Pest Eradication Contests
Or-Gunfire in the night
Before I was a Marine I was a farm kid. When I was in high school in Claflin, Kansas from 1953 to 1957 I was in an organization called "Future Farmers of America", or FFA as we called it. Claflin was a town of about 900 people surrounded by farm land, and a large number of the 100 or so kids in Claflin High were farm kids. Back then the FFA was all boys. Girls just didn’t take part in organizations like FFA. Today there are a significant number of girls in the organization. A few years ago the national convention was in Washington, DC and you saw FFA kids from all over the country in their distinctive blue corduroy jackets. There were a lot of girls wearing the jacket.
The back of the distinctive blue corduroy FFA jacket
The charter of the organization reads as follows: The National FFA Organization is dedicated to making a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.
Most of the kids enrolled in the Vocational Agriculture course at Claflin High were FFA members, so there were probably about 30 members in our chapter, from freshmen to seniors. Referring to the picture above, our jackets said "CLAFLIN" above the logo and "KANSAS" below it. Besides the agricultural education aspects of FFA, members carried out projects throughout the year. One of my projects, for example, was raising a hog from piglet to the slaughter house…yielded some damn good bacon and ham by the way. In addition we had other activities throughout the school year such as dances, a banquet, and the subject of this tale, an annual "Pest Eradication Contest".
This contest occurred during October and November of each year and lasted about six weeks. There were two teams...one was comprised of all the kids from north of Claflin and the other of kids from south of town, with east-west Kansas Highway 4 being the boundary between teams. I was on the south team. See the picture below-the Praeger farm is on the right edge of the picture a quarter mile south of K-4. The general idea behind the contest was to kill as many "pests" as possible. The pest list included mice, sparrows, crows, rats, possums, raccoons, rabbits, coyotes, and just about any other kind of wildlife that could be found in central Kansas during the 1950s. Points were awarded for pests brought to the vocational ag shop every Monday morning. The harder it was to chase down and kill the pest, the greater the points awarded-for example, you got 5 points for a mouse and 100 points for a coyote. When you killed a pest, you didn't bring the whole body in for the Monday morning tally, just body parts. For example, mouse tails, rabbit ears, coyote tails, sparrow heads, and so forth were counted. The team that amassed the most points during the period of the contest won. The Voc Ag teacher and FFA faculty advisor, Floyd Nishwonger, would tally the points for each team and was the final authority and official score keeper. As he counted a head or tail, it went into a big garbage can. He had to remain alert or some kid would sneak up behind him and dig body parts out of the can and try for a double count. Floyd had been a Marine automatic rifleman during the Battle for Okinawa in 1945 and was part of my inspiration to become a Marine. He wore Big Smith coveralls all the time. He’s wearing them in his picture in my senior yearbook. I don’t think I ever saw him wear a necktie.
Claflin, Kansas and Highway K-4, the boundary between teams
To get mice I'd just take one of our farm cats into the granary and turn him lose. When he caught a mouse, I'd just snip the tail off with a pair of scissors. I guess you could call that innovative, but most of the damage was done with .22 caliber rifles and shotguns. As you can imagine from the partial list mentioned above, the definition of "pests" was very flexible. My buddy Schultz shot a bunch of small migratory birds and tried to pass them off as sparrows. Trouble was, Floyd noticed that they all had different colored heads, so Schultz was skunked…no points for creatures just passing through. Essentially, any living creature was in danger of biting the dust during the contest. You could go outside on about any night during Pest Eradication autumn and hear gunfire in the distance as the FFA minions went on quests for "pests", running down rabbits, possums and coyotes in the headlights of pickup trucks and blowing them away. During later years as a Marine in Vietnam, when I would hear distant fire fights in the night it brought back memories of the Pest Eradication contests. The volume of gunfire was a little less in Kansas, but the essence was the same…distant gunfire in the night. It engendered the same category of night time stuff as train whistles and dogs barking in the distance.
FFA moms hated Pest Eradication autumn. We'd keep the remnants of our victims in paper bags on the enclosed back porch for the entire week and take them in for counting each Monday morning. You couldn't leave them outside because the farm cats and dogs would run off with them, thus wiping out valuable hard-earned points for your team. By the time Monday rolled around the whole house stunk like hell. Thus farm moms were happy when November became December and pest remnant storage was no longer required.
The losing team had to treat the winners to a chili supper prepared by them in the school cafeteria. The jokes were rampant about what was in the chili considering the nature of pest eradication. Try to imagine having such a contest in this day and age. Claflin would be over run by PETA protesters and God knows who else. I don’t know who came up with the idea or how much longer the contests went on after I graduated in 1957. And except for the Jack Rabbits, which were greatly overpopulated in Kansas in the 1950s, most of the creatures on the pest list were pretty beneficial to nature. There were so many Jack Rabbits back then that hunting them was encouraged and drives were conducted to get rid of them. One of our favorite pastimes back then was Jack Rabbit hunting. It all must have worked because you hardly ever see a Jack Rabbit in central Kansas today.
And so I share with you another story of my wayward youth growing up as a farm boy in a small town. As kids we always wished that we were closer to the bigger towns, such as they were in central Kansas, but looking back on it now, I wouldn’t trade my experience of growing up for anything.
Dirck Praeger sends