CAMDEN — The Smiling Cow opened its doors on Saturday, April 25, to its 75th year in business. Third-generation owner Meg Quijano has been the steward of the Cow for 35 years, preceded by her mother and grandmother. The Smiling Cow is one of the oldest of the family-owned businesses in Camden.
A formal ribbon-cutting was held and state representative Joan Welsh, D-Rockport, and state senator Dave Miramant, D-Camden, were on hand to present a proclamation form the state of Maine.
Known for its red and white striped awnings and an open door spanning three panels wide, Quijano, is proud of her standing as a third-generation woman owner and of her grandmother, Margaret Hawkey, the industrious founder of The Smiling Cow.
Hawkey, who was living in New Jersey and suddenly responsible for making a living for herself and her five school-aged children, made the move to Boothbay Harbor, opening the first Smiling Cow gift store in 1929. Her daughter (Quijano’s mother), also named Margaret, carried on the tradition when she opened the Smiling Cow in Camden in 1940 with her husband, Henry Fisher. The Boothbay store was eventually sold out of the family, leaving the Camden store as the remaining family legacy.
How did the Smiling Cow get its name? The story, as told to us by Meg Quijano.
“When my mother was a little girl,” she began. “She and her parents would go visit her grandparents on their farm. My mother used to tell lots of jokes and all of her siblings thought they were the corniest jokes that they ever heard.”
“Everyone told her they weren’t even funny and no one would laugh. My mother went out into the fields where the cows were and she told her jokes to the cows. She came back into the house and said she told her jokes and the cows were smiling. That became the family by-word and that’s how the Smiling Cow got its name.”
The celebration tugged at Meg’s heart.
“Especially when Joan Welsh was reading off that certificate,” she said. “I thought, wow, this is a big deal and I feel very fortunate.”
Miramant said the event made him feel lucky.
“Very lucky and fortunate to come to another year of a successful small business,” he said. “These are people who have been caring about their employees and the town they operate in for 75 years. You can see and feel the energy with them, and the people who came to welcome them back.”
The Smiling Cow first occupied the former Lee Lenfest garage, in 1940.
In 1973, the Smiling Cow’s building, resting on stilts directly above the Megunticook River in downtown Camden, was declared unsafe and condemned by the town. Recognizing the importance of keeping the little building looking the same, Fisher directed the demolition, declaring, “I don’t want anyone noticing anything different.”
Everything was torn down and rebuilt with the exception of the front wall, which was included in the new structure. Internal fixtures and fittings were reused and reinstalled. When customers returned the next spring, many didn’t even realize they were in a brand new building.
Meg Quijano, who had been living out of state, returned home in 1974 with two children in tow and planned to stay only for the summer. After her father’s death in the fall, Quijano learned her mother was thinking of selling the store and decided to make the leap.
“I worked with my mom for the next three years, learning how to run the business and accompanying her on buying trips,” she said. “She continued to advise me until I bought the store in 1980.” Margaret Fisher died five months later.
Visitors wandering to the back of the store find a welcoming porch, perched over the Megunticook River and offering great views of Camden Harbor. Open seasonally from April to November, Quijano estimates thousands of people pass through the store weekly in the summer season, with a total of over 100,000 customers annually.
The Smiling Cow has earned a cult-like following and is considered a must-stop for devoted fans whenever they visit the Midcoast.
Staff plays an important role in the Cow’s congenial image and success. In addition to family members, Quijano figures she’s employed more than 1,000 people over the years, including high school students and older locals looking for a part-time job.
Claire Frye, now 83 and former executive director of the local chamber of commerce, has been welcoming visitors to the Cow for more than 20 years. One of Claire’s cohorts is Kristy McKenney, who started at the Cow when she was 14 and will be celebrating her 40th birthday this year.
Quijano once had three generations of the same family working at the same time at the Cow.
“There’s an incredible camaraderie and respect amongst the multi-generational staff and they get along great,” she said.
Though three generations have owned it, five generations have worked there, including Meg’s daughter and grandchildren.
It’s a given that most tourists seen walking around town in the summer will be carrying a bag that says “the Smiling Cow.”
Meg said she couldn’t even begin to estimate how many bags they handed out in 75 years. She said that originally the name was drawn onto the bags, so the store would have some identification. There is a trend to return to that service.
For many locals, the Cow’s annual opening in April is a harbinger of spring. October is marked by the half-price sale where you’ll find excited shoppers lined up and ready to bust through the doors at 6 a.m. After closing in early November, a final clean-up and some much-needed time off in the winter.
What does the future hold for Quijano and the Smiling Cow?
“I really enjoy what I do and am not in any hurry to stop,” said Quijano. “I’m so proud to have been be a part of this adventure, one link in this continuing chain with my grandmother and parents. I consider myself a steward of the store and hope that whomever the next steward is—whether family or someone else—will have the same level of care and respect for the Smiling Cow and what it is today along with new ideas and a vision for the future.”
In celebration of The Smiling Cow’s 75th anniversary, Quijano is creating a History and Memory Board to be displayed in the store. Photos, stories and other memorabilia from former employees and devoted customers will be gathered for the display which will continue to grow throughout the summer and fall. An outreach campaign is in the works, incorporating the Smiling Cow’s website, Facebook page and other social media.
“Over the years, we’ve heard so many great stories from folks about their connection to the Smiling Cow, like how they first came to the store as a child and now bring their grandchildren, or the impact working here had on them as employees,” said Quijano. “It will be wonderful to see a medley of these memories, photos and letters displayed together in one place.”
To learn more about The Smiling Cow, or to share a memory or post a photo, go to www.smilingcow.com/content/celebrating-75-years