The Iowa Cow War was one of the strangest rebellions in American history. In the midst of the Great Depression, dairy herders in the state resisted medical testing of their cattle herds, and farmers with pitchforks were met by National Guard troops with bayonets.
In 1929, authorities in Iowa were facing difficulties. The state’s economy was almost entirely agricultural, with milk, beef and corn being their primary products. But prices for these commodities had been steadily declining, and many of the state’s farmers were under financial pressure. The state had also had several outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis, a disease which not only could be contracted by farm workers, but which could be passed on to consumers through infected milk. The state legislature in response passed a requirement that all of the cattle in Iowa be tested by a veterinarian and certified to be disease-free. Infected cows were to be destroyed. It was a seemingly innocuous regulation.
In October 1929, however, the stock market crashed and America entered the Great Depression, and one of the areas that was hardest hit were the farming regions. As unemployment soared and prices fell, farmers found themselves struggling to pay their bank loans and foreclosures skyrocketed. Those few who survived were often totally dependent on their own resources: they ate their own cows and milk, and often burned their own corn instead of coal to heat their homes. The situation in the American farmlands grew desperate.
As the Depression dragged on, the desperation grew. Blame fell on President Hoover and the banks. But in Iowa, the anger of the farmers quickly focused on the state’s requirement for tuberculosis testing. There were many reasons given for opposing the testing: some farmers argued that the tests were inaccurate, others claimed that the testing process caused abortions in the cows, ruined their milk, or made the cows sick or even killed them, while other farmers simply declared that they had the right to keep infected cattle if they wanted to. The real reason for the opposition was bluntly financial: while the state and federal governments reimbursed farmers for two-thirds the value of any infected cow that was destroyed, this was still a monetary loss that none of the distressed farmers could afford, especially when, as in some cases, individual farmers lost their entire herd because it was infected.
At first, the proposed testing was delayed by a series of legal challenges. A number of political candidates also won office specifically on a platform of repealing the regulation. In February 1931, a mass protest of farmers gathered at the capitol in Des Moines to demand that the testing be made voluntary rather than mandatory. All of these efforts failed, however, and statewide tuberculosis testing was finally scheduled to begin later that year. In most of the state, things went smoothly.
But in Cedar and Henry Counties, things did not go so easily. These areas had been a hotspot of opposition to the regulation, and when efforts to pressure the legislature and the governor didn’t work, the farmers organized into a group called the Farmer’s Protective Association and took action on their own. When the inspections began in March, the veterinarians were met at each ranch by a crowd of angry farmers who surrounded them and prevented them from examining any of the cows. In some places, inspectors were pelted with eggs and cow patties. The testing program came to a halt.
Now, the police became involved. In September 1931, the state once again attempted to inspect the cows in Henry County, and this time the veterinarians were escorted by deputy sheriffs. Once again, they were met by mobs from the Protective Association. On September 21, two inspectors and 65 deputies and police arrived at the ranch of Jake Lenker, and were surrounded by some 500 farmers and their supporters armed with clubs, who pelted them with eggs and rocks. Some minor fighting broke out, a few arrests were made, and one of the police vehicles had its interior filled up with mud. The inspection party was forced to retreat.
State officials now feared that things would get out of hand and that serious violence might break out. They contacted Iowa Governor Dan Turner, who was in Washington DC for an agricultural conference with President Hoover, and informed him of the situation. Turner ordered that 1800 troops from the state’s National Guard be mobilized and assigned to escort the veterinarian inspectors and to maintain order.
The next day, the state took the fight right to the very heart of its opponent: a force of National Guard troops and deputies arrived at the Henry County farm of CL McKinnon, the president of the local Farmer’s Protective Association. Machine guns were set up at roadblocks to prevent reinforcing farmers from arriving, and, with bayonets fixed, twenty National Guardsmen led by General Park Findlay approached McKinnon’s barn, which was surrounded by several hundred farmers, some armed with clubs and pitchforks. The “Cow War” had now reached a crisis point.
Findlay spoke first, intoning, “I am a soldier here acting under orders from the Governor. Here is the sheriff of Henry County. I am asking you as man to man to disperse before it is necessary for me to take further
action.” McKinnon said nothing. From the crowd came scattered cries of “They shall not pass!” and “All we want to do is protect our rights!” After a few minutes, Findlay ordered his troops to advance and escort the inspectors into the barn. Then one of the Protective Association officers, Henry Connor, shouted out, “No fighting, men!” All of the farmers dropped whatever weapons they were holding and raised their hands in the air. Connor pleaded with Findlay, “Has martial law been declared? I am just a farmer, standing here defending my rights!” Connor and McKinnon were both arrested. As the troops walked past with their bayonets, another farmer tried to grab one of their rifles and was arrested too: as he was led away, he yelled, “My God, shoot me if you want to, but don’t stick me with that thing!”
With McKinnon and Connor’s surrender, the Iowa Cow War came to an end. Over the next two months, veterinarians escorted by Iowa National Guardsmen systematically inspected every cow in Cedar and Henry County, and by 1935 the entire state had been covered. Several leaders of the revolt were jailed for criminal conspiracy, but were released not long afterwards.