How Bovine, Minnesota, earned its name
Back in 1888, the duly elected representatives of the community known as Skunk Hollow had completed applications, filed sworn statements with the county and state offices, and presented the articles of incorporation to the locals gathered at the Village Hall. Melvin Trask, self-appointed chairman, cleared his throat about to call for the vote, when a tall man, salt and pepper hair sleeked and fastened at a bunch in back, pants and shirt freshly pressed, rose and requested the floor.
Melvin said in a loud and official voice, “The Chair recognizes Walt Cunningham.”
“Everyone recognizes Walt Cunningham,” Hank Sturgis, local dairy farmer, whispered to fellow committee member, Albert Wentzel. “He’s bin a pain in the ass ever since he brung his implement business here.”
Albert, Skunk Hollow’s only blacksmith, whispered back, “If Cunningham’s so damn smart, why don’t he run for the council ’stead of laying in the weeds ’til we gits all the work done?”
Walt Cunningham flashed a glance around the smoke-filled room and cleared his throat. “I feel our new town deserves a better name than what we’ve been calling it since the time of Moses.” He drew a large white handkerchief from his suit jacket and wiped his forehead. “Someday we’ll have a post office, and Skunk Hollow will be the postmark on letters to our out-of-town friends.”
Hank Sturgis and Albert Wentzel faced each other, an expression of wonderment at anyone having such friends.
“My wife’s already embarrassed to tell her family back home where we’ve established our business.” A general murmur rose from the crowd. “Mind you, I’m not complaining about the people. It’s just the name, quite frankly, stinks.”
Those with homes in Skunk Hollow probably agreed, but Cunningham was a newcomer. Most farmers such as Hank Sturgis felt the name quite aptly described the missionary settlement near the banks of the Skunk River. The young priest sent by the diocese to built St. Alphonse Parish a new church hadn’t complained about it either.
“Do you want to state that as a motion?” asked Chairperson Trask, who recently returned from a visit to the State Capital in St. Paul where he observed lawmakers in action.
“Yes,” Walt responded. “I move to change the name of our town.”
“That’s half an idea, and a dumb one.” Ben York, proprietor of York’s Mercantile, a grocery, furniture, and clothing store across the street from Cunningham’s Implement, stood and expressed his opinion of the suggestion and of the younger man who proposed it. “Ain’t that right, Albert?” He hoped the old blacksmith, a fellow businessman, would agree.
“Yer jest pissed ’bout Cunningham beatin’ you at the horseshoe,” Albert taunted back. The crowd burst out laughing.
Earlier that morning, Hank Sturgis, Albert Wentzel and Melvin Trask rehashed last year’s horseshoe tournament over coffee at Bud ’n Emma’s Café. Melvin imitated Ben York’s raspy voice challenging Walt Cunningham to a wager of a full year of coffee at Bud ’n Emma’s.
Albert speculated the addition of pie must have been Walt’s idea.
Hank, whose acreage next to the town had been swallowed up in bits and pieces by townsfolk for their new homes, said, “I heard big amounts of money hollered back and forth. My wife was standing next to Ben’s wife, and Betsy heard Clara say that she didn’t know where her husband would get five hundred dollars if he lost.”
“I tell ya, the coffee, the pie, and the money was dropped when the biddin’ got nasty.” Albert scraped away dark residue from under his fingernails with a pocketknife. “We won’t never know ’cause Walt started whisperin’ and scribblin’ on his little black book.” He blew and dark specks scattered across the table. “The one where he figures how to swindle ya on a horse trade.”
“They ain’t never been together here at the café, so I knowed that part of the deal got dropped.” Sturgis bit into a plug of tobacco and a bulge appeared on his left cheek. “Walt wid never squelch on a deal.” He poked his tongue through pursed lips, removed a tobacco stem, and stared at it. “Once I traded him a spavined horse. He got mad, but he held to the deal.” Hank wiped his hand on his pant leg.
“Ben ain’t ’bout to renege neither.” Albert switched his pocketknife to his other hand. “My guess is they called off all bets, ’cept the one ’bout the red union suit.”
“I reported the incident in Scent of the Skunk.” Melvin Trask, publisher of THE JOURNAL, paged through his notebook.
“Yeah, Betsy saved it.” Hank glanced toward the opened page and Melvin slammed it shut. “She got every Scent of the Skunk ya ever writ.”
He stared into his cup. “I kin still see Ben in his long johns, standin’ at Cunningham’s front door durin’ Walt’s open house.” He slapped the table. “Every time a customer walked in, York bent over and lifted the flap.”
“Yeah, but nobody got to see Ben’s bare ass, just a sign that read GRAND OPENING.” Melvin grinned. “I printed it for Walt at my shop.”
With his face flush with anger, Ben York remained standing and quietly waited until the laughter in the village hall subsided. He shook a finger at Albert. “I ain’t got no hard feelings ’bout the wager.” He glanced around the room and back toward Walt. “Your motion’s still dumb.” He sat down.
“Ben’s right.” Chairman Trask tapped the table, fisted the head of the gavel and pointed the handle toward Cunningham. “Come up with a name to replace Skunk Hollow and add it to your motion.”
Walt thought Cunningham Town but remained silent.
Hank rose, scanned the crowd and faced Walt. “If ya can’t hanker to skunks, maybe some other animal, like a cow might suit you. We gots plenty of ’em ’round here.” The crowd chuckled.
When someone shouted Cow Town, Gavin Dowdy, full time harness maker and part time butcher, yelled back, “Bullshit Town.”
Melvin Trask, shoe-in mayor of the new town as well as publisher of the local newspaper, banged the gavel and asked, “What are some other suggestions?”
Walt jabbed his finger at Dowdy. “I’m not even going to comment on your vulgarity, and Cow Town don’t fit either. We’re not part of the wild west.”
“Cow Town sounded okay to me. Farmers raise ’em, and I butcher ’em.” Dowdy reminded those who might need his services at slaughter time.
Walt’s face resembled a beet. “Cows around here are different.”
“Like how?” Hank Sturgis defended the cattle he no longer raised since he made more money selling his land.
Walt responded, “Well, for one thing, they’re dairy cows, not the kind you round up from the open range, brand, and drive to the railhead.”
“How ’bout Holstein Town? Them’s the most common kind.” Melvin grinned. “And, what about the bull?” He prodded for feature material. “The bull and the cow. That’s what life’s all about.”
“Bovines!” Walt scowled.
“Yeah, let’s name the town after one of them bovine critters, whatever they are.” Albert smirked. “That’d keep folks guessing.”
Walt shook his head. “Bovine’s just a fancy name for cattle, and—”
“Bovine, Minnesota.” Trask banged his gavel and people began to leave.
The decision wasn’t considered final until the following Thursday when Melvin Trask printed the minutes from the meeting in his first edition of the renamed BOVINE JOURNAL. He expected responses to his first feature, Bovine Bullshit, but only Walt sent a letter to the editor. Melvin went back to calling his gossip column SCENT O’ THE SKUNK.