Tuesday, March 27, 2012

When Jack Rabbits Became Scapegoats

Jack Rabbit Hunt, Mead, Kansas, about 1919

After killing off the bison in the 1860s and 70s, importing immigrants to take over the land, and then plowing up the land to feed the armies of World War I Europe, grain production soared for a few wet years, producing a crop glut so severe that by 1925 three years worth of bounty sat rotting on the ground in some areas. The grain storehouses were full and no one wanted any more wheat at any price. Only so much could be turned into booze -- the rest was left to rot.

What to do? Why plant more land of course! If the price of wheat fell from $2 to $1 a bushel, then the only way to make the same amount of money as last year was to plant twice as much land. And so that's what people did, ripping up all the sod and all the land they could in the prairie states.  Life was hard, but there was still an export market for wheat to Europe.

Then in the summer of 1929, the Russian wheat embargo to Europe, which had started with World War I, and which had driven the export wheat economy in the United States, was lifted, further glutting the international market. At about the same time, the land speculation boom in Florida collapsed, and so too did the U.S. Stock market on October 29.

Over the course of the next three weeks in November of 1929, the stock market lost 40 percent of its value; more than thirty-five billion dollars in shareholder equity, a sum 11 times larger than the federal budget at that time.

What followed next was a general fiscal panic that quickly grew worse. It turned out that in thousands of local banks across the country, absent any regulation at all, local businessmen had taken people's savings and invested it in stocks or speculative local land deals. When panicked people came knocking for their money, there was no money to be had, and so banks closed overnight. Without federal regulation or bank insurance, what could anyone do?

The price of oil crashed soon after, falling from $1.30 a barrel to twenty cents and eventually to a dime. Across the entire nation, the bubble burst and the price of everything -- real estate in Florida, oil in Texas, wheat in Kansas, and stocks on Wall Street -- took a dive to the basement. The economy was in shambles.

Then, when the rain stopped, and the winds started blowing, large parts of the Great Plains that had been ripped open for wheat production, turned into massive dust clouds instead. Dust settled over everything, killing cattle and horses, burying fence posts and blowing east as far as New York City and Washington, and as far north as Chicago.

Both nature and the economy were now wildly out of swing. A plague of grasshoppers came out of Utah and Colorado, destroying crops.  Spiders and centipedes seemed to followed the dust.

With the ground dry and blowing, the economy in shreds, and people dead broke, unemployed and starting to go hungry, someone noticed the large numbers of Jack Rabbits about and decided they were too much competition for the few horses and cattle that remained. What to do? Why round them up and club them to death, of course.

And so jack rabbit roundups, which has begun in California in the 1890s, moved to places like Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas.  Massive funnel-shaped pens were created, and hundreds of men, women and children drove the rabbits across the prairie to their death.

Rabbits had the run of the land, crowding fields, yards, streets. They were an easy source of food, but they also took away food, gnawing en masse in places where some farmers still hoped to raise a crop. People saw the rabbits as a scourge, a perpetual motion of mastication, indifferent to the human alterations that were blowing away.

Rabbit drive in the Antelope Valley, California, 1910.


In the pages of the Texan, John McCarty thought it was time to get rid of the big-eared menaces. People gathered in a fenced field at the edge of Dalhart, about two thousand folks armed with baseball bats and clubs. The atmosphere was festive, many people drinking corn whiskey from jugs. At last, they were about to do something, striking a blow against this run of freakish nature. They spread to the edge of the fenced section, forming a perimeter, then moved toward the center, herding rabbits inward to a staked enclosure.

As the human noose tightened, rabbits hopped around madly, sniffing the air, stumbling over each other. The clubs smashed heads. The bats crushed rib cages. Blood splattered, teeth were knocked out, hair was matted and reddened. The rabbits panicked, screamed. It took most of an afternoon to crush several thousand rabbits. Their bodies were left in a bloodied heap at the center of the field. Somebody strung up a few hundred of them and took a picture.

The rabbit drives caught on and became a weekly event in some places. In a single square mile section, people could kill up to six thousand rabbits in an afternoon. It seemed a shame to let all those dead rabbits go to waste when so many people were hungry in the cities. After one drive, in Hooker, Oklahoma, people shipped off two thousand rabbits as surplus meat. But it was hard to keep the meat from spoiling, and the logistics of butchering them proved too much. The rabbits were left to buzzards and insects or shoveled into pits and buried.

Jack Rabbit Hunt Near Hoxie, Kansas, ~1910. Click to enlarge and read sign.


Chas Clifton said...

Egan's book is great. You do hear of jackrabbits being distributed to the urban poor, but as you say, except in midwinter, it would have been hard to do that without the meat spoiling.

I do not enjoy the meat that much unless it's made into chile.

PBurns said...

Back during the Dust Bowl, they ground up and salted the tumble weed for cattle food, and some folks even canned tumble weed. Not surprisingly, more than a few also canned Jack Rabbit. Not a lot of fat on the animal, which is why it does not taste too great, I suspect.