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TRAVEL: How now, giant cow? A visit to Salem Sue

NEW SALEM, ND (KXNET) — North Dakota is no stranger to giant animals, as strange as that sounds… but just looking across the state, there’s a surprising number of sizable statues that hold their own records. One of the more popular ones is the World’s Largest Buffalo in Jamestown, but there are a few others, such as Bottineau’s Tommy the Turtle and the Wahpeton Whopper (the world’s largest catfish), that also catch the eye of any tourists on the roadside.

But the largest, and most famous of these, is Salem Sue — the world’s largest Holstein Cow. Fitting her name, this humongous Holstein is located in the town of New Salem, about 30 miles west of Bismarck. Visible for miles, she stands as a monument to North Dakota’s tremendous ranching and dairy programs.

To understand the significance of this odd statue, though, it only makes sense to observe the community around her. With a full tank of gas, a desire to explore, and permission from the station to commandeer a news van with the promise that it will not end the same way as my last misadventure, I set out to New Salem to see the area that Sue calls her pasture.

Supposedly, according to city brochures and web pages, the origin of New Salem’s dairy domination comes from a brief conversation between the town’s founder and the Sioux Native Americans. As the story goes, John Christiansen, the first settler of New Salem, was plowing his field one day in 1883 when members of the tribe began to watch him. Eventually, one of the older members of the group approached Christiansen and turned over a piece of the newly-broken sod, so that the grass was once again visible. A younger Native American then stated, “Wrong side up.”

It almost seems like a simple misunderstanding, but this statement caused a realization in Christiansen: that the hills and plains nearby would serve much better as grazing land for livestock than food for the plows. Eventually, Christiansen played a major role in forming the New Salem Holstein Breeding Circuit — which promoted better breeding and increased production and go on to be instrumental in transforming the town into the dairy dynamo we see today.

New Salem is a stark contrast to the big cities I’m familiar with. There’s no major downtown, and most parking lots are dirt and gravel. Old-fashioned cars line the roadways, and shops have signs on them requesting guests call the owner to be let in. It’s not something I was used to, but it’s very interesting to just walk around and take in the sights. I found the mixture of old and new, industry and agriculture, something really interesting from a city boy’s perspective. As peculiar as it seems, the lack of larger shopping centers and restaurants was a huge surprise for me.

As Salem Sue would imply, dairy is New Salem’s major export, and the city prides itself on the high quality of its dairy cows and milk. Even today, there are plenty of local businesses and industrial areas across the small town. So devoted to dairy is New Salem that even their sports team takes on the name “The Fighting Holsteins.”

A yard sign for the Fighting Holsteins.

What New Salem lacks in restaurants and businesses, it makes up for in scenery: the wide fields, open patches of land, and numerous playgrounds almost make it seem like a giant park more than a bustling town.

But before going further into New Salem or meeting Sue, it’s important to learn what exactly a “Holstein” is. The answer is simple: it’s the name for a particular region between the Elbe and Elder rivers in the southern half of Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state of Germany. What most of us here in the states are referring to when we use the term is actually a breed of dairy cattle that originated in the area — Holstein Friesian Cattle, known as the highest-producing dairy animal around the globe. They’re also the most widespread cattle breed in the world and can be found in more than 150 countries. The reason we usually address them as we do is their current location: cows of the breed traced from North American bloodlines are usually referred to as simply ‘Holsteins’, and the ‘Fresian’ half of the name is given to indigenous European cattle.

As a cattle-focused community, it only stands to reason that the world’s favorite breed would serve as a fitting mascot. This applies to stores and decorations in town, too — cow-themed decorations are always around, and even the local coffee shop (which was sadly closed Monday, the day of my visit) features the pun ‘Udderly Caffinated’ as its name.

While there are a few major aspects to look at in New Salem — including the Morton County Fair in August, year-round camping at North Park, a Historical Society Museum open May through September, a swimming pool, and a golf course — my destination was still Salem Sue, and so I circled back through the town and onto the winding path up School Hill that led to the statue.

There’s no admission fee or toll booth to see Sue, but free-will donations are always appreciated. A milk jug turned tip jar waits at the foot of School Hill’s driving path, asking for any assistance to keep the statue well-maintained.

Sue was first built in 1974 as part of an initiative by the New Salem Lion’s Club, in order to “honor and advertise the dairyman of our area … the hardworking, persistent, and informed dairyman who is an asset to his community, church, the economy, and his family.” In total, $40,000 in donations from local farmers and residents were gathered to create her — as well as to enlist the help of Dave Oswald (who would later go on to create the Wahpeton Whopper) as the project’s lead artist.

Salem Sue stands a massive 38 feet high and 50 feet long, weighing an estimated 12,000 pounds. Despite the appearance, she’s completely hollow, being entirely made of fiberglass. It turns out that she’s not just a monument to ranchers and dairy workers, but to famous cows of the town, including the amazingly named “Indie Pens Suprize” and “Aggie Wayne Segis Pontiac”.

So popular is Salem Sue, in fact, that she has her own theme song — ‘The Ballad of the Holstein”, meant to be sung to the tune of ‘Joy to the World’. While the brochure I obtained didn’t have the ballad on it, from what I’ve been able to piece together, it goes a little something like this:

We’ve got the cow, world’s largest cow,

That looks across our fields,

Her presence shows, that New Salem grows,

With milk-producer’s yields,

With milk producer’s yields, with milk-producer‘s yields, with milk producer’s yields.

Contrary to what it may seem, though, the highest point in New Salem isn’t Sue’s head. Rather, that would be the actual top of School Hill, which can be reached via a path behind the statue. It’s a rocky path that can get steep from time to time, but if you’re looking for a full view of the countryside, climbing it is your best bet. From there, not only can you see the top of Salem Sue, but the surrounding town, plains, and sunflower fields to boot. It’s a short hike, but a very rewarding one — at least, if you’re a photographer like me.

If you’re looking to bring a piece of New Salem home with you, there’s good news and bad news. While there’s no official gift shop for those seeking to remember their visit to Salem Sue and the surrounding area, it’s possible to get a few more morsels about her backstory — as well as the town itself — from the nearby shops. In particular, I ended up at local supermarket Tellmann’s to find New Salem souvenirs. Trinkets like pens, shot glasses, and T-Shirts are available there as well as brochures and local books to help unravel the secrets of the town.

Although I prefer my normal environment in the downtown area, I have to say that I really enjoyed the trip to New Salem, and would definitely come back during one of their yearly events, check out the restaurant and coffee shops that were closed, or to visit the Historical Society. I suppose we’ll have to let Salem Sue graze for a while before dairy season begins again.

The back of the booth, thanking visitors for their time and donations. They get a lot of use out of the ‘Udderly’ pun in New Salem, don’t they?

To learn more about New Salem, visit the town’s official website.

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