Paul Valliere enjoys kayaking in the Androscoggin River’s Gulf Island Pond and discovering its diversity of wildlife: the bass, the ospreys and loons, and last week, a life-size fiberglass steer.
Valliere discovered the resin ruminant marooned on a tiny island in the middle of the river.
“I was out bass fishing and I saw an unnatural brown. It wasn’t pine-needle brown, wasn’t dirt brown,” Valliere said. “I thought, ‘That looks remarkably like a cow’s leg.’ Sure enough, there’s a full-size cow laying down.”
What he didn’t know was the bull had a name, Charlie, and a home, the dooryard of Town & Country Foods in Greene, and a family that was searching for him.
“We didn’t really expect to see it again. We didn’t have any idea what happened to it,” said Danielle Petersdorf, office manager for Town & Country Foods, where the fake steer has been a fixture for 27 years.
The brown and white bovine was stolen from the meat store July 16, and employees feared it was gone for good.
“People’s kids, when they come, would sit on top of it. People would take pictures with it,” Petersdorf said of the popular landmark. “My 4-year-old son would always sit on top of it. He would actually say ‘Mommy works at the cow store.’ ”
Charlie has been a mainstay at Town & Country Foods for decades, after he was first purchased for display by the company’s founder, David Bubier, almost 30 years ago. Bubier bought the steer for his wife, who had admired similar ones in front of the recently closed Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus, Massachusetts. Charlie was actually a brother of those steers: He was made from the same mold as the steakhouse road art.
The stout statue usually stood sentry by the front door of the business, but was moved to the front lawn last month to be painted and made part of a larger display, Petersdorf said.
A week later, Charlie went on the lam.
Workers on the night shift heard noises, but the front of the business isn’t lit and they didn’t realize what was happening. They only caught a glimpse of a minivan and a pickup.
Although hollow, Charlie is still hefty and would require at least two people and a vehicle to move, Petersdorf said.
There’s no indication how the piece of Americana ended up on an island in the river between Lewiston and Auburn, about eight miles downstream from Greene.
“They would have to take a boat,” Petersdorf said. “The cow had holes in the bottom of its feet and they glued and taped up the holes – that way it wouldn’t sink to the bottom.”
Valliere, who works at L.L. Bean’s returns center in Freeport, was fishing from a kayak when he spotted the out-of-place figure through some trees on the smallest of the three islands in Gulf Island Pond. Covering about an acre or two, the island clearly gets some youthful visitors, based on the campfire and other signs of merriment that Valliere found.
He stood the figure up and clambered on top, he said. He also opted to have his lunch on the island, in Charlie’s company.
“Each time I would look over my shoulder at it, I would laugh,” he said.
When he got home, he searched the Internet for reports of a stolen plastic steer, and found nothing.
But a few days later, he saw an advertisement in a local newspaper with the words “Where’s the beef?” – the one-time catchphrase for the Wendy’s fast food chain. Town & Country Foods had offered a $500 reward for information leading to Charlie’s return. The day the ad appeared, the business got two calls in quick succession.
The first was from Valliere. A few minutes later, they heard from Jen Lyson, who was riding an all-terrain vehicle on the shore when she caught sight of Charlie’s brown-and-white hide on the island.
The meat store reported the discovery to the Maine State Police, which is responsible for patrolling Greene in July. A Maine game warden brought troopers to the island by boat, and they returned Charlie to the mainland – taking a number of amusing photographs in the process.
The store hosted a welcome home party for Charlie on Saturday, inviting the public for free hot dogs and the chance to have a picture taken with the newly returned landmark. They also presented Valliere with a gift coupon for $500 in meat or other products from the store; Lyson received a $100 coupon.
“We’re thrilled,” Petersdorf said.