The southern cattle tick was an arachnid that caused considerable damage to livestock in the South and carried a protozoan that caused massive cattle deaths from babesiosis when introduced to northern herds. In 1906 the federal government appropriated money to eradicate the pest by dipping all of a region’s cattle, horses, and mules in a vat filled with arsenic every fourteen days during the growing season. Involvement was voluntary, with counties deciding whether to participate.
Farmers and agriculture officials in many counties rejected participation for a variety of reasons. In some counties cattle grazed freely, often in swamps, piney woods, mountains, or other marginal terrain, making it difficult to round them up every two weeks. In addition, many yeoman farmers raised livestock largely for home consumption and saw few benefits to cattle tick and babesiosis eradication. Because participation was so sparse, cleaned areas became reinfected.
For example, Simpson County, Mississippi, on the banks of the Pearl River, was a mainly white county where most of the farms were less than one hundred acres and stock ran free. The county government opposed the program, but in 1913 a local veterinarian presented the board of supervisors with a petition signed by seven hundred citizens who wanted eradication. The board agreed to institute an eradication program if the same number of people did not oppose the proposition, but at the board’s next meeting, it received a petition signed by fifteen hundred people “praying the Board not to take up the work.”
In 1916, therefore, Mississippi made participation mandatory, passing the country’s first statewide tick eradication law. The US government had quarantined the state, and legislators and Governor Theodore Bilbo wanted to eliminate federal involvement. The law went into effect in April 1916, and on 1 December 1917 Mississippi celebrated what Bilbo described as “an epoch in our State”: the federal quarantine was lifted and Mississippi was “declared free from the cattle fever tick.”
In actuality, however, the state government had achieved only the appearance of success by persuading the US Bureau of Animal Industry to turn the work over to state and local officials. Thus, individual herds and regions of Mississippi counties remained infested and under state quarantine even though the federal restrictions had been removed. Considerable infestation remained, and federal inspectors returned by 1919.
Bilbo had made a tactical error in implementing mandatory dipping, failing to realize that opposition to the program would be concentrated among poor white farmers, who also constituted his base of support. He sought to make amends by focusing on the lifting of federal quarantine and by minimizing the effects of the tick law. He ran for the US House of Representatives in 1918 against Judge Paul B. Johnson, who had consistently opposed mandatory dipping. Bilbo lost the election and later said that he had been “crucified on a cross of ticks.”
Stone County protested mandatory dipping via the Mississippi Budget Law of 1923, under which each county’s board of supervisors drafted a budget each September for the following year. Under Section 6 of the law, if a majority of resident taxpayers petitioned for the removal of any item, the expense had to be struck, and Stone County residents forced the removal of the money budgeted for tick eradication. The state retaliated by taking the county to court; although the state won, the victory required the court to declare Section 6 unconstitutional. Consequently, enforcement of the statewide law was achieved only by reducing grassroots power.
Other opponents of dipping fought back violently. In the early 1920s dipping virtually reached a standstill in Amite County because foes dynamited the dipping vats, and enforcement efforts led to gun battles. To control the situation, federal inspectors leased 240 acres about ten miles outside Liberty, right in the middle of the dynamited area, and established an armed camp to treat livestock. Black laborers were hired to clear the underbrush and trees but faced threats from local farmers, so most of the work fell to the range riders. Living in tents, these men erected corrals to hold the livestock and mounted machine guns on the dipping vats. They always traveled in threes, with one man armed with a rifle and watching for ambush.
The cattle tick was finally eradicated, and Mississippi was released from federal quarantine in the late 1920s. The elimination of the cattle tick and babesiosis certainly helped the state’s farmers establish a more profitable dairy and beef industry. However, the need for universal compliance meant that the program infringed on individual and local rights, reducing yeoman power at the expense of the state and federal governments.
- Chester M. Morgan, Redneck Liberal: Theodore G. Bilbo and the New Deal (1985)
- Claire Strom, Making Catfish Bait out of Government Boys: The Fight against Cattle Ticks and the Transformation of the Yeoman South (2010)
- US Department of Agriculture Records, National Archives and Records Administration II, College Park, Md.