National Dairy Shrine Visitor's Center
Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin
Confession: the name is what attracted us. The term "dairy shrine" instantly formed in our minds a vision of a 3-story cow, carved out of butter, draped with flower garlands and ringed with offerings of cheddar and Chunky Monkey.
"Shrine," however, is used here in the sense of an association or a society. This is the visitor's center for the National Dairy Association. There's no cow god here, but plenty to enrapture those with even a passing interest in the world of bovine lactation.
The Shrine occupies the basement and part of the ground floor of the Hoard Historical Museum, one of those places where first one knowledgeable volunteer -- and then many others -- appear out of nowhere to suggest that one should check out the quilt collection or the doll room. On a tight schedule, we declined most of their helpful recommendations. But we can report that the museum does have a stuffed passenger pigeon, and a wax dummy of an exhausted-looking Abraham Lincoln slouched in a chair. A sign next to the President notes that it has "fully articulated veins."
But we were here for the cow stuff.
In the lobby is a bronze bust, by Gutzon "Mt. Rushmore" Borglum, of William Dempster Hoard. Although Hoard has been dead for nearly a century, he is still very much a presence at the Dairy Shrine. It was he who convinced Wisconsin farmers to dump wheat and take up cows, and to "Treat each cow as a Mother should be treated." Without his boosterism there would be no dairy industry in Wisconsin, although our suggestion that a foam cheese wedge hat be placed on his bronze head was politely refused. Hoard was called "Wisconsin's most distinguished citizen," "the father of American dairying," and "The Abraham Lincoln of Wisconsin" (ah, the Lincoln connection). In 1895, Hoard led a campaign to outlaw yellow margarine in the state, and the ban was not lifted until 1967.
Beyond Mr. Hoard's head is a rotunda with a small library of books, with titles such as The 10 Masterminds of Dairying and Animal Sex Control. Encircling it is a walkway lined with life-size dioramas of pioneer dairy life, augmented with prerecorded dialogue and sound effects. Accompanying TV monitors show industry PR videos on continuous loops. It is high-tech for the Dairy Shrine, and the two other visitors who were there with us were riveted.
Downstairs, in the exhibits area, is dairying in all its wonder. Here one can contemplate a dog-powered butter churn, see photos of cow champions dating back nine decades, and learn the history of the "Alice in Dairyland" competition (Fort Atkinson girls have clinched it twice). Among the many honorees on the "Wall of Pioneers" are Thorkeld "Tom" Knudsen, who developed half-n-half; Harvey D. Thatcher, inventor of the glass milk bottle; and Arthur Baer, "World Authority on Ice Cream." Butter molds, milking machines, and flamboyant prize ribbons vie for the visitor's attention along with Elsie the Cow's original blanket and a detailed look at the Wizard Sediment Test.
Our attention was inexorably drawn to the large Artificial Insemination exhibit. The fragility of bull semen is illustrated by a plain-brown-wrapper box marked "fragile" suspended from a parachute. "Used for dropping semen from air before the advent of frozen semen," explains the sign, and behind it is a picture of the plane, The Flying Bull. The international scope of semen is revealed with an "Inseminacion Artificial" flag, "used in Puerto Rico to notify the inseminator that the dairyman had a cow in heat."
The Dairy Shrine at one time displayed the hooves of a champion milk cow, but they have been removed. "We had to give them back because PETA was complaining," explained one of the volunteers. Still, this is a place worth exploring. A current remodeling promises to give the exhibits even more vivacity. And the gift shop sells one of the best postcards ever, a painting of cows from each of the five leading breeds, with the caption: "Foster Mothers of the Human Race."