Definition of “cow” led to 1890 court case in Guelph

James McQueen ranks as one of the most prominent farmers in the latter decades of 19th century Pilkington Town­ship.

The McQueens were one of several dozen accomplished farm families in Wellington to specialize in high quality cattle. Their home farm, at Lots 11 and 12, Concession 2 of the township, consisted of 200 acres. At their peak, the Mc­Queens rented an additional 200 acres, employed several men, and were regular and suc­cessful exhibitors at agricul­tur­al shows.

The work and accomplish­ments of prominent livestock breeders such as the McQueens made Wellington County the leader in cattle breeding in Canada between 1870 and the early years of the 20th century, and well known in the United States and England as well. Most of them showed their cattle extensively in competi­tive shows, and the breeding stock they sold locally raised the general quality of cattle con­siderably.

McQueen cattle achieved distinction at shows in Mon­treal and Chicago, as well as across Ontario. The Shorthorn breed had been their specialty since the early 1870s. In 1886, J and R McQueen took their cat­tle to England, capturing prizes at shows in Liverpool and London.

As was the family custom, McQueen cattle were entered in the competition of the Guelph Fat Stock Club at its Christmas 1889 show. That organization was by then al­ready an old one, dating to the 1850s, and was a major force in encouraging better cattle in the southern townships of Well­ington County. The club’s an­nual Christmas Show was the top local agricultural exhibition in the 1880s and 1890s, and was a forerunner of the annual Provincial Agricultural Show that was based permanently at Guelph after 1900.

Among the competitive entries made by James Mc­Queen at the 1889 show were three specimens in a class listed as “Cows three years and over.” When his turn came, McQueen drove the three quadrupeds into the judging ring.

At that point the president, Guelph butcher Jim Waters, and the vice president of the club, commodities dealer Char­les Sharp, spoke up. They ob­jected to the entry, on the grounds that the three cows had never borne calves. They argu­ed that the cows could not be entered as cows until they had given birth, and therefore the McQueen entries were dis­quali­fied.

Red faced and fuming, Mc­Queen said nothing at that point, other than mutter a few oaths under his breath. He led his cows out of the ring. Considering that he had won major prizes with those animals at far more important shows, he felt insulted and humiliated.

McQueen’s rage escalated the more he mulled over the af­fair. He became further agitated after talking to other farmers. Soon the spectators were divid­ed into pro-McQueen and anti-McQueen camps. His support­ers believed he had been ex­cluded out of jealousy and envy. His detractors considered James McQueen to be entirely too haughty in his attitude and opinion of his own livestock. It was time he was taken down a peg or two, and they were pleas­ed that the Fat Stock Club executive had taken on the task.

All the while, every farmer at the show had an opinion on the definition of “cow,” and the debate continued long after the show closed. The McQueens were extremely proud of their livestock, and were certain that they had entered winners. A few days after the show, and urg­ed on by his supporters, James McQueen brought a civil suit against the president and vice president of the Guelph Fat Stock Club.

Interestingly, he charged them personally, rather than as officials of the club. It appears that he viewed the disquali­fi­cation as a personal affront to him by the two club officials.

He asked for damages in the amount of $16, the sum he would have received had his animals taken the first, second and third prizes.

A great deal of personal repu­tation was at stake for both sides. McQueen and the club officials spent considerable time with their lawyers. After several delays, the case eventu­ally came up before Judge Chad­wick on June 17, 1890 in Guelph.

Interest in the matter remained intense, and a group of farmers and Fat Stock Club members filled the gallery to watch the show.

McQueen’s lawyer describ­ed the record of success that the McQueens had enjoyed, show­ing their cattle successfully over a period of years. In parti­cular, he noted the many prizes won at major shows over the previous year by the three ani­mals rejected at Guelph.

There was no doubt, he as­serted, that the McQueen entry was superior to any other in its class at the 1889 Guelph show, and that his three cows would have taken, beyond a reason­able doubt, all three prizes in their class.

Lawyers for the Fat Stock Club officers raised several objections to the complaint against their clients. Firstly, they argued that the club itself, not its officers personally, should have been sued.

Secondly, they complained that here was no certainty that McQueen’s cattle would have won any prizes, let alone cap­tured them all. Thirdly, they told Judge Chadwick that the suit was without merit and should be dismissed.

Chadwick spent several hours listening to the legal argu­ments asking for the case to be dismissed, as well as the evidence presented by lawyers for both sides.

Given the tech­nical nature of the objections and the legal subtleties of some of the evidence, he adjourned the case for four days, until the following Saturday morning, so that he could consult his reference books and legal texts.

On the morning of June 21 Chadwick, as the full house awaited impatiently, began to deliver his ruling.

He started with the procedural objections, ruling that the defendants had been properly sued, and that the club as a whole could not be held responsible for the actions of two men, whose actions had not been authorized by the oth­er executive members.

McQueen’s three cows, stat­ed Judge Chadwick, had been improperly excluded from the competition. The rules, as published in the show cata­logue, formed a contract, and the terms as written there must be construed liberally.

No dictionary he had con­sul­ted, stated the Judge, de­fined a cow as an animal with a calf or an animal that had given birth to a calf.

Rather, those dictionaries all agreed that “cow” was the female, or the mature female, of the genus Bos. Since Mc­Queen’s animals, at three years of age, were mature, either definition certainly applied to them.

Based on the evidence and the law, Judge Chadwick stated that his judgment must be against Waters and Sharp, the Fat Stock Club officials.

He granted a judgment of $16, the total of the first, sec­ond, and third prizes, in favour of James McQueen, plus costs.

In the context of 1890, $16 was more than a week’s wages for a skilled workman. Surviv­ing descriptions of the trial do not give a dollar figure for the costs, but they must have been considerable, at least as much as much as the settlement itself.

For James McQueen, the prize money was certainly wel­come, but to him it was far more important that he had been vindicated, and that a court of law had considered that his cattle were the best in their class, whether or not the Guelph Fat Stock Club recog­nized the fact.

McQueen continued to show his cattle across the province and outside it as well. He was particularly pleased to win prizes in 1893 at Chicago, at a cattle show held in con­nection with the World’s Fair.


Stephen Thorning