My Recent Find–A Cow Tether!

Every house back in the 1800s had a milk cow, but they might not have a pasture. They would tie a weight to a rope, and hook it up to the cow’s bridle so that she could eat grass, drag the weight around the yard, but wouldn’t wander off.

When I was asked about a recent “buy” of an antique or collectable that made me smile, I was at a bit of a loss.  This is because I am a treasure hunter, hard core to the bone. I buy and sell antiques constantly in my daily work, but my personal passion is the thrill of discovery – the uncovering of an artifact of the past, either by digging it from an old dump site, or diving for it underwater.

So with that being said, I did find something scuba diving recently that really thrilled me.  It has some good value to a collector of American Primitives, but I am quite sure I will keep this prize for a lifetime.  Part of what makes it special is that I found it deep in a muddy river on Cape Cod, and couldn’t figure out exactly what it was for weeks!  Thankfully, a local old timer antique dealer knew just what it was as soon as he saw it.

When I dove for it, I plunged my rubber gloved hands into the murky river bottom, in search of what I specialize in, 19th Century American bottles.  The site I had chosen had four or five Colonial era homes lining the river bank, so I hoped I would come up with some good old stuff.  Much to my chagrin, the bottom was soft and silty, looking like the surface of the moon, until I would touch the bottom, stirring up the murk, and making for bad treasure hunting. So I had to resort to the much less fun ” feeling around the muck” method, which frankly can be creepy. 

Here you see the numeral 14. It was imprinted using a number style that looked very early, like possibly to Colonial times!

After about an hour of this, I finally grabbed something substantial in the mud.  I pulled it up, and brought it to the surface.  It was a strangely squared off rock, with a round iron ring attached to it.  I swam to shore, and scraped the river grime off of it’s surface, and exposed the letters “DALEC”  on one side, and the number 14 on the other.  I noticed right away that the numeral 14 was imprinted using a number style that looked very early, like possibly to Colonial times!

When I got it home, it appeared obvious that it was some type of weight, and that the number 14 indicated 14 pounds.  I started leaning towards the idea that it was a clock weight, maybe to a large church bell tower clock!  Now that would be cool! 

I went online trying to search up clock weights, anything that looked similar to my object.  A couple of antiquer buddies took a look, and felt that the weight wasn’t precise enough to have anything to do with timekeeping or precise calibration. The ring hook on it was too bulky and primitive.  I wasn’t so sure.

Then I thought I’d bring it down to a Maine old timer who has been an antiques dealer and collector forever.  He’s not just an ol’ timer, he’s an “ol’ ol’ timer.”

A cow tether used for weighing your milk cow down so she wouldn’t wander too far when grazing.

“It’s a cow tether”  he said, the instant he saw it.  “You don’t see them around much any more, I’ve had several over the years… that’s a good’n you got there.”

“What the heck’s a cow tether?” I asked.

“Oh, you know, cow weight.  Every house back in the 1800s had a milk cow, and they might not have a pasture for it, so they’d let it trim the hedges, and let it just graze in the front yard.  They would have the weight tied to a rope, and hook it up to the cow’s bridle.  That way, she could eat grass, and drag the weight around the yard, but the cow wouldn’t just wander off.”

And with that, I was in love.  This old primitive hunk of what turned out to be pure lead and wrought iron, was somehow lost in the muddy river bank, right across from the old Colonial home where it was surely hooked up to Bessy the cow.  I have come to believe that I was the first person to touch that cow tether since the day it was last hooked up to that old cow over a century ago.  And for me, in my special avocation, there is no bigger thrill !

I have it sitting next to my fireplace, where I can admire it’s blunt form, and it’s simple and perfect design.  The old timer told me it’s probably worth a couple hundred dollars,  but it’s not going anywhere!

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at

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