Reading the typewritten reports of county extension agents taking up work in the 1920s and 1930s stirs up my allergies something fierce, but it also stirs something else. These homely documents are full of the little dramas of everyday life. In time I come to live with the people who inhabit the reports, people whose hopes and cares are invested in land and community.
It’s not always a pretty picture, because we’re dealing here with life as it was lived. I follow the adventures of young county agents setting to work with their shiny baccalaureates in places like Killdeer and Hettinger. They are on a mission to make life better, as they see it. When they ask people what needs to be done, though, it seems like what folks are most concerned with is killing things. Prairie dogs and coyotes, in particular.
These matters are shocking to modern American sensibilities. Personally I love a landscape rich in wildlife, and as scholar, farmer, and outdoorsman I work to make the Great Plains such a place. Often, though, like most folks close to the land, I am exasperated with people who imagine a Disney version of the prairies where prairie dogs do not exhaust forage, coyotes disdain sheep meat, and the lion lies down with the lamb. Experience on the land, and in these reports, is otherwise.
You have to wonder, though, when you look at this photograph taken in Hettinger County, 1922, of a prairie dog control demonstration. An extension specialist from Fargo is showing how to mix poison bait-likely arsenic bran-to kill prairie dogs. He has his bare hands in the tub.
Next door in Adams County agent P.J. Gwyther in 1923 photographed an overall-clad father and son with a bunch of remarkably fat prairie dogs strung up for exhibit following a poisoning effort. The man is quoted as saying, “If they will die that easily, get me bait enough to cover 120 acres, I am going after every blasted one of them.” The battle against prairie dogs was being fought not by cattle barons on vast ranges, but by struggling operators of small farms.
The most striking photo of the prairie dog campaigns came from Billings County agent Vernon Thompson in 1940. He captured a group of shooters firing from a gully in an image composed like a Remington painting. The prairie dog shooters might be besieged scouts making their last stand on the plains in a buffalo wallow.
“Besieged” would be a good word to describe the attitude of farmers trying to extend sheep culture in the region. They introduced improved stock and formed cooperatives to better their marketing situation, but coyotes were their nemesis. Dunn County agent W.F.Cockburn writes in detail in 1940 of how he organized a coyote control organization, elicited the help of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, and obtained a trapper.
The trapper soon dispatched some 90 coyotes. “At least nine of the adult coyotes were peg legs,” reported Cockburn, “who are considered by stockmen to be the real killers.” He photographed the trapper, .22 rifle in hand, his car covered with pelts.
Agent Nelson Anderson did similar organizational work in Slope County in 1944, bringing in experienced trapper Roy Henderson. He and Henderson took photos of one another digging pups from a den. “In order to reduce coyote numbers to such an extent they will not cause such a large number of livestock losses,” Anderson wrote, “it is recommended that a coyote control program be kept in continuous effect.”
All across the West River today stand abandoned lambing barns. I’ll bet the coyotes miss the sheep.