By Paula Dunn
While I was trying to decide on a topic for this week, I ran across an item in the July 21, 1904 issue of The Times that made me chuckle and I just couldn’t let it pass.
The “Curbstone Ranger,” a columnist for The Times, observed that Will H. Craig, the editor of the Noblesville Ledger, had been spending his free time at Sycamore Lodge, his new summer home on Cicero Creek.
The lodge was described as a place Craig pursued “bunnie to his lair” and lured “scaly monsters from the drink.”
Just one thing spoiled those “bucolic delights” — the “appearance of the bloodthirsty mosquito after night had thrown her sable curtain around and pinned it with a star.”
(Seriously. The whole piece is written like that.)
Craig came up with an inventive solution to his mosquito problem — he soaked a pound of liver in a pint of “jag producer” (whiskey, or something equally alcoholic,) then he cut it up and spread it around his yard.
This attracted “eleven millions” of mosquitoes “howling and fighting for a bite at the tidbits,” a state of affairs the Ranger compared to “a primary election down in the third ward of Noblesville.”
The following day, Craig simply raked the drunken mosquitoes into piles and set them on fire.
The Times was clearly having some fun with their competitor, but mosquitoes were a serious public health problem during the county’s early years.
The Horseshoe Prairie settlers were perhaps the first victims. James G. Finch and his cousin, Fabius Finch, later wrote how their entire colony suffered from ague during the autumn of 1819. (“Ague” was malaria, or something very similar.)
At times, the situation was so dire, no one was well enough to care for anyone else. Some settlers died from the illness.
Undoubtedly, the abundance of swampy land in the county at that time created a large mosquito population, but even after many of the wetlands were drained, mosquitoes were still plentiful.
Early county residents fought the “thief in the night” with peppermint oil, ammonia or commercially prepared concoctions such as Skeeter Skoot or El Vampiro.
Those solutions couldn’t save Noblesville in 1920, though. According to the Ledger, that summer the city was invaded by “literally and actually millions” of enormous mosquitoes.
The situation was so bad, even out-of-town newspapers took notice. Knightstown’s Tri-County Banner remarked that “Hamilton County’s mosquitoes have the size and sing of bumblebees.”
A city mail carrier complained that every time he opened a mailbox to drop mail off, he was greeted by a swarm of the little bloodsuckers.
Mosquito hunting quickly became a popular indoor pastime. Spots on one’s walls where the skeeters came to a bloody end seemed a small price to pay for a peaceful night’s sleep.
One resident told the newspaper he dressed in the dark every night and set his alarm clock for 2 a.m. so he could get up and kill the few hundred mosquitoes that managed to get past his window screens.
Many people blamed the spike in the mosquito population on the Strawboard’s filter pond, but factory officials swore they’d oiled the pond in time to keep the insects from breeding there.
It wasn’t until the following year that the state entomologist identified the main source of the problem — a large strip of stagnant water along the interurban tracks near the Strawboard. (It was found to contain 10,000,000 mosquitoes per square inch!)
Once that waterway and some open water barrels at the Strawboard were oiled, the mosquitoes lost most of their breeding grounds and the local mosquito population returned to more manageable levels.
Notable Nineties Update: Diane Nevitt has added Wayne Township residents Betty Brattain and Iva Lou Sission to the list. Congratulations!
– Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears on Wednesdays in The Times. Contact her at [email protected]