squirrel angry

“Children, Get Your Poison Barley and Kill the Squirrels!”

Precisely 99 years ago, California was battling a bushy-tailed terror: squirrels. They were destroying too many crops. To fight the furry fiends, reports Atlas ztzhrkkftk
, the government enlisted a platoon of pint-size perps:

This children’s crusade was part of Squirrel Week, a seven-day frenzy in which California tried to kill off its ground squirrels.

But how would they beat the bushy-tailed bullies? This way:


In the upper righthand corner the woman says, “Children, we must kill the squirrels to save food. But use poisons carefully.”

I’m sure you’ve used those very words yourself. The trick seems to have been poisoned barley strewn near the squirrels’ burrows. (Say THAT 10 times fast.) (Or even once.) But here’s the part of the story I liked the most:

Squirrel Week was the state’s first attempt at mass eradication. The anti-rodent campaign was announced in March 1918 at a meeting of the state’s horticultural commissioners as they lunched on grain-fed gophers. (“Liberal portions of beef were served to those who did not like gopher meat,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.)

Bottom line: How effective were the tiny tykes of terror?

Children were asked to verify their kills by bringing in squirrel tails to their schools. Some impatient exterminators delivered their trophies directly to Commissioner Hecke even before Squirrel Week kicked off, causing a “pronounced odor” in his office. He requested that children not send him any more tails, and instructed his county commissioners to bury all tails after tallying them.

By the time Squirrel Week ended on May 4, children across the state had turned in 104,509 tails, though this was thought to represent a fraction of the total casualties. Even after the contest ended, the Commission of Horticulture reported that kids’ enthusiasm for killing squirrels continued for “an indefinite period.” During an anti-squirrel campaign in Lassen County later in the year, one girl brought in 3,780 tails; a boy brought in 3,770.

So it looks like the girls beat the squirrels. (And the boys.)

Kudos to Dave Gilson for unearthing this bit of buried history and in the process reminding us that we used to trust kids with poison, nature, responsibility and death.

And someone had to saw off all those tails. – L. (a rabid…er…enthusiastic squirrel fan who nonetheless cheers these children of old)



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18 Responses to “Children, Get Your Poison Barley and Kill the Squirrels!”

  1. Jessica March 22, 2017 at 8:53 am #

    This is… surreal. They had to bring in the tails!!

  2. BL March 22, 2017 at 9:12 am #

    I’m getting flashbacks to the late 1990s and the MTV cartoon “Daria”. Daria’s father Jake went into rages over the neighborhood squirrel population.

    I don’t think he ever tried to get Daria and Quinn to help eradicate the squirrels.

  3. M March 22, 2017 at 10:24 am #

    People forget that the reason for “Summer Vacation” was to allow children to work in the fields, help with the animals, and harvest the crops. Butchering was a family affair. Canning and other forms of preserving food involved very hot cast iron stoves, boiling liquids, knives, fire, and smoke.

    Now at the local schools, they give the kids plastic “sporks” (spoon / fork combos). A metal fork is just too dangerous to allow High School students to use.

  4. Backroads March 22, 2017 at 11:34 am #

    My husband is 32 and grew up on a ranch. He has vivid memories of doing similar things.

  5. Christopher Byrne March 22, 2017 at 12:13 pm #

    I still have the 1928 Gabriel Soldier Making kit, which was my dad’s prized possession when he was a kid. It came with an small smelter and lots of lead pellets. You melted the lead over the heat and then poured it into the molds. It was the forerunner of the 1960s hit Creepy Crawlers, which used PlastiGoop.

    BTW, the original PlastiGoop was toxic to small mammals, causing complete renal shutdown within 24 hours.

    Good times!

  6. EB March 22, 2017 at 12:19 pm #

    And before regular trash pickup, kids were often the ones to burn the trash/garbage. Stinky job, not loved by anyone except firebugs.

  7. John B. March 22, 2017 at 12:21 pm #

    I am not a hunter and never will be one but some of my old hunting buddies tell me that the number of kids hunting (it was mostly young boys) has fallen off drastically from 40 years ago. He was telling me that years ago, there were large numbers of boys as young as 11- or 12-years-old in hunter safety courses but you just don’t see that anymore. Probably because kids shooting guns is unthinkable to people nowadays in any circumstance, even hunting.

  8. fred schueler March 22, 2017 at 12:33 pm #

    notice the German helmets on the Squirrels in the lower corners of the poster – and that your illustration is a Tree Squirrel rther than a Ground Squirrel….

  9. SteveD March 22, 2017 at 12:52 pm #

    Great bit of history.

    I had never heard about this, Lenore. Thanks for posting it.

    I’ll bet there are many history lessons like this regarding young children most of us have never heard. Does anyone have another one to share? I’d love to hear it.

    I’ve talked with several elderly people who worked on their family farm as young children before child labor laws. These people do not have bad memories of their labor. They were being a helpful member of the family. Everyone had a job to do.

    If a parent’s belief is that children are not able to be responsible, they won’t be.

  10. Jetsanna March 22, 2017 at 1:09 pm #

    EB – And I was that firebug who loved it! My older sister was terrified of fire, but I loved lighting up that big cage and watching it all burn. We composted, so the garbage cage wasn’t stinky.

  11. HotInLa March 22, 2017 at 1:32 pm #

    I lived for burning trash when I was a kid! 😀

  12. Crystal March 22, 2017 at 2:02 pm #

    I’m in my early 30s and grew up in a farm town. In high school, I can recall more than once where we were called out of class to go round up sheep that had gotten out of the pens (we had the best FFA program in the nation for a while). Another time, the principal got on the loudspeaker and asked anyone with a rifle to hustle to the sheep pen because our ewes were getting attacked by a pack of feral dogs. I’m serious!

  13. Workshop March 22, 2017 at 2:20 pm #

    John B, one of the reasons hunting is declining is that as hunters move, they stop hunting.
    You move to a new area, and it takes time to learn the land, where the best spots are, etc. If you’ve moved to a new area it’s probably because you’re a young-ish person moving out on your own, and in the couple years it takes to really get comfortable in an area you’re looking at meeting that special someone and starting a family. Further pressure on the amount of time available to dedicate to the pursuit of a new hobby.

    Plus, the urban population isn’t as interested in hunting as the rural population is. The past decades have seen urban populations grow as people move to the cities for jobs.

    I know this is the case of me and fishing. Hunters and fisherpeoples are cut from the same cloth.

    Of course, the phobia regarding all-things-firearm is a thing, too, but other reasons probably impact the popularity of hunting more than fear.

  14. DL March 22, 2017 at 2:33 pm #

    My family thinks it’s terrible that I kill squirrels. Well, one son just paid a small fortune to have one removed from an exhaust pipe in his home. It died in the radon detector motor. I hate squirrels but since it is illegal to kill them here I will post this anonymously. Now if I can just find me an adventurous kid……

  15. Kirsten March 22, 2017 at 2:43 pm #

    I am laughing out loud imagining the multiple forms of outrage that would break out in California if this were proposed now. The loudest would likely be PETA and their ilk, and by the time they were finished the Squirrel would be a sacred animal, a friend and helper, suitable to be the mascot at elementary schools. People would say, “Why are we discriminating against one animal? Doesn’t that teach children intolerance?”

    Then the child safety advocates would weigh in. Then the people worried about poisoning the environment and possibly neighborhood cats and dogs by spreading poison around (I’d actually have to agree with this concern).
    Lastly would be people worrying about whether this would be a “gateway” for child sociopaths to learn how to be serial killers.

    @Crystal that sounds really cool! I wish I had grown up in that type of environment.

  16. James Pollock March 22, 2017 at 3:09 pm #

    I must be the only one who remembers the “whacking day” episode from the Simpsons.

  17. Reziac March 22, 2017 at 3:40 pm #

    Rabbit drives used to be a Thing in the American west:


    Note all the kids participating!

  18. Rachael March 24, 2017 at 12:24 pm #

    And how many children died from the poisoned barley? I’m going to guess none, because kids are smart and if you tell them it’s poisoned to kill the squirrels they aren’t going to eat it.