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Cholera, Blight, and Sparrows: A Look at Utah's First Agricultural Agents

Utah Historical Quarterly 

Vol. 57, 1989, No. 2

Cholera, Blight, and Sparrows: A Look at Utah's First Agricultural Agents

BY CHARLES S. PETERSON

THE QUARTER CENTURY from 1890 to 1915 has often been referred to as a golden era for agriculture. For many reasons this was especially true in Utah. The pioneer period was past. The percentage of rural population was at an all-time high. Farming passed from a subsistence activity to a marketoriented process. New land was taken up for farming as never before, increasing fourfold in the 1890s alone and extending into the Uinta Basin, the west deserts, and the San Juan country in the years after 1900. Livestock numbers exploded, sheep numbering upwards of 4,000,000 and cattle more than 400,000 by the end of the century. True, there were economic downswings, droughts, and failures, but taken together these were good years.

In no feature were good times more marked than in the application of science to agricultural practices and farm life. Irrigation passed from rule of thumb to technology as the Office of the State Engineer was created and hydrological surveys were made. USDA and USGS specialists studied the state resources, bringing the best learning of the nation to bear. Dry farming became first a field of research then a way of life. In 1888 the Agrigultural College was founded, bringing scientific education to young farm people and extension services to farm families as farmers' institutes toured the state.

County agents also made important contributions to this process after 1911 when L. M. Winsor became Utah's first county agent in Uintah County. By 1913 Professor R. J. Evans was serving as state director and seven more agents had been appointed. Included among them was Heber M. Webb in Salt Lake County, which had the state's largest farm population and was one of its most important agricultural counties by any standard. The impact of county agents was immediate and substantial, but they were sometimes received with suspicion. Farmer reluctance to embrace the changes advocated by the Agricultural College's extension service had already been observed in the farmers' institutes. Professor W. N. Hutt had called the institutes touring missions, noting that as advocates of change they sometimes met with "prejudice" and "animosity." If the institutes were touring missions, Heber Webb and other early county agents were resident emissaries whose gospel of scientific agriculture was also variously received but of lasting importance.

Webb took up his Salt Lake County assignment on August 1, 1914. His office was to be provided by Jordan High School, but crowded conditions resulted in his doing most of his work in the field and by phone from his home in Sandy. His progress in establishing himself in the community was immediately given special problems as well as special opportunities by a variety of crises.

The first and most important was an outbreak of hog cholera. Underway throughout the state since June, it had reached epidemic proportions at Draper in south Salt Lake County by the dog days of August. It took only a few hours to draw Webb's attention to Draper where he learned the deputy state inspector had joined curious farmers in a tromp through infected farms and then on from pig pen to pig pen elsewhere in town. The result was an immediate spread of the disease that struck every hog pen in the entire community. Webb rallied about 150 farmers and organized a committee empowered to "do anything and everything to eradicate the disease." Step one was an application to the Agricultural College for veterinary aid, and Dr. H. J. Frederick spent several days with Webb, vaccinating pigs and advising farmers. After this short course in livestock medicine, Webb was left with the responsibility of treatment, quarantine, and vaccination as well as the more taxing task of dealing with ignorance and misconception. At the root of his problem was the deputy inspector, "an uneducated," and in Webb's account, an unnamed man, who felt that sick hogs would survive and that only "moral persuasion" could be used to get farmers to kill sick animals and clean their premises. With a large portion of Draper behind him, the deputy resisted Webb at every step until finally the governor was called in to strengthen Webb and other advocates of drastic treatment. Even then certain farmers refused to kill infected animals, letting them roam in farm- yards where they had contact with "loose dogs" that "went freely" about town. Worse yet, some let pigs die in irrigation canals and did nothing to remove them. Ultimately the disease spread to Crescent, Midvale, West Jordan, and Union. However, the effects were lessened there because farmers were more willing to apply hygienic methods and to vaccinate healthy animals and kill infected ones.

Not surprisingly, Webb found little time to do anything else during his first fall in Salt Lake County, but in the course of the cholera war he had visited some 370 farms and "reached very many more through telephone." By the time cold weather took a hand he had introduced the county agent program to Salt Lake farmers and had defended scientific treatment in his first bureaucratic tiff with conservative elements in the state inspector's office. He justly took a measure of satisfaction in the idea that he had helped Salt Lake County farmers understand disease and its ravages.

An equally serious although less spectacular crisis was a widespread blight in potatoes. Able to focus his attention on the problem only in 1915, Webb found Idaho seed to be badly contaminated with "Fusarium Wilt and Rhizoctonia." He condemned imported seed by the carload, advising that home-grown potatoes were more free of infection and would respond adequately to treatment. But his condemnation lacked the force of law, and only a few of the "farmers who had bargained for the Idaho seed drove away empty." Most "did not believe in potato diseases" and "took their portions." A particular difficulty lay in the fact that for years wilted potato patches and poor, scab-infested yields had been blamed on smoke from the smelters which had devastated crops in some areas of the county during the past decade. Farmers, Webb reported, "were honest in their convictions, but were largely ignorant of the real cause of most of their trouble, although they in many instances justly had complaint against the smelters."

As Webb became aware of the dual nature of the problem he launched a campaign of education. He toured the valley, sampling potatoes on the farms and at the various seed houses and ascertaining that the problem was valleywide. Commercial clubs, the forebears of both the Farm Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce, helped by advertising. Public demonstrations describing symptoms and seed treatment were held in all farming neighborhoods. Posters providing the same information were also displayed in public buildings "in every town in the county." To Webb's satisfaction the response was immediate and almost universally favorable. As he put it, "this was the first systematic work done in the county along that line, so the farmers were suddenly awakened from smelter smoke damage entirely" to a realistic awareness of disease.

Farmers had been aware for some time of another blight for which Webb was on the alert. As early as 1906 alfalfa weevil had been identified in Salt Lake County and by 1910 had infected more than 3,500 acres of hay as well as spread in a lesser degree to Summit, Utah, Weber, and Davis counties. The weevils, which affected a vital product for both rural and urban residents of the county, had caused shortages of hay, raising prices from $4 or $5 per ton to $14 or $15. Progressive farmers had joined E. G. Titus, an entomologist from the Agricultural College, and C. N. Ainslie, of the USDA, in studying the blight. Much was learned about the character and habits of the weevil, including its life cycle, its capacity to overwinter, and that while it was often transported in feed in warm winds it could be borne naturally for distances up to fifteen miles. Infestation was progressive, with second and third hay cuttings coming back slowly the first year and in subsequent years the plant failing until entire fields were killed. Young fields were most resistant with some of the older patches being very susceptible.

Encouraged by the entomologists, farmers experimented with home remedies. Pasturing was tried by Mark Bennion, a Mr. Gilby, and others. Close pasturing by horses appeared to be the most promising, although some had fairly good luck with specially managed use by sheep. Discing, watering, and brush dragging were also tried in combination with pasturing. Recognizing that brush and debris were necessary for the hibernation of the weevil, farmers also experimented with fire. Some even spread straw lightly over entire fields to make a brisk, quick fire. Brush drags, harrows, wire street sweepers, and various other devices were used after the first cutting of hay in attempts to reduce the number of viable weevils. Among the most ingenious were weevil harvesters. Two "gathering machines" attracted special attention. L. Hemingway of Granger contrived one that collected 90 gallons of insects in a single trip over a 15-acre field. Thomas Barton got a yield of 20 gallons to the acre in going over his field eight times. Professor Titus estimated that "the almost incredible number of 145,000,000 of the insects" had been "captured to the acre." Mechanical, water, and oil traps were also used. Spraying, however, was apparently the most successful treatment, although even here reinfestation of sprayed fields by flying weevils largely neutralized otherwise successful treatments. Nevertheless, by the time Agent Webb began to report on alfalfa weevil in 1915, Salt Lake County farmers were well aware of the problem and were beginning to take the first steps toward a solution.

A major campaign that may have lacked the sound scientific study upon which the weevil fight was based was waged against sparrows during the food shortage of World War I. Convinced that sparrows inflicted vast damage upon small grains, Webb distributed poison widely and developed baiting techniques. In 1916 he reported that 59,500 dead sparrows had been found and counted in. The next year he estimated that no fewer than a quarter of a million birds were killed in Salt Lake County at a saving of 31,250 bushels of grain or $60,937 at wartime prices. In addition to the county wide efforts of farmers and the Farm Bureau (which by 1917 had supplanted the commercial clubs), boys throughout the county were mobilized through agricultural clubs and by the profit motive. Many made paying enterprises of their efforts to eliminate sparrows, rats, and ground squirrels, for each of which small bounties were paid. Harold Wagstaff, a Farmers Ward boy recalled regularly climbing trees in south Salt Lake City to gather sparrow eggs which were then conveyed to the ground by holding them in his mouth so as not to break them. Sparrow eggs, which were young Wagstaff s main line of business, brought a bounty of five cents per dozen. Rats, a secondary line, brought him a nickle each. While many thought that the number of sparrows had been significantly reduced, it was reported that 200,000 were killed in 1918, suggesting that, best efforts and high counts notwithstanding, many sparrows survived.

A number of other projects were also undertaken by Webb and his associates that benefited farmers directly as well as introducing them to new ways. Weeds, which everywhere littered roads and ditches and choked fields and pastures, had been a matter of immediate concern to Webb on his arrival. After calling for coordinated control for several years, he played a primary role in the Farm Bureau's successful drive to get a weed law passed by the legislature in 1918. Backed by this law as well as the full cooperation of the Salt Lake County crops and pests inspector, canal companies, railroads, and all of the county's thirty road supervisors, the Farm Bureau and Webb made a major drive in 1919. Fully 75 percent of the county's farmers cooperated as did 675 owners of city lots. Some 500 miles of the county's 800 miles of county and state roads were cleaned, as were 125 miles of city streets in Murray, Sandy, and Midvale. In addition, 204 miles of the 262 miles of railroad right-of-way in the county were cleaned. Ironically, the poorest showing was made by the canal companies which cleaned only 54 of the 111 miles of their canals, leaving 57 miles of weed-infested waterway to carry seed onto fields.

Also advanced by county agents during their first half-decade in Salt Lake County were equitable threshing groups, dairy cow testing associations, and poultry and egg marketing cooperatives. Perhaps no work was more important than forming boys and girls agricultural clubs. Sponsored and encouraged by schools throughout the county, these did much to introduce young people to improved methods and enlarged their lives by providing a series of activities, including exhibits at county and state fairs. In addition, county and state encampments offered young people opportunities to learn and compete. Although this was a statewide movement sponsored mainly by J. C. Hogensen at the Agricultural College, boys and girls in Salt Lake and Davis counties had superior opportunities to participate. In part this was due to the presence of the state fair in Salt Lake City where youth exhibits became featured attractions. County agents and, after they arrived, home demonstration agents, worked closely with teachers at the schools with the result that poultry, swine, gardening, marketing, canning, and home arts projects flourished. By 1918 a total of 800 boys and girls were enrolled in the county, about one-tenth of the total school population. In addition to presaging the 4-H and Future Farmer and Future Homemakers programs, the youth clubs broadened and enhanced the lives of young people, although they may have led more of them into agricultural-related businesses and professions than into farming itself.

Farm organization was also important for adults and received a good deal of attention from Salt Lake County's early county agents. When Webb arrived he found that commercial clubs were well organized throughout the farming districts of the county. These became his primary line of help. Within a year or two the Farm Bureau movement began to take the place of commercial clubs. Said to have been launched in Weber County around 1915, the Farm Bureau moved quickly to Salt Lake County and by the end of World War I had completely supplanted the commercial clubs. The bureau entertained some social objectives, but to all appearances managed little more than a nominal show of social life through an annual get-together. It was a little more successful in promoting farm tours, although even these attracted only a few. As an interest group through which the farmer's point of view was represented, the bureau was more effective as evidenced in its role in pushing through the weed law of 1918. It was also instrumental in encouraging farm buying and selling cooperatives. In the farming districts the fourteen local Farm Bureau units corresponded more closely with Mormon wards than with towns. During Webb's era and that of his successor, V. L. Martineau, membership remained low, reaching a maximum of 242 (148 men and 94 women) or about ten percent of the county's total farm families.

Thus in the quarter-century after 1890 substantial if not indeed dramatic changes took place in the lives of Salt Lake County farm people as a result of the advance of science and learning generally. As the period began, many, particularly those on westside farms, were scarcely beyond the pioneering era. At the period's close they enjoyed many of the benefits of scientific learning and effective organization. The federal government had become much more active in studying the problems of natural resource utilization and in the process was communicating a point of view about managing the broader environment. The Progressive spirit that characterized Americans of that period generally influenced Salt Lake County farmers, sharpening their already strong faith in learning and education and enabling them to make great strides in their public schools, youth programs, and farm organizations. Finally, what has been termed the Country Life Movement also had an effect as Utahns and Americans everywhere began to fear that urban tensions were perverting the agrarian basis of the nation generally and specifically cutting away at the family farm. Publishers, the Agricultural College, extension workers, politicians, and many farmers themselves worked to make the promise of the good life come true on the country's farms. Science and organization were the tools they used. Consequently, farmers of Salt Lake County and the state generally enjoyed an extraordinary period of advance. Few played more important roles than did county agents like Heber Webb.

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