A day not forgotten for many reasons

As March marches on, I am reminded of another eventful March from many years ago.

March 28, 1969, marked a most unforgettable day, a day in which tragedy and gratitude walked a similar path for a time.

The account which appeared in the newspaper the next day read, “A 14-year-old Hillsdale High School freshman and her father escaped injury and possible death Friday evening on their Jeromesville farm as they watched five of their dairy cattle die of electrocution.

“Sherry Young and her father Stanley were just beginning to milk six cows of their huge Holstein dairy herd when five of the cattle bolted and fell to the floor dead.”

We had just started the evening milking. The first three milkers were on, my sister Sher was washing a cow and Dad was standing near the glass door which separated the milking parlor from the milk house. He was operating the auger which brings grain in to the parlor. At age 9, I was the go-fer, and was in the milk house drawing a second bucket of wash water for my sister. I stepped near the glass door to ask my dad a question at the very instant the cattle bolted, moaned and fell to the floor dead.

Left standing. One cow was left standing. My father quickly turned the auger off and rushed to the other end of the parlor to lift the stanchion lever to release the cows.

“When I did that, I was shocked, something worse than a shock from an electric fence,” he later told the newspaper reporter.

My sister and I stood staring in dismay at the sight of five of the best “first stringers” with their necks stretched up into the stanchions, their bodies limp on the floor. The bucket Sher had been using lay crushed under the weight of the cow that she had been washing just a moment before.

My father remembered the smell of burned flesh. Dad instructed us to stay out of the milking parlor and not to touch anything. He went to inform our mother, who was feeding silage. “We’ve had a tragedy,” he called to her.

The next several hours were nightmarish, as the work of removing 1,500-pound cattle from a milking parlor began in an area that was still mysteriously potentially dangerous.

A neighbor and long-time electrician, Pete Smith, was called, as was our neighbor and veterinarian, Dr. Royce “Doc” Smith. Doc confirmed the dead cattle showed evidence of burn marks on their hooves where they’d been in contact with the wet concrete floor. Though it was drizzling and overcast, no one recalled hearing thunder, so Pete Smith set himself to the task of finding the deadly current’s source.

We kids sat on straw bales at the front of the shed and watched the cows that were somewhat pets to us being dragged out of the parlor. The cows carried the names of pets: Barbie, Nancy, Twin, Lolly Pop, Nada.

Close call. It didn’t occur to me at age 9 just how close we had come to losing part of our family. We were told that rubber gloves worn by my sister while washing the cow and rubber boots worn by both my father and sister saved their lives. Dad later said just looking at that 10-quart bucket smashed flat made him just sink in his shoes, thinking how easily his daughter could have fallen. He told us over and over, ”We can always replace a cow.”

By 8 p.m., Pete was still puzzled. With a light bulb in a socket with two wires running from it, he attempted to find the origin of the current. My father was beginning to get concerned about milking the rest of the herd. Dad told us to go ahead and feed the calves milk replacer rather than waiting for milk.

We began running hot water in the milk house, and instantly Pete Smith’s test bulb went on – one on the stanchions and one attached to a window. It appeared the entire parlor was alive with current.

Pete snapped the hot water heater in the milk house off and the current stopped. The heater had been in place when my parents purchased the farm, and it was later determined there was a breakdown which caused the water heater to short circuit, forcing electric current through the milking parlor.

We remember returning to the house very late that night. The nightly news reported that the date would not be forgotten. March 28, 1969 was the day President Dwight D. Eisenhower died.

The news reporter was right – it was a day that would not soon be forgotten.

About the Author

Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college. More Stories by Judith Sutherland

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