Rat Hunting

July 16th, 2009

Back many years ago when the South was for the most part more rural than city, the out-in-the-country setting created its own special problems.

Rats and mice could get out of control pretty fast if the farmers got lax. Everything from traps to poison was used to combat the vermin. The use of traps caused some pretty strange accidents, especially if you had youngsters about. Rat poisons such as Decon killed about as many innocent animals as it did rodents. Cats did a passable job of mouse control in the home, and if you were lucky you’d be able to get an owl to roost in your barn and keep the rodents under control. When none of the aforementioned methods worked, you needed someone with a good “rat dog” to stop by for a visit.

My dad’s Uncle Curt bred and raised the little dogs that hunted rats. They were known as Feist or Rat Feist or Rat Terrier dogs. I have great respect for the breed based on what I saw and learned as a kid. My Trixie feist is the third of three that I’ve owned in my life. She’s thirteen years old and in poor health. I refuse to have her put down until I’m convinced that there’s no more hope for her. She remains fearless and loyal in her old age. Her eyes are cloudy and her muzzle gray, but she’s still paw-paw’s Trixie girl.

Both my granddads took great pride in the little dogs they’d trained to be rat killers. I worked with both men, so I had a fair degree of skill in the business of rat hunting. A person of small stature was better suited to rat hunting. Both of my granddads were kinda small, but rat killing is also a dirty job which created a place for yours truly.

All the old farmhouses were built high off the ground. The explanation for so much ground clearance depends pretty much on who you asked. Such construction allowed for under-floor storage space, dry and out of the weather. I’ve seen everything from peanuts to potatoes stored under the old houses. Of course, such unlimited access brought its own problems. Rats and mice topped the list of company you’d just as soon avoid. Best of all was the fact that it was nice to not have to crawl on your belly to work under those old home places.

Don’t know anybody that made big bucks ridding property of rats. My Grandpa Cole used rat hunting as an excuse to drive around and see his buddies. He’d put old Devil, his rat dog, in the seat of his well-used 1939 GMC pick-up truck and off they’d go. The old man would just drive up and tell my mom he was gonna borrow me and little brother to go do a job. Cole usually made us ride in back of the truck, claiming that the dog got too fidgety if he had to sit with us. Devil was a great rat dog but real high-strung. Male dogs weren’t usually as good a hunter for that very reason. I can’t say why.

On the particular day of this story Cole rolled into our drive and hollered at me to get Lowell and come on. I noticed there was another passenger in the cab of the old truck but the reflected sunlight kept me from seeing who it was. My mom came to the front door and told Cole that Lowell was having trouble with a tooth and couldn’t go. Cole expressed sympathy for the toothache and told her he needed me for a job. Mom said okay, so I climbed on board the old truck and off we went. After a few miles I figured out where we were going. We were on Yellow Jacket road going back and up into the high country, as the local people around there called it. Yellow Jacket, Wolf Creek, Pea Ridge and a bunch of other crossroads communities still existed in this hilly, overgrown section of the county.

We rattled and banged along in the old “Jimmie”, the little in-line six engine never missing a beat. After about ten miles of choppy red-rock road we turned off and followed a long cow path that ended in the front yard of an old run-down house. The place was wall-to-wall half-naked kids, none more than ten or eleven years old. Three junk cars and a half dozen flea-bitten dogs completed this portrait of country living. I’d never seen anything like it in my life.

My grandpa hollered at one of the kids to get their daddy to come outside so they could talk. After a few minutes one old man and two younger men walked out of the old house and across the yard to our truck. Cole introduced himself and told the men that Mr. Pierce had sent us to get rid of the rats. The old man gave everybody a toothless grin and told us his name was Jessie Agil (pronounced A-jill). Said the others were his boys Arthur and Jessie Jr.

Cole told Mr. Agil he’d have to put up the yard dogs before Devil could get out of the truck. The two younger men rounded up all their hounds and locked them up in an old Packard car that was rusting away in the front yard. Grandpa got Devil out and told the other passenger to get out, too.

The other passenger turned out to be Cuz. Cuz, aka Country Boy Bob, was a local character by the name of Arnold Nelson, a general handy-man and sometimes musician in local hillbilly bands. According to Cole, old Cuz was gonna add rat hunting to his vast array of talents —  which must’ve meant they were about to get rid of me? At any rate, I told Arnold to follow me and set about doing what we came to do.

Rats and mice will live inside a house or barn but seem to prefer underground nests if they have a large population or colony. They will build an underground nest with as many as six separate access tunnels, although most have about half as many. The trick was to find all the tunnels and block off all but two of them. I found five tunnels, of which three were blocked and the other two marked. This old house was so high off the ground that my short frame could stand up except in one corner. Cuz wasn’t happy with the prospect of getting dirty and was holding back on me. I told him he could go get some water ready for us to use. This place didn’t have running water or electric power, so Cuz had to hoist water out of the well one bucket at a time. The water was used to flood the underground nest which either drowned the rats or drove them out to the waiting dog or dogs. I yelled out to Cole that everything was ready.

My other grandpa was the better hunter, plus he worked three dogs. Pa Henry would just flood the tunnel and turn the dogs loose on the rats. Cole had tried to refine the process by first pouring about a half pound of “Miners Carbide” into the tunnel opening followed by about a quart of water and then blocking all the holes as tight as possible. Carbide and water combine to form acetylene gas. After about twenty minutes you dump in the rest of the water. The dog gets what ever survives. At least that’s how it’s supposed to happen. Cole had sent Cuz and the dog to watch the hole we were going to drive the rats through. I stood back out of the way and Grandpa stoked the hole with plenty of carbide, poured in some water, and put his booted foot over the hole, causing the acetylene to fill every nook and cranny in the underground rats’ den. Old man Jessie and his boys were all excited about the whole affair.

Cuz decided about then to have a smoke. He rolled himself one out of a Prince Albert can, reached into his overall pocket, got one of those old wooden Blue Tip kitchen matches, struck it, lit his smoke, and pitched the still burning match away. I recall having a brief moment of fear as the burning match tumbled to the ground.

The explosion was very loud. At first there was some dust rising from the ground, then a dirty orange flash followed by what sounded like a crack of thunder. Cuz had thrown that old wooden match down into a collection of acetylene gas. The blast knocked me on my butt. Cole was knocked flat and his right pant leg was smoldering. Our dog ran and hid under the GMC pick-up. Cuz had dirt and pieces of dead rat all over his clothes. He’d also wet his pants. The explosion had caused a lot of cave-ins under the old house, but the place had withstood the big bang. Not a single floor support failed. The Agil’s took it all in stride. Grandpa charged them five dollars, of which I got one dollar. Turns out Cuz didn’t want my job. He was just looking for a ride home. Don’t guess anyone’s in a big hurry to learn the rat business, but I wanted to be ready.

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2 Responses to “Rat Hunting”

  1. pam |

    i heard that new york is overrun by rats now… is that true

  2. Tom |

    Pam, I don’t know if the right word is “overrun,” but from what I hear the problem with rats in New York City is getting worse and worse. I’m not normally big on hunting, but getting rid of rats, by whatever method, is OK with me.

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