Dealing with bedbugs, head lice, pests and vermin in the early 1900s
In the great mystery of creation, it was somehow ordained that man would be in constant warfare with nature for survival. The Good Book says "Man shall live by the sweat of his brow," but it doesn't tell him how to compete with the Creator's other creations. Perhaps that is why man was given the ability to reason, so he could rigger out some things for himself. And believe you me, outfiggerin' some of Muddy Creek's scourge of pests and vermin took some doing. Keeping such beasties as head lice, bedbugs, houseflies and cockroaches under control required both expertise and ingenuity.
Perhaps the most obnoxious and the most difficult of the lot to eradicate was the bedbug. One summer, this tiny red unwelcome guest invaded the home place. It was during the war, the Kaiser's war, that is, and farmhands were few and available only because they were for some reason unacceptable to the Armed Forces. The fly-by night transient laborers and I use that term advisedly usually were recruited from those hanging around saloon alley in Vincennes or, preferably, from homeless hobos, fresh from a boxcar pullman, able and willing to do a few days' work to replenish a flat purse. Such was the one who, we will presume, brought the tiny stowaway to Muddy Creek during hay harvest time.
Ma Ma first noticed that Enoch (that was his unlikely name) was scratching a good deal, and even drawing blood from the itch. Then one day, after Enoch had caught a fast freight and while she was changing the bed, that they was: millions of them. Tiny red wingless bloodsucking insects infested every button on the mattress and every spring coil or crack in and around the wooden bedstead. There were so many that they could be scooped up by the tablespoonful. Enoch had, apparently, imported them from one of his former abodes, and left them behind as he moved on. One thing was for sure: they had found a happy home there on Muddy Creek.
Eradicating them proved to be not only a difficult and time-consuming task, but an almost impossible one. The bed was stripped to the bare frame with the bedding hauled out through the window so as not to send the bugs to the rest of the house. The springs and bed frame were then scrubbed with hot soapy lye water that only seemed to encourage them. Coal oil, in generous amounts, was then poured over each crack, and careful squirts from an oil can were "shot" into every deep crevice to drive them out. The stench of the oil and drips on the floor (with oil also seeping into the plaster below) made the cure worse than the bite.
Finally, the old wooden bedstead, a family heirloom, was sadly dismantled and fed into a bonfire. The room was sealed with strips from an old rug and one of dad's discarded shirts. The strips were crammed and stuffed around the windows and under the doors to make the room as airtight as possible. Dad had brought several sulfur candles from the hardware store. They were lighted and allowed to burn in the room until the oxygen was used up. The room was then left unopened and untouched for nearly a week, and, when it was finally opened, the formerly unpainted, white plaster walls were pockmarked forever with the tiny black pinhead-size tattoos that marked the final resting place of a Chicago-bred bedbug.
The fumigation with the sulfur candles formed sulfuric acid that seeped out and ate holes in the curtains and hand-woven rugs, so another huge bonfire was in order. Needless to say, that "extra" hired man was far, far away long before his traveling companions had become extinct.
We never really knew who brought the headlice into Spring Hill, but one winter most every kid in school came down with an infestation. Lice from rabbits and other game animals like fox and skunks were quite common in those days, and could be dealt with. But head lice, they were a breed apart. Tar, creosote salve and goose grease sometimes brought relief, but finally some of the boys actually resorted to shaving all of their hair in an effort to get rid of that terrible crawling, biting, itching.
On ours, as on every farm, there were mice and rats, lots of them. Most of the time, a bevy of cats took pretty good care of the mice in the barn. However, there was a tendency to feed the cats too well on milk, and it takes a hungry cat to be a good "mouser." Ma Ma had to wage a constant fight to keep the little "devils" out of the house. A mouse can slip through a hole no bigger than a lead pencil and should it not be so, in just a few gnawing moments, it will be. The word goes out, and soon the hole is rubbed smooth and slick from the extended family slipping through, and the battle is on.
Spring traps, made by Victor, were available at most stores at a fair price of three for a dime. The best bait for the traps was a low-grade, rank-smelling but well-named "rat trap" cheese. Some folks swore that peanut butter or charred bacon rind were best to entice mice to their doom, but with the breeding cycle of the mouse kingdom so quick, other methods had to be employed. Poisoned wheat, generously scattered along the baseboards and under the cupboards, garnered a scoop shovel load every morning.
Dad's "special" trap was very effective. A piece of heavy brown butcher paper was stretched over the top of a five-gallon paint bucket half-full of water. A six-inch cross slit was cut in the paper's center, and a dab of peanut butter was smeared on as bait. Mr. Mouse would reach for the bait and fall through the slit into the water and drown. A most unpleasant task was that of carrying out the five gallons of dead mice.
Rats! Every farm had its share of these pesky critters. Mice ate holes in bags, scattered stuff, and made a general nuisance of themselves, but rats? It was easy to sympathize with those dear people of Hamlin town, and often we would have welcomed a pied piper.
Rats spoiled more food than they ate. They would burrow into a grain sack of seed, and within a few days, the whole two bushels was a mass of fouled grain, not even fit for the hogs. Usually, a good dog like Old Bowser would be the best control. When dad moved a few sacks of clover seed in the seed room, the old dog would have a field day by catching and killing several dozen rats.
It is a known fact that, should you see one rat around the farm, there are 25 others that you do not see. Thankfully, new products, modern building designs and grain handling methods have helped control rats. The old-fashioned Victor rat trap, a huge version of the spring mouse trap, was very effective but far too slow to match the birthrate of the rat. Man sure has a time a trying to outsmart Mother Nature. FC
The late Perry Piper was a columnist for newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his personal memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.