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Zoe Mulford: Postcards (Blog)

July 24, 2011 – A Visit to the MOOseum

Posted on August 22, 2011 with 0 comments

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How did I wind up hooking up a milking machine to the udder of a styrofoam cow in Montgomery County, Maryland? It’s a long story, actually.

It started sometime around 1998, when a comment from B and an inaccurately-learned guitar lick turned into a song called “Party Cows”. For a while it became my signature piece. My co-workers at the print shop decorated my desk with Gary Larson cartoons. “Party Cows” was the working title of my first studio album until just before it went to the manufacturer. (“Don’t call it that,” a friend advised. “People will think it’s a novelty album.”) I changed the title to “Traveling Moon” – but I’d already drawn the dancing cows for the album art, and B had announced at a fund-raising concert that major sponsors of the project would have a cow named after them. The cows stayed.

And a good thing too. “Party Cows” is still one of my favorite tracks on the album. Cellist Diana McFadden made her instrument moo, moan, guffaw, and stumble drunkenly home, and B had his first cameo as the voice of an overturned frat boy. (He’s been somewhere on every album since.) By that time we’d moved to the DC area. Folk DJ Mary Cliff started playing the song during station pledge drives on WETA. When Mary moved to WAMU, so did the cows.

Which is how, some 10 years after its release, the song caught the ear of Barbara McGraw, the founder of the MOOseum. The MOOseum is a recently-opened attraction on the grounds of the South Germantown Recreational Park. Hearing that the land was slated for development, local citizens formed a non-profit to save the King Dairy Barn and turn it into a museum and education center. Everything in the displays was built by volunteers or donated. The collection includes a fascinating array of dairy and household equipment and a good deal of cow-themed kitsch. The craft area boasts a display of ceramic tiles made by elementary students. Barbara asked about offering “Traveling Moon” for sale in the MOOseum gift shop, which has stacks of cow-related items.

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When I heard about the MOOseum, I knew I had to play there. I arranged to make a stop on my summer travels to deliver CD’s and do a short family-friendly set. The volunteers got me set up in the dairy building and I played for a mixed crowd of children and grown-ups. We started, of course, with “Old MacDonald.”

The drive to the MOOseum made me think of John Gorka:
There’s houses in the fields
No prayers for steady rain this year
Houses in the fields, there’s houses in the fields
The last few farms are growing out of here.

The King Dairy barn, stranded among soccer fields, parking lots, and mini-golf, is the last trace of the farmland that has been devoured by the suburbs of Washington. The area around it is all four-lane parkways, retail strips, and blocks of townhouses where every residence has a numbered parking space. Most of the trees are under 20 years old. I’m sure the schools are great, but there’s nothing in the environment to show kids where their food comes from.

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I have to confess, when I first heard about the MOOseum, I was hoping for live cows – but I know that would be impractical for a volunteer-run organization that charges no admission and is open to the public only on weekends. Instead, the barn is populated by life-size models designed and built by Ed Burdette, a retired dairyman and livestock judge. They don’t feel like, sound like, move like, or smell like live cows – but they do give you a sense of just how huge a cow is, particularly if you are a small person. They have voluptuous eyelashes made out of paint-brush bristles, and one of them has internal plumbing for the milking demonstration.

My little cousin reports that her favorite thing about the day was milking the cow. Better than mini-golf even.