The Mystery of the Glasses-Wearing Cow
By Kelli Huggins / Visitor Experience Coordinator
“Have you ever seen a cow in spectacles?”
It sounds like the setup for a bad joke, but was an actual question posed by multiple reporters in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One such article told the story of a bespectacled bovine in the Sullivan County Catskills hamlet of Ferndale.
In the fall of 1917, Charles Hagaman was concerned that his prize-winning cow was going blind. Hagaman claimed the cow was worth $7,000, a significant investment that he didn’t want to lose. So, he had eye doctor Benjamin Avery and an unnamed veterinary surgeon perform an operation on the cow’s troubled eyes. Post-surgery, the cow could see, but needed to wear colored lenses, to protect her eyes from the sun.
In 1898, a farmer in “The Neck” (a swampy, farm neighborhood outside of Philadelphia) devised a creative solution to correct his cow’s poor vision: a pair of homemade glasses filled with beer
The story was printed in newspapers across the country. Only two paragraphs long, it leaves the reader with more questions than answers: Who was Hagaman? Was Avery a human doctor performing surgery on a cow? Was surgery on cows common in 1917? What was wrong with the cow’s eyes? And is this story unique to the Catskills or were there glasses-wearing cows all over the place?
Let’s start with the people.
Hagaman has proven frustratingly difficult to research. There was a Charles Hagaman farming “delicious, juicy and succulent” cabbage in Genegantslet Corners in Greene, Chenango County in 1897. By 1900, Charles seems to have moved to Binghamton, where he opened a livery stable. There is no census record for a Charles Hagaman in Sullivan County in the 1915 state census or the 1920 federal census. A farmer and livery stable proprietor would have experience with livestock which makes him a possible option, even though nothing connects him directly to Ferndale.
One Charles Hagaman in Minnesota in the early 20th century owned valuable cattle that he registered in herd books. Could the report placing the story in New York be incorrect? Was the cow really in the Land of 10,000 Lakes? Again, it’s possible, but none of the other details in the story seem to prop up such conjecture. So for now, we’ll stick with the assumption that the blind bovine was local.
Benjamin Avery is also mysterious. There were multiple Ben Averys in Sullivan County, but none were documented surgeons, physicians, or opticians. The Avery family was comprised primarily of farmers, which could explain how a Ben Avery might be involved in a 1917 cow-story, even if he wasn’t a doctor.
Now for the cow. Surgical veterinary intervention, while still not common in this period, would have been an option for a valued animal. If Hagaman’s cow was really worth $7,000, it may have been a worthwhile risk and expense to possibly preserve the animal’s sight. The article does not state what condition had afflicted the cow — cataracts, corneal ulcers, injuries, or infectious disease could have all caused the creature’s blindness (do yourself a favor and do not Google image search bovine eye disease).
While the surgical aspect in this story is unique, cows in glasses were not completely unknown. Bespectacled bovines were hardly every-day, but stories of glasses-wearing cows were found in the news by the late 1800s. Most were about cows in Russia wearing special glasses to prevent them from becoming snow blind as they grazed in the glare of a brutal winter. Others mentioned farmers outfitting cows with tinted glasses in efforts to convince them that their meal of hay was fresh grass. Edwin J. Webster’s 1904 short story farce “A Crimson Visioned Cow” helped spread this notion.
In 1914, a cow in Orangetown, NY received a pair of glasses for her failing eyesight. In 1898, a farmer in “The Neck” (a swampy, farm neighborhood outside of Philadelphia) devised a creative solution to correct his cow’s poor vision: a pair of homemade glasses filled with beer. The farmer claimed it worked and the cow’s “beer goggles” became a local sensation.
Perhaps the Ferndale cow is a bit of a mystery, but it does demonstrate that at the time, Catskills farmers were players in a larger conversation about veterinary medicine and animal welfare. This era was a time when human relationships to and care of animals, particularly livestock, were changing. Glasses on cows was just a small, amusing part of that history.
 Chenango American, August 26, 1897, 2.
 The American Hereford Record and Hereford Herd Book, Volume 40, 1915.
 Thank you to the historians on Twitter who shared their theories and thoughts on this part of the story: Dr. Krista Sigler, Katrin Boniface, Jenna Peterson Riley, Teresa Rogers.
 El Paso Herald, April 29, 1914.
 Philadelphia Times, May 8, 1898, 6.