The University of Illinois has produced its fair share of famous and successful individuals since its founding in 1867. None gained such unlikely fame as Illini Nellie, a Brown Swiss Cow. This bovine brought renown to the Dairy Science department–and became famous in her own right–for producing world record-setting amounts of milk. According to The Daily Illini writer Ken Herron, “Illini Nellie was almost as much of a landmark to campus visitors as the Stadium or the Alma Mater statue.”
Illini Nellie began giving milk in April, 1930. Over the next ten years, she averaged a daily output of 93.5 pints of milk; total milk production during her lifetime was 194,665.8 pounds. This high level of milk production is especially noteworthy as she lived in an era before dairy nutrition was carefully defined.
With a number of world records smashed for both milk and butterfat, Illini Nellie became the star of the University. College of Agriculture officials even trotted her out when state legislators visited the campus. For the occasion, staff stacked bottles of milk representing her average daily production, 93.5 pints of milk, and the 2.5 cartons of butter that could be made from that milk. Illini Nellie was such a world celebrity, Ève Curie called upon her during a campus visit in 1940, whereupon Nellie simply yawned and switched her tail.
Illini Nellie’s impact on the University and dairy production was so long-lasting that she had a poem written in her honor by Don Carroll, former geologist with the Illinois Geological Survey.1 Upon her death on November 19, 1940, Illini Nellie was buried in a special grave on the lawn of the Purebred Dairy Barn.
1. The Queen is Dead by Don Carroll
The throne on which Illini Nellie sat
And ruled the world of milk and butterfat
Receives no more the reverential bow
Accorded to the world champion cow.
The Queen is dead, and all the milk she gave
Has vanished too, as Nellie, in the grave.
A tablet marks the famous bovine’s stall,
Recording the records that may never fall.
Another marks the grave where Nellie lies,
Beyond the reach of pitchforks, pails, and flies.
While Nellie rests, professors madly race
In wild attempt to fill the vacant place
Made famous as Illini Nellie’s stall.
Is there another worthy of the call?
And even if another should be found
To match the yield of Nellie pound for pound,
Would any other see such homage paid
As at the hooves of Nellie there was laid?
The steady flow of her unequaled glands
Was long remarked in many foreign lands;
And here she stood above the common herd
So much that all agreed it was absurd
To think there were another of her ilk,
Even tho another give more milk.
The milk of kindness lighted Nellie’s eyes,
And vibrant glamour oozed with Nellie’s sighs.
The queen of queens, tho dead, is still the queen.
Her lactic crown shall never lose its sheen.
We loved her for her gracious, regal manner.
Her coat of horns remains upon our banner.
Burgett, Alice. “Nellie Just Wags Her Bushy Tail at Eve Curie,” The Daily Illini, February 10, 1940.
Herron, Ken. “Champion Cow, Illini Nellie, is Dead,” The Daily Illini, November 20, 1940.
Illini Nellie on Display for State Legislators, ca. 1935, Photographic Subject File, Record Series 39/2/20, Box VIS, Folder VIS Prior to 1950, University of Illinois Archives.
“Illini Nellie Story” (July, 1961), Department of Dairy Science, University of Illinois College of Agriculture, Record Series 8/8/801, University of Illinois Archives.