hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News July 2020


A statesman whose dairy cows were his pride

Maury Thompson


Making the rounds of the late summer agricultural fairs has long been a tradition for politicians.
But it’s not all that often that a prominent politician takes home a prize, unless it’s in a celebrity cow-milking contest, which typically is more of a stunt than a feat of skill.

One politician from the region, though, served in his lifetime both as vice president of the United States and vice president of the American Guernsey Cattle Club. He also had a reputation for selling milk from Dutchess County, N.Y., that was of higher quality than the milk produced on the Isle of Jersey, off the northwest coast of France.

“Levi P. Morton keeps at his home in New York the finest herd of Guernsey cows in America,” the Indianapolis Journal reported on April 16, 1894.

It was a dual career that Morton kept up even when serving in national office -- with help, of course, from farmhands back home in Rhinebeck.

“Vice President Levi P. Morton’s herd of Guernsey cattle carried off the prize at the New York State Fair,” The Glens Falls Messenger reported on Oct. 10, 1890.

Morton was elected vice president in 1888 on a ticket with Benjamin Harrison. He served one four-year term and later was elected governor of New York in the 1890s.

While the 1888 presidential campaign was under way, Morton had won 17 cattle-breeding prizes at agricultural fairs by late September, including two first-place prizes, two second prizes and best of herd at the New York State Fair, the Abilene Reflector of Abilene, Kan., reported on Sept. 27, 1888.

The Massachusetts State Fair was among the fairs he entered that fall, the Evening Journal of Wilmington, Del., reported on Aug. 4, 1888.

In 1889, his first year as vice president, Morton won six first-prize awards and one second prize at the Dutchess County Fair, the Poughkeepsie Eagle reported on Oct. 12, 1889.


At home in Rhinebeck
Morton’s favorite place to be wasn’t Washington but Ellerslie, his 1,000-acre agricultural estate and mansion on the east bank of the Hudson River at Rhinebeck.

“A word about Ellerslie: It is considered by experts the finest country place in the world,” the San Francisco Call reported on July 30, 1899.

When home from Washington, Vice President Morton sometimes welcomed groups of young visitors to the farm, where he also raised horses and Plymouth Rock chickens.

On one occasion, 20 students, some from other states, visited Morton at Ellerslie.

“The vice president received them cordially,” the Poughkeepsie Eagle reported on June 19, 1889. “Mr. Morton regretted that the rain would not permit the party visiting the farm, inspecting the cattle, etc., but he showed them his mansion, his stables and fine horses.”

A couple of weeks later, a group of altar boys from St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church of Poughkeepsie visited Ellerslie as part of a daylong excursion in the country.

“There were about 40 in the party, and each boy carried a lunch basket,” the Eagle reported on July 3, 1889.

Banking and finance brought Morton wealth, politics brought him prestige, but it was cattle raising that brought him satisfaction.

“Governor Morton never looked more charming than when at work with the churn,” Chauncey Depew, another prominent New York Republican, quipped in 1897.

Morton, born in Shoreham, Vt., served as a congressman and diplomat prior to his term as vice president.

He served as governor in 1895-96 and unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1896, losing to William McKinley.

By then he was 72, and Morton retired to his farm, devoting full attention to his cattle.
“Levi P. Morton, wiry old athlete and man of wealth, survives and is strong and well in his seventy-fifth year,” the San Francisco Call reported on July 30, 1899.

“The life of the ex-vice president of the United States is singularly simple,” the report continued. “He has become so attached to his country place that he seldom leaves it, and, though he allows his family the luxury of a Fifth Avenue home in winter, he does not always remain with them.”
Raising cattle was not without its sorrows.

Morton’s barn at Ellerslie burned twice and was rebuilt twice, with 90 cows and bulls perishing in the second fire on Aug. 3, 1893.

“The ashes were not yet cold when Mr. Morton gave the order to rebuild on the old site,” The Olean Democrat reported on Sept. 18, 1894, when construction of the new barn was completed.
Disease also threatened the herd.

In 1894, 19 of Morton’s cattle, valued at $7,000 – the equivalent of more than $200,000 in today’s dollars – had to be killed because the animals had contracted tuberculosis, which could spread to other cattle or indirectly to humans that drank milk from the diseased cows, The Watertown Times reported on Jan. 18, 1894.

Again in 1899, about 50 or 60 cattle, “a large percentage of his herd,” were set to be killed because they had contracted tuberculosis, The Evening Times of Washington, D.C. reported on July 28, 1899.

Morton died in Rhinebeck on his 96th birthday, on May 16, 1920.


Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.