Gopher-catching was brothers’ pastime

posted Sept. 1, 2017 2:12 p.m. (CDT)
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by / Larry Scheckel, Tomah (Monroe County)

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Drowning out gophers was high entertainment for the three Scheckel boys growing up in the 1940s and 1950s on our 238-acre farm outside of Seneca in the heart of Crawford County.

Crawford County had a bounty on gophers, moles and rattlesnakes. We thought along these lines: If there was a bounty offered for gophers, they must be bad, and it was our sacred duty to rid the countryside and our farm of these vermin. The Scheckels had a whole subdivision of gophers digging holes in the cow pasture north and east of the barn. What a sport, we thought!

After church on Sunday, we filled three 10-gallon milk cans with water from the cow tank, loaded them onto the stone boat, hooked the stone boat to the drawbar of our Massey-Harris ’44 tractor with the log chain, and pulled it and the water cargo out to the cow pasture. We had a shovel, rake and pitchfork as weapons. We were ready to do battle.

We searched around for the nearby gopher holes and marked each one with a stick, thistle stalk, or dried cow pie. We thought gophers had an entrance and exit hole. In school, we’d seen pictures of rodents living underground.

We had a plan. If we poured water into the upper hole, the water would run downhill and flood the gopher’s haven. Faced with certain death by drowning, that gopher would most surely come out of the hole, at which time we would dispatch the critter with our shovel, rake or pitchfork.

Phillip dipped water from the milk can into small coffee cans and Bob and I poured water down the hole. We carefully scanned the pasture to watch for emerging gophers. More water, more watching. The tension heightened when the water supply got low.

On rare occasions, a gopher drenched with water would emerge from a hole, shake its head and take off running. We would give chase, shovel and pitchfork at the ready to club the poor sucker. Half the time the creature made it to another hole.

Often, we would pour water into one hole and observe water coming out another hole, but no gopher. How could that be? Surely, his entire underground domain was flooded. No gopher could survive that, we thought.

We conjured up ways and means by which that gopher could live through such a deluge. We were sure the gopher must have planned for such an emergency. They probably dug a chamber that was higher than the lowest gopher hole, so water ran out the gopher hole, but was never high enough to reach the safety of his emergency cavity. Maybe he had two, even three different escape tunnels. Clever devils, these gophers. We joked about them having a standby scuba diving outfit to don when they saw the Massey Harris ’44, stone boat, an array of weapons and the three eager-for-bounty boys noisily pulling into their realm.

I would estimate that we were successful in getting one gopher about every time we spent an hour or two taking three 10-gallon milk cans down into the cow pasture. A whole nickel’s worth of payment and worth every penny!

Our gophers, I found out later, were technically called the 13-lined ground squirrel. They were brown with 13 alternating brown and white longitudinal lines on their backs and sides. Their tummy was a dull yellow-brown color.

We knew they were not active in the winter because they weren’t seen then. Eventually, I learned that they hibernate in the winter, and their breathing goes from about 150 breaths per minute to one breath every five minutes.

Gopher tails were stored in a fruit jar of salt kept in the garage. The salt preserved the tails and mole feet. Once a year that jar made it over to the Chuck Sprosty farm. Mr. Sprosty was the Seneca Township treasurer who counted the contents and paid the bounty.

Why a bounty? It was thought the gophers and moles created tunnels in the soil and those tunnels and holes led to erosion on the steep hillsides.

Our neighbor, John Payne, told us that a sure way to catch gophers was to use cougar urine. He said that there was only one problem: “It’s hard to get that cougar to remain still while you hold that little cup down there.”

Larry Scheckel is author of the book “Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers.”

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