By Stephen D. Bowling
What caused the explosion in the population of squirrels has never been explained. There is a natural cycle of boom and bust in the number of squirrels based primarily on the abundance of food. Some years saw few “bushy tails” roaming the woods while others created serious challenges for farmers. 1896 was one of those challenging years.
The first reports of large numbers of squirrels started appearing in newspapers in June 1896. The Interior Journal in Danville, Kentucky, reported that “quite an abundance of squirrels are to be found in the woods” and frequently numbered the kills that hunters reported, including a trip by J. M. Duncan who killed 15 in about half an hour.
As the corn ripened on the hillsides in Breathitt County, the plague of squirrels moved into these all-you-can-eat buffets. The Louisville Courier-Journal followed the plight of the farmers in Kentucky and highlighted the battle in Breathitt in its October 23, 1896 edition on page 8.
Squirrel Plague In Breathitt Jackson, Ky., Oct. 22. (Special) – People of the mountains looked forward to a splendid chestnut crop this year, but long before the time for the harvest, the squirrels had destroyed the entire crop. Such havoc was never known in the region before and only tells what large numbers of squirrels have infested the county. In places, large cornfields have been almost entirely destroyed by them. George Miller, of Flint Ridge, this county, killed four hundred around his cornfield during the month of September with a rifle.
The battle to keep the squirrels out of their corn was a life-and-death struggle. Farmers, their families, and livestock relied on the annual corn harvest. Corn was ground to feed the family during the winter and corn sustained the weight of the farm animals until the tinder green shoots of grass nourished them in the spring. Farms without a supply of winter corn went hungry or on reduced provisions during the coldest months of the year.
The other side of the issue was more helpful to the farmers. The squirrel harvest soared during this period as the furry creatures were apparently so plentiful that all that was required to take them was a good stick to swing. The story of Jeff Hardin and his son in Montgomery County provided a look at one positive aspect that this four-legged plague provided.
On November 6, 1896, The Kentucky Ledger from Lexington Kentucky, published an account of Jeff Hardin’s hunt after hearing the story and sending a report to verify the events. According to the account, Hardin and his son “glutted” the squirrel market after killing 763 squirrels in one morning. The reporter from the Ledger verified the events.
According to the reporter, Jeff Hardin planted about 6 acres of corn along the river near his home. He noticed a large number of squirrels coming to the field every day. He burned wood to smoke them out and tried numerous ways to keep them away, but all efforts failed. Just before sunrise on November 5, 1896, Hardin and his 17-year-old son, walked slowly into the two large fields that bordered the cornfield carrying large sticks.
The pair started walking toward the corn in an attempt to trap the pesky animal against the river behind the corn. After much maneuvering and many quick turns, the Hardin managed to corner many of the corn invaders and started swinging their death stalks. When the carnage was over, Hardin reported that the pair killed 763 squirrels, missed at least that many that escaped, and an untold number jumped into the river and drowned. The next morning Hardin and his son drove a wagon filled with the squirrels into town and sold them at the Haymarket, making a welcomed but unexpected profit for their efforts.
By December 1896, the stories of the squirrel invasion stopped appearing in the newspapers around Kentucky. It appears that the natural cycle of expansion and reduction in the number of squirrels in the area mixed with a healthy dose of harvesting stabilized the population. But who knows, maybe this year will be another “squirrel plague” year so keep your eyes on the trees.
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling