"My name is Chatty Belle and I'm the world's largest talking cow!"
Photos by Travis Dewitz
Janel and Jocelyn | Neillsville, WI
Janel: My very first memory in Wisconsin is of visiting the cow.
I was about 10, and I had my picture taken with her—with the cow named Chatty Belle. At the time it cost 10 cents to get the Chatty Belle to talk to you. I laugh at the picture when I look back at it now. I was 10 years old and very short, next to this gigantic talking cow.
From 10 years old on I grew up in Neillsville, Wisconsin, a town of about 2000. Anytime anyone would come and visit me, we’d always make sure to go to the pavilion to see the cow. I always say, "I'm a small town girl who lives up the street from Chatty Belle."
Neillsville is a small community. People here are pretty tight-knit. Everyone knows everyone or they're related to so and so. People live here most of their lives; they all have their own stories to tell you.
Chatty Belle is kind of a celebrity here. She’s a talking cow from the 1964 World’s Fair. The story goes that she was the main entrant from the state of Wisconsin. They also had a pavilion building that sat right next to her. The building looks like a spaceship, to be honest with you. The architect who designed the building studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. It's very retro and way ahead of its time for back in the '60s.
After the fair was over, they were planning to demolish the cow and the building. But then a blacksmith from Boscobel, Mr. Ivan Wilcox, saved the day. He purchased them both and brought them back to Wisconsin from New York with the help of his friends and family and four flatbed trucks.
Unfortunately, the pavilion had a mishap as it was passing under a highway overpass near Madison. There was significant damage to the glass at the top of the structure. Mr. Wilcox couldn’t raise the funds to restore the pavilion and install it properly in Boscobel. So, he put the cow and the pavilion up for sale but ONLY for a buyer who promised to keep them in Wisconsin.
Luckily, they were bought by Central Wisconsin Broadcasting and brought here to Neillsville in 1966. Once she was settled here, the radio station had a contest to name the cow. A first grader named Jody from Loyal, WI came up with the name Chatty Belle. She said it was because the cow talked and she thought that cows wore bells. The name Chatty Belle was chosen out of 3,000 submissions from across the state. As her prize for winning, Jody was given 100 pounds of butter.
I got a job at the cheese shop in the World’s Fair Pavilion next to Chatty Belle in the 1990s. Then around 1996, my boss asked me if I would record the audio message for the cow. At first I was traumatized by that request, like, "Oh my God! Oh my Lord, I don't know if I want to do it." But I screwed up my courage and said, "Okay fine, I'll do it." So I recorded this long script.
Being the voice of the cow, I was kind of embarrassed at first. But then, little kids would come into the cheese shop, and they started to recognize my voice! The parents or grandparents had no clue that it was me and I would sort of chuckle.
Finally I owned it, like, "Hey! I’m the voice of Chatty Belle!" Now I’ve been the voice of Chatty Belle for about 20 years.
So here’s how it works. You go up to Chatty Belle and put a coin in. It’s a quarter these days. Then a voice comes on and says, "Hi, my name is Chatty Belle and I'm the world's largest talking cow! I'm 16 feet high at the shoulders and 20 feet long." Then Chatty Belle goes on to give a welcome to the pavilion, a good starter base of information about the pavilion and Neillsville.
We change the recording to go with the seasons. For Christmas, for example, we do ‘Chatty Belle reads Christmas stories.’ On April Fool's Day one year, the recording was really funny. People came up expecting to hear Chatty Belle's regular spiel and instead they heard some farting noises, and then Chatty Belle said, "Excuse me, I ate some bad grass." It was so funny to see people's reactions to that one. They would come into the cheese shop a little embarrassed or still laughing about Chatty Belle.
More recently, with social media and everything, we change Chatty Belle’s message a lot. It was getting to be too much to leave the cheese shop to do her recordings. So in the last six months, I decided to pass the torch of Chatty Belle…to my daughter! And that’s really special. I was the voice of Chatty Belle for 20 years, and now my daughter gets to be the voice!
Jocelyn: At first I was kind of nervous about being the voice of Chatty Belle. I'm not, you know, very well-versed in public speaking. It was definitely out of my comfort zone. But I liked how it kind of made me branch out and get comfortable with something new.
Janel: I love that I get to pass the torch. It teaches confidence, to do the recordings, to be the voice of the cow and the introduction to the town. You have to believe in yourself. It’s a good life lesson for me to teach my daughter to work on that.
Jocelyn: So now Chatty Belle says stuff like, "Please take a selfie with me! Thanks for stopping by!" Our new Facebook social media guy does a really good job with promoting her.
Janel: People are really happy to do selfies, especially for different holidays, ‘cause we dress her up or give out Halloween candy or whatever. People share the photos to Chatty Belle's webpage or Facebook page.
Chatty Belle is actually kind of famous now. She’s even been in a TV commercial! It was a big deal—the TV crew, and production people and producers. They all were here in our parking lot, hiring extras. The mayor of our town was even in the commercial. It was a huge deal for our small town.
Jocelyn: I’m going off to college this fall, but I’m committed to Chatty Belle. I love being her voice. I’m going to get home anytime she needs a new recording. We’ll just plan ahead. I got this.
-Janel and Jocelyn | Neillsville, WI