What is the Cow Story?
The “cow story” is a tale about a young man who walked 100 miles from his home in the mountains to Berea College, leading a cow whose milk he sold to pay his way through school. This story, illustrating the unique opportunity Berea College extends toward poor Appalachian individuals, has inspired people from both the Berea College community and beyond. Former President of Berea College, William Goodell Frost, was particularly moved by the cow story, and pamphlets containing the story were printed and widely distributed during his administration to promote fundraising. This urban legend, which has proven to be true, demonstrates Berea College’s remarkable program that allows individuals with virtually no assets an opportunity to attend and work their way through college. To this day, the story remains a famous example of one of the chief principles upon which Berea was founded.
There are records of more than one individual paying their way through Berea College by means of a cow or other form of livestock. Louis Smith, Dean of Berea from 1944-1969, claimed he knew of three boys who drove cows from Eastern Kentucky to sell for education expenses. A 1958 article from the Berea Alumnus reports that a boy named Hezekiah Washborn brought his cow to the college. He later married Lillian Chrisman, and the two of them spent the rest of their lives in Africa as missionaries. Another account claims that a boy named Joshua Flannery also paid for his education at Berea through a cow.
It is possible that the details of these accounts have intermingled and merged together to create the cow story we know today. However, there is one individual whose cow experience is more detailed and recognized than the others.
Blevins P. Allen was born in Clay County on January 14, 1878. He was one of seven children. He began his education at Berea at the grammar school around 1893. He paid for his room, board, and fees (not tuition, as the no-tuition policy had been made official by 1892) with his milk cow. He then graduated from the Normal School in 1901 and earned a B.L. from the College in 1905. After completing his education he moved to Tennessee and became a cashier and book keeper. His son also attended Berea College and graduated in 1941. Blevins died in 1948.
Blevins’s mother, Hannah Tankersley Allen Ball, eventually made Berea her home. When she died, President Frost spoke at her funeral. He named her an exemplary “mountain” mother and said in reference to her son and the exchange of their cow, “Think what that transplanting meant to her! Neither she nor any of her family had ever been away from home to school until her boy Blevins came to Berea with a cow to exchange for an education…”
The cow story demonstrates Berea’s intense dedication toward achieving one of its Great Commitments, “To provide an educational opportunity primarily for students from Appalachia, black and white, who have great promise and limited economic resources.” Berea’s willingness to accept students who bend over backwards to seek a quality education, and provide for those with virtually nothing but their brains and potential is one of the most unique and admirable qualities of the College.