By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — When it came to cows, Traverse Colantha Walker was strictly grade A.
The world champion Holstein helped make Traverse City State Hospital famous by producing a record 200,114 pounds of milk in nine lactations (the period a cow will continue to give milk after birthing a calf) during her long lifetime.
A festival in her honor is scheduled for Sunday, June 13, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.
Opened as the Northern Michigan Asylum in 1885 and based on the "Kirkbride Plan" of curative treatment, which promoted beautiful surroundings and restorative outdoor work, the psychiatric hospital grew from a single building — now known as Building 50 — to a sprawling complex. It included 60 acres of structures on an even larger piece of land on the western outskirts of Traverse City.
When Colantha was born to the herd on April 29, 1916, the hospital already supported the most renowned institutional Holstein-Fresian dairy herd-breeding program in the country. A 1917 Holstein- Fresian Association of America herd-book that contained a record of all the breed's cattle listed 26 hospital cows and bulls with names like Traverse Colantha Ryme, Traverse Dutchess Walker and Traverse Hartog Colantha.
But Traverse Colantha Walker, also known as No. 361604, would become everyone's favorite.
"Colantha's offspring were highly sought after to stock other herds, reaching sales figures of $30,000 or more during her lifetime," said Mini Minervini, marketing director for the Minervini Group, redevelopers of The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, where Colantha once grazed.
"Everyone's heard of her," said Eve Weipert, curator of collections and exhibits at the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing, where a champion herd banner from the 1929 Michigan State Fair is on display. The gold-fringed banner — mounted on a barn facade above a tractor and milking equipment in an early farming exhibit — was won by the hospital herd in an open class division at the Detroit fair, where the herd competed against members of other State institutional herds.
Colantha was singled out, receiving 15 of a possible 20 points for her 22,918 pounds of milk a year.
"For a cow to milk 22,000 pounds in 1920 would be like a cow milking 50,000 pounds today," said George Shetler, co-owner of Kalkaska's Shetler Family Dairy, whose cows produce between 17,000 and 22,000 pounds of milk a year.
"Back in the '20s, farmers were using their own herd bull, a bull they bought from another farmer or a neighbor. The genetics were what they had at the time," Shetler said. "Also, feeding schedules were different. (Herds) were getting dry hay, hay silage, corn silage."
Today's high-end dairy cows are fed special diets designed to increase milk production while dairy bulls are specifically bred from cows with top milking traits, like larger udders. Such "advancement" comes with a price, said Shetler, whose herd is still fed the old-fashioned way.
"That cow back in 1922 would live to be 14 to 16 years old," he said. "Your average cow on a large dairy production now lives to be about 2 or 3. They feed them to milk a lot, fast, and (the cows) burn out."
True enough, Colantha lived to the ripe old age of 16. When she died on Jan. 8, 1932, hospital staff and patients held a banquet in her honor. They buried her under a granite tombstone on a small, grassy knoll near the stately brick barn that had been her home. The stone, though overgrown with weeds, still stands.
A tribute to milk and all things milk, the festival was conceived by Bryan Ulrich, whose Left Foot Charley winery is situated on Commons ground.
"It seems fun and silly, but that's what makes it great," Ulrich said. "Thinking about the history of the place and the importance of the agriculture that made the hospital function, it seemed like a natural fit to honor this cow that provided a huge part of its food and still does. Her DNA is still out there in the dairy herds in the Midwest."
This is an abridged version of a story from the spring edition of "Reflections by the Bays," a magazine published by the Record-Eagle. Other stories include baseball player Bundy Brief, sailor Don Campbell and recollections of growing up on the Old Mission Peninsula. The magazine is available at the Record-Eagle offices, 120 W. Front St., as well as local bookstores. The summer edition of Reflections is scheduled to come out June 25.