The certainty of dynamite briefly challenged the concepts of agricultural science and state law during the summer of 1919, as southern farmers reacted to new regulations designed to wipe out a variety of ticks, and the blood parasites they carried, with swift and disproportionate violence.*
Southern cattle suffered from these ticks and their blood parasites, but consistent low-grade infections meant that most developed a level of immunity as calves. Although the southern ‘cracker cattle’ grew up stunted and weaker, they still persevered. Whereas the ravages of tick-borne disease absolutely decimated northern and Midwestern herds.
Meat markets remained regional throughout much of American history. So although the earliest instance of these ticks nearly wiped out cattle in Georgia during the 1740’s, the surviving herds formed the nucleus of an isolated southern cattle industry. As Georgians brought their cattle westward into the Mississippi Territory the infected herds spread the ticks to other cattle encountered. Whole generations of cattle lived, died, and bred with these parasites plaguing their every moment. Indeed, by the eve of the American civil war, northerners traveling through the deep south often noted the stunted nature of indigenous cattle in comparison to what they assumed were heartier northern breeds.
Cattle drives from Texas to Kansas resumed after the war. However, for the first time, trains began to link these cattle drives to the massive stockyards of Illinois and other northern states. Wherever the southern cattle went death followed. Suddenly ninety to one-hundred percent of Midwestern herds perished within days or a few weeks of mixing with cattle from Texas and other parts of the south.
Obviously everyone panicked. By 1885, officials in Kansas banned Texas cattle** from even entering their state and the national cattle industry developed almost entirely without southern contribution. Indeed, by the early 1900’s almost every southern state felt the impact of federal quarantine on their cattle.
Which brings us to 1919. In February, Alabama lawmakers mandated the building of tick-vats and the dipping of every cow in the state in an effort to rid Alabama of the tick and finally participate fully in the national cattle industry. They followed the lead of Georgia and Mississippi, both of which instituted similar programs in 1906. Counties responded with a furious effort to build the required tick vats, gather herd information, and then process the hundreds of thousands of cattle around Alabama. They soon met stiff resistance.
The Cullman Democrat is the only surviving newspaper from 1919 in the Cullman county archives. Unfortunately it does not exist on microfilm nor did the original archivists preserve anything but the Thursday editions. Perhaps they were born on a Thursday, perhaps the kind of person that hoarded copies of the Cullman Democrat only made money on Thursdays, or the archivist took Fridays off. It’s a strange conundrum. Surely the Sunday edition would have been fuller and more expressive of the previous week? Oh well, what I’m saying here is that we can only glimpse the Cullman county of 1919 and are unable to fully explore its beautiful and dynamite ridden depths.
However, some interesting things emerged. April 1919, saw the greatest rebellion in Cullman county against the tick vats. Farmers dynamited vats at Sulphur Springs, Holly Pond, and Brooklyn. A man named Charlie Bishop blew up the Sulphur Springs dipping vat on Friday, April 11, 1919. He failed to finish his work and probably proved the most inept overall. Bishop proved unable to destroy the vat even though he used at least two sticks of dynamite. His trial began on April 19, 1919 and continued through July. Although the Cullman county archives maintained a healthy selection of old court cases I failed to find his conviction.***
After this spate of explosions the sheriff used bloodhounds to try and track down the perpetrators. The county employed armed men to protect the vats at night. Yet this did not halt the range war. On April 18, J.A. Harbison and Monroe Phillips guarded the repaired Sulphur Springs vat. As the daylight died they readied themselves for the near certain attempt to finish it off. They reported seeing “two men stealing up towards the vat.” One carried several sticks of dynamite while the other held “a coal of fire.” The targeting of Sulphur Springs, of the 151 vats in Cullman county alone, suggests that the men were either associates of Charlie Bishop or heard of the previous attempt and viewed this particular vat as a high profile target.
The would-be dynamiters failed to see the guards and kept advancing. J.A. Harbison proved close enough to get a good shot and opened fire on the man holding the “coal of fire.” Although he hit the man, both of the rebellious farmers managed to escape into the surrounding hollow and avoided arrest. The Cullman Democrat mocks the historian here by mentioning that “this is the only attemp to blow up vats this week.” Soon after these attempts the farmers of the county tried to hide their cattle rather than explode the tick vats and mentions of dynamite soon fade from the record. I plan to further explore this phenomenon in parts of Alabama where nobody has ever thrown away anything – like Madison county. Until then, remember this, faced with a reasonable request the people of Alabama chose stubbornness and violence. It’s almost endearing.
Haygood, Tamara Miner. “Cows, Ticks, and Disease: A Medical Interpretation of the Southern Cattle Industry.” The Journal of Southern History 52, no. 4 (1986): 551-564.
The Thirteenth Annual Report of the State Veterinarian of Alabama, 1919. Montgomery, Alabama: The Brown Printing Company, 1920.
“Dipping Vats Blown Up, Blood Hounds Ordered.” Cullman Democrat (Cullman, AL), April 17, 1919.
“Guards Shoot at Men Attempting to Blow Up Vat.” Cullman Democrat (Cullman, AL), April 24, 1919.
*a good/possibly only book on this subject is “Making Catfish Bait out of Government Boys: The Fight Against Cattle Ticks and the Transformation of the Yeoman South,” by Claire Strom. I came across while researching this blog post. I’d heard about the dynamiting of tick vats from an earlier work on the history of cattle farming in Alabama and was really bummed to discover that someone else wrote the first book on it. Oh well, I’ll write the second.
**and by extension cattle from the rest of the south, it made more sense to just sell your herd west than try to take them through Nashville and onward to the slaughterhouses in Chicago.
***although I found a bunch of homosexuality cases that mentioned the same guy over and over again. it’s almost like the sheriff camped out near Dick Wells’s house and arrested him every other time he engaged in man-on-man loving. fun fact, all the men he supposedly got it on with appeared as witnesses against him.