for small hands but not too small for adult hands either.

In a May 3, 1951 article in The Archive (of Downingtown, PA) celebrating Larry’s 20th year in business, the writer detailed some of the challenges in caramel making:

Two days a week is caramel making day. Recently when he was having trouble getting the candy to the right consistency for wrapping — it was either too soft or too hard — he hit on the ide of plugging in his wife’s hair dryer. Now the caramels can be softened or hardened to the proper degree by pushing the hot or cool air button.

Larry Polite behind the scale and register with caramels on display along with Exton Dairy Grill Coffee

This photo and the other of my grandfather were most likely taken by avid photographer, Jimmy John.

Headless cow spurs a search in Chester County | Philadelphia Inquirer | 06/02/2011

I meant to post and a link to the article that appeared at the beginning of June in the Philadelphia Inquirer. For those readers that aren’t local, you can read the whole thing here:

Headless cow spurs a search in Chester County | Philadelphia Inquirer | 06/02/2011.

Somewhere Out There

This past weekend, The Daily Local News published an article about an ad hoc committee formed in West Whiteland Township to discuss what to do with the remnants of the The Guernsey Cow sign that was dismantled in 1985 and how best to remember The Cow (I am a member of the committee). Part of that committee’s efforts is attempting to find the head of the Cow that was stolen in the middle of the night Tuesday, July 23, 1985.

As mentioned a few years ago here, the bovine billboard that stood watch over the Exton, PA crossroads for 40 years was being removed in the summer of 1985 since The Guernsey Cow business had closed and the sign was starting to rot and fade. On Wednesday, July 17, 1985, The Daily Local News published an article (written by Michael Rellahan, the same author of Sunday’s article) about the signs impending removal.

In a quote from the article about the Cow coming down, my grandfather said, “It would be a conversation piece, though, if somebody wanted to pull it up. If you want a cow to put on your front lawn, it’s yours.” Within a week, someone took his offer litterally. At some point between dusk July 23, 1985 and dawn July 24, 1985, the head of the cow was stolen.

As the billboard was two-sided, there were actually two heads stolen that evening consisting of light but floppy and unwieldy large panels of sheet metal. As the article mentions, it’s suspected that the team was able to accomplish the mission in the wee hours when traffic was light.

Almost 30 years later, personally, the story of the theft, more than vengeance or the pursuit of justice, is what drives my desire to track down the heads and the current owner(s). I’d love to hear the story behind the scenes. Were these teenagers that, on a spur-of-the-moment challenge, dared each other to a daring middle-of-the-night raid? Were these West Chester State College kids stuck in town for the summer in need of fraternity house decorations? I’d also love to see the head and where it rests, whether in a local field, overgrown with weeds, or in some former teenager’s — now middle-ager’s — basement.

Later in 1985, my grandfather donated the remaining portions of the billboard to West Whiteland Township since they had expressed such interest in preserving it and using it in a public space.  Since then, the billboard, minus its head, has sat in storage, in pieces, paint flaking while the township has occasionally talked of what to do with it but never gotten far beyond the talk.

Now they’re talking again. It would be nice to see something done for real that would be some sort of testament to what The Cow meant to the community all those decades, whether it’s small or as larges as a 35-foot-tall Guernsey Cow. It would be nice to do that with at least one of the heads or the story behind their disappearance.

If you know someone or heard about a guy who knows a guy who knows who took the sign, help us connect the dots. The statute of limitations is up on this incident so it’s more for the story now than anything else. Let’s solve this cold case! Email me at busboy at theguernseycow.com — your information will be treated with the utmost confidence!