by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
June 13, 2002
WE PARTIED TILL THE COWS WENT HOME
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The formal black-and-white ball was the climax of Brattleboro, Vermont's first Strolling of the Heifers parade and farm festival last weekend. The town's power elite put on tuxedos, and Alfred, the town's premiere black drag queen, chose a white satin ball gown with a closed square back, tight bodice, umbrella skirt, and pearls.
Oh, Brattleboro! Where you been so long?
What I'm calling Brattleboro here is actually a larger area in southeastern Windham County - Brattleboro is the central market town, and it's surrounded by smaller towns like Guilford, Vernon, Newfane, Dummerston and Putney.
When the idea of a cow parade was first announced last year, many residents, myself among them, were dismayed. I thought the idea of marching a bunch of cows up Main Street as a ploy to attract tourists was ridiculous. For a place that prides itself on rural sophistication and calls itself "The best small arts town in America," the idea seemed manufactured, lame and humorless - nothing more than a staged media event.
Once, in the 1950s, the area was dominated by dairy farms; this event supposedly harked back to that time. But Brattleboro is better known today for its liberalism and its eclectic mix of aging hippies, pierced neo-hippies, native Vermonters, rock-ribbed Republicans, farmers, working class people, artists, and, lately, computer folks with lots of new money.
There is an inherent free-spiritedness here that the Chamber of Commerce doesn't advertise but which makes the area a joy to live in. It's a mixture of the steady along with the wild and slightly woolly. For example, we have one of the most successful organic food co-ops in the country, but we also have a nuclear power plant.
Once, Brattleboro's Fourth of July parade epitomized this wonderful combination of the goofy and the serious. Anyone could march, making it the ultimate expression of real American values. There were American flags galore, lots of families, Shriners, the American Legion Band, and also anti-nuke protesters and samba dancers -- a sensual group that wriggled down Main Street to the beat of wild drums.
But then the town came under the control of uncreative types, the Chamber tried to sanitize the parade and remove its political content, the samba dancers disappeared, and the whole thing became just another dull, small-town Fourth.
The cow parade has been the first chance since then to bring back some of the town's creative weirdness. Almost in spite of the organizers, who were looking to create a serious, money-making, career-building Chamber-style event, the genie sprung from the bottle and started to boogie again.
It may have been because Saturday was bright and sunny, or because it's been a rough year for Americans and we're all feeling the need to break loose a little. But people left behind their serious, conservative, critical demeanors and seemed happy to make joyous fools of themselves for a day.
Thousands of applauding, laughing and mooing people lined the streets for the parade, most of them with cameras. Children held cow balloons in the shape of udders.
Some of the worst puns in the known world were released from protective custody. For example, an elegant woman wearing a tailored jacket and skirt decorated with cows told me her outfit came from Paris and it was "cow-toure." T-shirts proclaimed, "I'm having an udderly good time," "Moochas gracias," "Let's party till the cows come home," "déja mooo," and, of course, "I'm in the mooood for love."
Many people - in and out of the parade - wore cow costumes, with the black-and-white Holstein pattern predominating. (Brattleboro is the home of the Holstein Association of America.) A horn player in the American Legion Band played "Yankee Doodle" as he marched in one. Several men wore udders as codpieces.
The sole protester from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who had driven up from North Carolina for the event, wore a Holstein costume, carried a sign that said, "Love Cows, Don't Eat Them," and blended right in. Hood ice cream sent its cow mascot, and Tony the Tiger was there, probably because Frosted Flakes go so well with milk.
The Costume Ladies, who sometimes wear overstuffed fat-lady outfits that offend the politically correct, put black-and-white print bikinis on their bulges and danced down Main Street. The anti-nuke people and the anti-hormones-in-food people marched, and so did members of the Fire Department of New York City.
The real cows were black and white Holsteins, brown Jerseys and russet milking short horns. They were groomed and shinning and bedecked with wreaths of flowers. One little heifer wore an American flag cap.
I was charmed by the cows and the kids who so clearly love and care for them. And although they were unavailable for comment, the cows didn't seem overly freaked.
A story had gone around that the cows were going to get enemas before the march, so I asked Putney School junior Margaret Chapin, who was walking Lupine, about it. She was offended. "I'd definitely never do that to a cow!" she said. "Besides, they've already pooped all over the truck."
The parade turned into a circus. Alfred sashayed down the street wearing a short black skirt with a sequined top and low heels and plugging his vintage fashion shows. A swing band played "I'm in the Mood for Love" from a hay wagon. Clowns, jugglers and unicyclists entertained us, there was a slightly out-of-control Dairy Fairy, and one politician running for state treasurer walked on stilts. This will inevitably irritate his opponent, a progressive who makes much of the fact that he is openly gay. Walking on stilts trumps being gay any time.
The parade ended up at the Commons, where we enjoyed a festival of free delicious dairy products - mostly hand-crafted sheep, cow and goat cheeses. Not a glass of soy milk was to be found.
The maple syrup people spun maple cotton candy that melted in your mouth. A reggae band played - play that funky music, white boys -- and Sen. James Jeffords and Congressman Bernie Sanders participated in a hokey milking contest. Woody Jackson, the man who began the deification of cows in Vermont (check out his Ben & Jerry ice cream containers) set up a tent and sold art.
It is a good thing to celebrate farmers; these days they have a hard time getting by. They're a lot like artists - hard-headed and individualistic enough to think they can make a living doing what they love, failing most of the time, and still plugging ahead. Maybe that's why this parade let loose such a spontaneous combustion of cows and creativity.
All in all, it was quite a party. I don't know if it will be the same next year, but Brattleboro, welcome back.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.