Remembering the Iowa Cow War, 90 years later

Cattle in Shelby County, Iowa, in 1941. — Irving Rusinow/Department of Agriculture

The War on Meat (2021 edition) may just be a Republican talking point, but 90 years ago, National Guard troops armed with literal rifles and bayonets were deployed against cattle farmers in eastern Iowa in what became known as the Iowa Cow War of 1931. This largely forgotten incident involved angry people rejecting science and putting others at risk of contagious disease, as well as a radio personality stoking fears of a government conspiracy that didn’t exist.

If all that sounds familiar, consider this: In 1931, the Republican governor of Iowa who deployed the Guard troops was firmly on the side of science.

Bovine tuberculosis is a serious threat to cows, and it can even infect humans in some circumstances. In 1929, after 10 years of a voluntary testing program for bovine TB, Iowa made testing mandatory. At the time, many farmers rejected the idea that tuberculosis was a serious problem. Even some who did accept the danger would rather not have their animals tested, because a cow testing positive had to be destroyed. Although farmers received a payment from the government for each culled cow, the compensation was considered too low and it was more profitable to send potentially contaminated milk and meat to market.

Resistance to testing was particularly high in Cedar County, where fear and uncertainty was being sown by a Muscatine radio station, KTNT.

The station’s owner, Norman Baker, was convinced the testing program was a government plot against farmers that relied on fake science, and he used KTNT to spread that message. As one history of the Cow War puts it, “Baker verbally assaulted the medical and veterinary professions, Iowa politicians, farm magazines and state universities while fanning the flames of rebellion in Cedar County. He repeatedly spoke out against the TB testing, stating that it aborted cows and dropped their milk production.”

On March 8, more than 500 farmers confronted state veterinarians and the deputies escorting them near Tipton, preventing the veterinarians from doing scheduled TB tests. Eleven days later, more than 1,000 opponents of the testing program held a raucous protest at the Iowa State Capitol.

Confrontations between anti-testers and state officials continued in Cedar County. State veterinarians were threatened, and in April, farmers shoved Assistant Attorney General Oral Swift into a barbed wire fence when he accompanied a testing crew.

Gov. Dan Turner mobilized the Iowa National Guard. He was prepared to use it to ensure TB testing was done, but he agreed to meet with a representative from the anti-testing farmers in Iowa City. The meeting went well, and the governor demobilized the members of the Guard, who were awaiting orders in Cedar Rapids.

A pause in testing followed, as farmers sued in an attempt to get an injunction against the TB detection program. After the lawsuit failed, testing resumed. In August, the confrontations resumed.

The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 1931 — courtesy of Iowa State University Library Special Collections and University Archives

In September, there was a violent confrontation in which approximately 400 farmers and other anti-testers, armed with clubs and throwing stones, attacked 63 state veterinarians and their law enforcement escorts in Tipton. This time, Turner called up the Guard and sent 1,700 Guardsmen — one-third of the entire Iowa National Guard — into Cedar County.

The troops were stationed at the Cedar County Fairground, but accompanied state veterinarians wherever they encountered resistance in eastern Iowa. Faced with armed Guardsmen, the resistance faded away, and the testing was completed.

The violent resistance didn’t repeat itself in following years. Testing wasn’t the sinister plot KTNT insisted it was. And even farmers who had infected cows destroyed eventually came to understand the benefits of controlling a dangerous, highly contagious disease in their herds by listening to science.


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This article was originally published in Little Village issue 299.

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