March 24th…“HOW DID YOU EARN YOUR OWN SPENDING MONEY ON THE FARM IN MINNESOTA DAYS?”
A tincture of happy green envy must’ve literally glowed from my little boy face as I’d gaze over each page and dream about all the toys I wanted to have out of that well-worn catalog. My three favorite adults each year were Mr. Sears, Mr. Montgomery Ward and Mr. Spiegel…..for each of those gentlemen sent their catalogs to our farm home FOR FREE!!! 😉
With money scarce on our farm, our hardworking parents gifted us $.25 cents per week to use for spending money when we’d all go to our hometown of Kiester on Saturday evenings for the “Lucky Bucks” drawing. For me, though, when there were Tonka trucks and other toy goals in my “gotta have it” head, wellll, that twenty five cents a week just wasn’t gonna make those dreams come true fast enough. I just HAD to find a way to earn more money.
One day, our dear father, Russell, said, “Son, if you wanna earn your own money, I’d recommend trapping gophers for the bounty money from their front claws!!” Minnesota (and other Midwest States, I’m sure) was the home of the Plains Pocket Gopher. This rodent received its name from the fur lined pockets that resided on each cheek. This subterranean sleuth would fill those pockets with soil as he’d tunnel beneath the earth. When he’d come “topside”, those massive front claws of his would then evict that soil from the pockets and he’d return to the dark underworld for his continued excavating adventures. This underground rascal was considered a pest and dangerous for a couple of reasons: 1. Crops were hindered or destroyed as he’d forage on their roots from under the ground. 2. The very act of his tunneling also proved hazardous due to his surface holes that he created every so many feet across a field. Livestock that would be grazing in his area were more focused on the next munch of grass than where they should put their next 1,500 pound footstep. Unknowingly, some cows would step into the gopher’s hole either injuring or breaking a leg. This type of incident incurred high veterinarian bills for either treatment to the leg or having the animal “put out of its misery” with euthanasia (killing the animal by injection or gunshot). This was a loss of hundreds of dollars to farmers plus the sadness of losing one of our animal “friends”.
As a result of this underground tyrant’s mischief, Faribault County created a bounty price for eliminating as many of these rodents from our area as possible. In this case, a “bounty” was a gift reward from the local county government if someone would trap and kill these lil troublemaker criminals. The county agent (Charlie Heitzeg) would pay anyone $.10 cents for each front claw of a Plains Pocket Gopher or $.02 cents for the tail of a Striped Gopher. “Hot DOG!”, I thought…….the more gopher claws, the more MONEY!!
Any time spent with our dad, of course, was priceless for me! This day was to be one of those golden moments as he taught me how to locate the “front door” of a gopher mound and then how to remove the loose soil down to the “Y” in the burrow below ground.
Once Dad and I located the intersection of “Mr. Pockets” underground highway, now was the time to excavate about a 2″ depression into the “floor” so that my expanded and “set to kill” steel trap could lay below the “runway” level of the tunnel. In order to hide the scent of the steel trap and my human hands, Dad taught me how to gently sift some soft soil over the top of the trap that made it smell like the rest of “Mr. Pocket’s” underground thoroughfare. Hopefully, now, the gopher would think all was well in his world as he’d come scurrying along later. A chain (with a ring on the end) was attached to the trap. That chain was brought up above ground level and a stake was driven through the ring and tightly into the soil where we stood. This way, when the trap snapped, ol’ “Pockets” couldn’t drag my trap with him into the depths of the earth. In order to make the rodent think all was well, Dad showed me how to take small boards, grass or other material to re-cover the hole and then pile soil on top of that to once again replicate the black darkness down below that was normal for the gophers natural world beneath mine.
With extra traps hooked over the saddle horn and a burlap bag of gear, I would climb on-board my faithful Shetland friend, “Little Lady” and away we’d ride, mornings and evenings, to check the trap line for any gopher catches that day. When we’d approach a trap site, I’d dismount from the saddle to either tie off my pony to a fence, or just let her graze next to me as I’d pull away the cover and look inside the gopher hole. On most occasions, if a kill had occurred “down under”, I’d pull the dead gopher from the hole and release it from the trap.
After cutting off the front two claws, I’d drop them into a salt-filled, glass Mason jar to put on hold till a later date of cashing them in at Charlie Heitzeg’s farm. The reason for the salt was this…..our wise daddy spoke from his own boyhood days experience, so he strongly suggested that I pack those dead gopher claws into the jar with salt around them. Salt is a natural preservative to help keep down the stench from the natural rotting process that would occur over time. Now, to do the right thing, it was time to slide the body of “Mr. Pockets” back down into his hole for a proper burial and I’d cover the hole with dirt.
On occasion, things got a bit exciting on the trap line when I’d pull a LIVE gopher from his hole as he’d hiss and snap at me with all his little might. A quick KABONG to his head with a club put him out of his misery and I’d then “harvest” his claws for my collection. The strangest times, on the trap line, were when I’d uncover a gopher hole to find only ONE claw in the trap. The gopher, out of desperation, had chewed off his own foot to try to survive. Likely he bled to death in his underground domain, and I only received $.10 cents from that experience.
Once that big, glass Mason jar was packed full of claws and/or Striped Gopher tails, it was time to ride “Little Lady” up the gravel road to Charlie Heitzeg’s farm. As you recall, Charlie was the County Agent in our area that had the power to pay out for the bounty on these trapping treasures I’d bring. There we were, under the giant shade tree by his house. Charlie would unleash the cap of that VERY smelly Mason jar and pour all those rotting claws and tails onto the ground. To distance himself from the putrid nature of those items, Charlie found a very long stick as he’d count out those former body parts of them “criminal” gophers. As my little boy eyes anticipated my “millions”, our dear neighbor, in the spangled shade of that tree, then brought out his checkbook to write me a check for as much as $5.00 or even $7.00 dollars. YEEEHAWWW, thought I…….I’m rich!!! So thought this Norwegian Farmer’s Son.