On the road with Jilly the Cow

Apparently, “Jilly,” the iconic mascot of Jilbert’s Dairy, had a baby sometime in the past year.

Story and photos by Larry Chabot
At the intersection of Meeske Avenue and West Ridge Street in Marquette, summer crowds are enjoying ice cream treats in the huge shadow of Jilly, a nine-foot-tall fiberglass Guernsey dairy cow weighing more than 500 lbs. Jilly stands silent guard as kids dart under her stomach, rub her face, and pose for photos and videos with one of the U.P.’s greatest attractions. Our little grandson was one of the kids stunned by Jilly’s size as he was lifted to rub the nose.
There are actually five of the big bovines (and one little one), says former Jilbert Dairy owner John Jilbert, who first ordered the mascots in the 1980s for the family business. “We had them made in a shop in Sparta, Wisconsin,” said Jilbert. “They made big statues for other businesses, like Big Boy and Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
One of the originals was at the former Jilbert cheese plant in Rudyard; when that business closed, the cow went downstate to a new owner. The other four are at the dairy, including one famously mounted on top of the dairy building – lifted there by a construction crane while the facility was being remodeled. There are two traveling Jillies on trailers, and the fourth is the big tourist attraction next to the picnic tables. One of the cows evidently gave birth, because a half-size calf appeared on one of the trailers late last summer, ready to join its mom on road trips.
John Jilbert began hauling Jillies to parades, celebrations, and other events in the 1980s, from one end of the U.P. to the other, even into northern Wisconsin, as a promotional tool for the dairy.
“We’ve been to hundreds of events,” said Jilbert. “We always got a great reaction from the crowds, as they could see the big cow from a long way off. It was a popular float with the kids, too, who wanted their pictures taken with it.” As he or other Jilbert employees towed Jilly to or through almost every town in the U.P., people saluted the famous icon by waving out car windows, hollering, and honking horns.
The giant bovine has occasionally attracted mischief-makers. “Once I was driving along Ridge Street in the early morning, when I noticed movement on the platform. I saw two kids on top of the cow, hooping and hollering. I told them to get down and pick up their beer cans before someone got hurt. They just laughed at me, so I took the keys out of their car, went into the building, locked the door, and called the cops. They came pounding on the window for their keys.”
Jilbert remembers several other incidents. “Someone made a giant scarf and leggings for Jilly, which disappeared. Someone made a giant pair of sunglasses, which also disappeared. Then we had a special Stormy Kromer hat made, but that’s kept inside where it’s safe.” An employee reporting to work one morning found a picnic table perched on Jilly’s back.
The dairy also displayed a little red 1937 delivery truck, which is no longer around. Its place has been taken by a 1956 model with a working freezer for distributing ice cream at various events. A really popular souvenir is an 8-inch-high stuffed Jilly doll; Jilbert estimates that he’s given away 8,000 of them, and still keeps a supply in his car.
Jilbert Dairy was founded in Calumet in 1937 and moved to Marquette in 1984. That corner location, which is always surrounded by huge trucks bringing milk for processing, is a historic one. The site where the Jilly poses for photos and towers over the tables once had a three-story building perched on it. Underneath her platform is a basement full of heating boilers for the dairy. The big barn once housed a paint shop for Specker Motors, a truck repair shop, and a horse barn for the former U.P. Brewery, which operated a block away at the foot of Meeske. Jilbert processed 10,000 lbs of milk a month in 1937, and now handles over 4,000,000 lbs monthly.

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