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History Last Updated: Oct 5, 2010 - 10:08:48 PM

The World's Largest Guernsey Cow
By Sean McGlinchey
Aug 16, 2008 - 5:16:45 PM

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The World's Largest Guernsey Cow, a 35 foot high billboard complete with blinking eye, became a landmark for 40 years in Exton, PA.

In the late 1920's the area of Exton in Pennsylvania in the United States was little more than a sleepy crossroads in the middle of farmlands about 25 miles west of Philadelphia. Exton was established in the 1700's at the crossroads of Lancaster Pike, running west from Philadelphia to Lancaster, and the north-south road Pottstown Pike.

The Lincoln Highway, as Lancaster Pike was also known, would eventually continue across the United States to California and has its own historic status alongside such famed roadways as Route 66. These roads that existed prior to the dawn of the superhighway brought travelers through the towns of the American landscape and were integral to economies of those towns. As the interstate highways were built that bypassed traffic lights and slower traffic, road-side businesses, economies and towns disappeared.

But in the 1920's, Exton was just starting to experience the results of the burgeoning automobile industry.

Frank B. Foster was the president of the Congoleum Company in Philadelphia as well as a local dairy farmer. He had several Guernsey dairy farms and sold his milk to Harbisons Dairies in Philadelphia. Harbisons established summer quotas and many farmers were left with excess inventory.

Foster decided to establish his own milk processing and bottling operation at a farm he owned along the main crossroads in Exton. What started out as a milk retail store soon expanded to a full farm market with fresh eggs and other farm products including hand-crafted ice cream and cream caramels. He called this place Montcalm Farms.

Ilario Polite, an immigrant who came to the United States from Italy as a child with his family around 1920, began working at Montcalm Farms and by 1931 had started leasing the business from Foster. He changed the name to the Exton Dairy Grille and started serving meals in addition to ice cream, caramels and farm products.

A billboard of a large Guernsey cow that Foster erected across the Lincoln Highway was torn down when Foster decided to sell the land that it sat on. Polite said, years later, "My gosh, that broke my heart to see that big cow sign come down. But I said, ‘Some day, some how, I’m going to put that cow back up.’

Through the 1930s Polite built the business with the help of his wife Gladys Michelfelder Polite and his youngest brother Joseph Polite who became the ice cream maker. By the 1940s he owned the business and the property outright.

Exton Dairy Grille 1941 Pocket Calendar

During World War II, Polite changed the name of his establishment to The Guernsey Cow at the urging of many of his customers who would often say "Let's go to 'the cow.'" At that time, people were referring to a small billboard of a Guernsey cow that Polite had erected on his property. By the end of the war, Polite was able to purchase the land across the road where the original billboard stood.

On the day the war ended, he called local sign-maker Harry Reed and told him he wanted to get started on putting the cow sign back up. The next day they were in Philadelphia buying steel for the sign and drawing up designs. Reed eventually dug the footers and erected and painted the sign all on his own and for $600.

When it was completed, The Cow stood over 35 feet tall and 48 feet wide. It was actually two separate cows in a wedge to make it easily visible to travelers going in either direction. It included a blinking eye that flashed at night. Polite and Reed decided not to include a wagging tail for fear that it would distract motorists and cause accidents.

The Guernsey Cow as it appeared in the 1950s from this postcard from that era.

As the post-war boom fed the U.S. economy, The Guernsey Cow fed motorists passing along the Lincoln Highway traveling from points as far west as California. Through the 1950s the suburbs outside Philadelphia grew as the automobile provided the means for commuting. The Cow became a landmark and natural meeting place for families and friends through the years.

Kim Puliti, nephew of Ilario Polite and son of Joseph (Polite) Puliti ponders the mess that licorice ice cream can make.
Close-up of Grasshopper flavor ice cream lid
Polite's brother, Joseph, returned from the war to his position as Chief Ice Cream Maker and enjoyed experimenting with flavors. He first produced licorice ice cream when the parking lot of The Cow was being tarred (at left, Joe's son, Kim with a licorice mess on his hands and boots). When Americans landed on the moon he made "Moon Dust", a gray colored cream with a malt flavor. He also created a Roquefort Cheese flavor and a Mushroom flavor that were not appreciated by the ice cream buying public. Grass Hopper was a popular creme-de-menthe flavor.

Ilario Polite became a natural self-promoter claiming on his packaging and the roof of the building: "World's Finest Ice Cream" and "Home of the World's Largest Guernsey Cow". Hollywood celebrities like Doris Day would stop on their cross-country travels.

By 1976 Polite had run the business for over 40 years and was ready to retire. He sold the business and by 1985 The Cow was no more. He sold the property to the adjacent shopping mall that had been built in the early 1970s.

At some point the head of The Cow billboard was stolen and then the rest of the sign was put into storage by the township historical committee. Polite had offered a reward for return of the head and had hoped to have the township put up the sign again as a memorial to what had once been a defining landmark of Exton. Today The Cow building is a locally run bank.

About the author: Sean McGlinchey is a grandson of Ilario Polite and took up memorializing The Guernsey Cow following his grandfather's death in late 2006. He launched the blog, The Guernsey Cow ( ), in January of 2008 where he brings together photos, stories and memories with the help of his family, including Joe Puliti (Polite), Ilario's youngest brother.


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