By Ben Joravsky
After several months of searching, Jimmie Lee Buehler has finally found the legendary purple cow of the southwest side. "You have no idea how hard I looked," she says. "You have to really dig these things out--dig them out of the dungeons, so to speak."
Despite her genteel demeanor, Buehler is a fiery patron of the local arts. She writes poetry, organizes readings, and attends virtually every opening on the southwest side. Last year she retired from her secretarial job, which gave her more time to devote to the arts--including searching for the purple cow.
Buehler says she felt her neighborhood, Beverly, had been neglected last summer when the city sponsored the Cows on Parade project. It wasn't that she didn't like the cows--"I absolutely adored them," she says. But she couldn't understand why they'd been posted mainly on sidewalks in the Loop, Gold Coast, and the near north side. Especially since Beverly was where the phenomenon of sidewalk cows began.
"It's true--it started here in Beverly with the purple cow," Buehler explains. "It was on the sidewalk at 105th and Western outside the old Purple Cow ice cream shop. Everyone in Beverly knew about it. People would look at it and giggle. It was reassuring to see something like that. It made you feel good. I remember seeing that cow in the 70s, when I'd take my son, Henry, there for ice cream. Henry is 40, so time goes on and who keeps up with a cow? I hadn't seen that cow in years. I didn't know what became of it."
Thinking about that cow gave her an inspiration: Why not stage a mixed-media exhibition--poetry, paintings, sculpture--devoted to cows? She talked to some of her artist friends, and they agreed it was a great idea. So last November she went to work. She reserved space at the Mount Greenwood library in March and came up with a name for the show: "The Cows Come Home to the South Side."
By January she'd rounded up poems, paintings, and pictures about cows, including reproductions of works by Chagall and Norman Rockwell as well as originals by local artists such as Dorothy Davidson, an 89-year-old painter nicknamed the Grandma Moses of Mount Greenwood. "I called up Nancy Albrecht, who was one of the artists featured in Cows on Parade," says Buehler. "She has a business downtown now making and painting cows, and she's doing quite well. She got me a little cow, just 22 inches high. And I painted her face red. The rest of her is black and white, and she has golden hooves. I call her Ruby the Redfaced Moo Cow.
"There's a lot of cows all around us. It's a very popular subject. I went to the Old Barn Restaurant, which is in Burbank, Illinois. They have beautiful art on the walls. I asked if they would lend me one for the show. It's a heifer. But after further study it seems to be a young bull. I wrote a poem about this. It's called 'The Difference Between a Cow and a Bull.'"
Meanwhile she was trying to track down the purple cow, which was proving a daunting, time-consuming task. The Purple Cow ice cream store on 105th Street had gone out of business and left no forwarding address. She thought she'd tracked the old owner to a mansion on Longwood Drive in Beverly, but the man who answered the door said the old owner had "moved to Palos Hills or Palos Park or Palos Heights or something like that. The phone company had no listing for him."
The local paper, the Beverly Review, ran an article about her search, but no leads materialized. She checked City Hall records and made long-distance calls, hoping to find the artist who'd made the cow.
"You wouldn't believe all the people I called," she says. "I called a company in Nebraska that makes cows, and I wound up talking to this guy who sent me a brochure. They don't just do cows. They do horses and Indians. Then I found out about an organization in California run by a man called Bob Prewitt. I called him, and he's in his 80s and he's deaf. But fortunately I got the wife. She told me how he started making horses and then cows and pigs and giraffes and bears and longhorn steers and buffalo. He's sending a bunch of buffalo up to Buffalo, New York. He doesn't recall making the purple cow, but it must be him, because no one else was doing that in the country at the time."
The show opened on March 6, and two weeks later Buehler threw a tea party at the library. "We read poems," she says. "William Smith, who's a teacher at the ag high school out here, gave a lecture. He explained the differences between a perfect cow and a not so perfect cow--it has to do with testosterone. We ate lemon bars, and drank tea and coffee, and milled around and gossiped."
"I heard it was absolutely wonderful," says Albrecht, "and everyone had a great time--though I think Jimmie was a little disappointed because the purple cow wasn't there."
The purple cow was still missing when the show ended on March 25. Then, says Buehler, "I had found an article from May 6, 1998, in the Beverly Review by Madeleine Kutsulis that said the Purple Cow ice cream parlor had moved to Orland Park. I got the phone number from information, and I called the Purple Cow. But the operator kept telling me something was wrong with the telephone lines. I called the mayor's office in Orland Park, and they said the ice cream parlor had closed. That might have been the end of it, except in early April my husband and I had to drive out to Orland Park to visit our tax man. I said, 'Since we're going to Orland Park anyway, why don't we see the Purple Cow?'"
They drove to a small mall at 143rd Street and La Grange Road. "I went to the restaurant and I looked in the window, and someone was working there," she says. "I beat on the door, and the new owner came out."
The new owner turned out to be Lynn Sapp, whose family has owned a Beverly ice cream shop, Original Rainbow Cones, at 92nd and Western, for almost 75 years. Sapp opened the door and let Buehler in.
And there, near the back, was the purple cow. "I was so ecstatic I could hardly talk," says Buehler. "It was like the pot of gold--only it wasn't gold, it was purple. I said, 'Here's what I've been looking for all along. There must be many others who also have fond memories of the purple cow.'"
Well, maybe not as many as Buehler thinks, says Sapp, who explains that the original Purple Cow in Beverly was sort of a neighborhood rival to her family's shop. "But apparently the service sort of suffered near the end of their stay here in Orland Park, and a few customers were upset. I don't know all the details. Let's just say I don't know how much we're going to play up the purple cow, given all that."
Sapp told Buehler she plans to give the cow a makeover, painting it the colors of the rainbow. "She said I should put bluebirds on the store," says Sapp. "I said, 'Bluebirds?' She said, 'Yes, you know, like the song--'bluebirds fly over the rainbow.' I said, 'That's an idea.' She's got a million ideas."
The previous owner of the Orland Park Purple Cow had also added a purple bull to the shop. "He called it Rambo," says Sapp. "We're going to paint the bull rainbow colors too. We'll put the purple cow out to pasture with the purple bull."
Sapp invited Buehler to last week's opening of her store. "I brought Ruby the Redfaced Moo Cow so she could meet the purple cow," says Buehler. "I had them rub noses. We took all kinds of pictures. I should have worn my milkmaid costume, but I didn't. It's a red bonnet tied under the chin and a red apron. There were people pouring in left and right. I think Lynn will do well. The cow definitely helps."
Buehler says it's time now to move on to other things. "I should be cooking and gardening and writing," she says. "But it's hard to juggle everything when you're looking for a cow."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.