Of all the Guernsey cattle that can claim Cow Island, N.H., as their ancestral home, Iceberg is perhaps the most celebrated. Iceberg was a bull calf born 275 miles north of the Antarctic Circle during Admiral Richard Byrd’s second trip to Antarctica.
Byrd took three Guernsey cows and a milking machine on his expedition. One of the cows, Klondike, was pregnant, and Byrd hoped she would give birth on Antarctica. It wasn’t to be. Still, the cows’ voyage inspired news stories, a commemorative medal, a children’s book Something To Tell the Grandcows and a metal campaign button printed with a picture of Iceberg. On the back were stamped the words, “Born December 19, 1933, on the Byrd Antarctic Expedition II The Farthest South of Any Dairy Animal.”
Iceberg’s ancestors had also traveled thousands of miles on an ocean voyage. Guernseys were bred on the Isle of Guernsey in the English Channel. Militant monks had brought the best bloodlines of French cattle with them around 960 A.D. They had come to help the inhabitants defend themselves against buccaneers and to cultivate the soil. The monks bred their Froment du Leons and Brindles or Alderneys, according to the American Guernsey Association.
The Guernsey Cow
In 1830 or 1831, a merchant captain named Prince brought a bull and two heifers from Britain to Boston. (The records were destroyed in a fire.) Prince, who lived in Roxbury, sent a bull and a heifer to his farm on the 520-acre island now named Cow Island in Lake Winnipesaukee. Paul Pillsbury cared for the cows, which grew to a herd of 40.
From the Pillsbury Cow and the Pillsbury Bull, Guernseys multiplied and spread to Boscawen, Hopkinton and the Shakers at Canterbury. By 1899, the Guernsey developed a following that can only be described as passionate.
The Guernsey Cattle Club, which moved to Peterborough, N.H., in 1894, produced the Guernsey Breeders’ Year Book. The book proclaimed, “The time has come when the Guernsey takes her place among the dairy cattle, second to none in the production of the richest, golden colored milk, cream or butter.” The Guernsey didn’t prove herself in the flashy seven-day butter trials ‘where fresh cows heavily fed appeal to a sportive crowd.’ She proved herself over the long term, where she could reasonably be expected to set records for annual butter production.
Her fame only grew. According to Guernsey historian William H. Caldwell, 90 Guernsey enthusiasts in 1933 made a pilgrimage to Cow Island. They decided to permanently mark the island as the home of the first Guernseys with a model of the old gristmill.
The Guernsey Breeders of America cheerfully agreed to pay for the mill. In September 1935, more pilgrims went to the island. Then Gov. Styles Bridges officiated at the formal dedication of the mill.
Two years earlier, Admiral Byrd had taken the three Guernsey cows with him to Antarctica. Deerfoot came from Southborough, Mass., Emmadine came from Hopewell, N.Y., and Klondike came from Ellan, N.C. Klondike had given birth to iceberg but suffered from frostbite. A crewman named Cox had to put her down.
“I’ve put away a lot of ’em, Admiral,” he told Byrd, “but it never got me before. I guess I got pretty fond of that cow.” Joe Merriam was one of eight or 10 children who in 1942 worked on the farm in Southboro where Deerfoot lived. It had 200 cows, including Guernseys, Holsteins and Jerseys. In a letter, he wrote,
Pride of place in the first cowshed belonged to an old Guernsey cow who had spent 1930 with Admiral Byrd in Little America. She had grown a shaggy coat in the severe Antarctic conditions, and had never lost it. A placard gave her history and name; I can’t recall the name [Deerfoot] but she was referred to, disrespectfully, by the barn-workers as “Lady Deerfoot,” being old and rather wilfull.
There are now 3 million Guernsey cows in the United States.
This story about Iceberg was updated in 2022.