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Winged invaders
Now and Then
boll weevil

When I was growing up, some folks — especially older folks — talked about the invasion of the region by “Old Sherman,” meaning Union Gen. William T. Sherman, as his army carved a 40-mile wide path of destruction from Atlanta to Savannah. In truth, many cities (the state capital of Milledgeville, Athens, Savannah) and homes were not destroyed. Food, livestock, horses and mules were taken and some homes and towns were burned. Still, even those who were not devastated hated “Old Sherman.”

Note that in my world there were many people who had direct experience with this event and its consequences. My paternal grandparents were born in the early 1870s, still in the Reconstruction era. Be advised that “old” had many meanings, not always denoting age. Here it meant a very bad person. It was possible for one to be old in years and also mean, so doubly old. Those who heard how the word was used always understood. Sherman was never called general, always “Old Sherman.”

After “Old Sherman” came, two other invaders — both winged insects, not human — that brought to the region devastation more widespread and lasting. These were the screw worm and the boll weevil. The screw worm came first and attacked the livestock, on which many depended for food and income. The boll weevil all but destroyed cotton culture, which had become the economic backbone of South Georgia and most of the rest of the South.

Since the screw worm was eradicated decades ago, many people know nothing about this scourge. It was much like the common “blow fly”, which deposits eggs on a dead animal and its larvae (maggots) devout the flesh of the cadaver. Screw worm flies deposited eggs in an open wound on a living animal. Their maggot-like larvae ate the living flesh of the injured animal. The wound might be small — a brier prick or an insect bite – but the result fatal. Free-range animals could suffer undetected for days. There were few effective treatments and some animals were half-wild or too large to manage. While grown cows had thick hides that were not easily punctured, many had horns, which they used against one another in skirmishes for territory or dominance.

Male pigs were routinely castrated, leaving a surgical wound. My father’s treatment for screw worm protection was to liberally smear the incision with fresh tar, which protected it against insects and dirt, promoted healing and remained in place until new skin and hair released it. However, when grown boars slashed one another with tusks in a fight for supremacy, their best chance for survival was the repeated mud wallows they took for cooling. The mud gave some protection from insects. Few people were willing to try to “doctor” a wounded boar.

Few people — even locals with deep memories — know that sheep were once a major livestock feature in this region. Given the fact that so many of its settlers had roots in Scotland and Ireland, it should not be a surprise. Two of my great-grandfathers ran large herds. The sheep — raised for wool not food — roamed the vast forests of South Georgia, like the cows and hogs. There were few apex predators, so the herds were relatively safe. There were no shepherds on constant watch, just regular visits. From time to time, herdsmen moved them to a new area, riding horses and using pop-whips to guide rather than herding dogs.

Unlike thick-skinned cows and mud-covered hogs, sheep were easily injured. Their thin skin made them vulnerable to briers, insects, etc. They were easy targets for screw worm infestation. Eventually, the pests destroyed sheep culture here.

Once livestock were confined after the open range era, farmers began to spray their herds to protect them from flies. Then the federal government (USDA?) came up with a final solution for the screw worm. Millions of male screw worm flies were sterilized by irradiation and released. In a short time, infertile matings wiped out the pests.

The boll weevil, spreading across Georgia in the 1920s, brought economic devastation everywhere. They moved rapidly from place to place and multiplied abundantly. Puncturing bolls from blossom time forward with a plant life sucking proboscis, they left behind shriveled knots devoid of fiber and hope.

Virtually everyone depended upon cotton, not just farmers and sharecroppers. Also included were cotton gin owners, those who sold seed and fertilizer, merchants of every sort, banks, doctors, lawyers, churches, everyone and everything supported by taxes that could not be paid by profitless farmers and their dependents.

Before the Great Depression, farms were falling into foreclosure. Displaced by losses, farmers and others left for Florida’s citrus groves, the cotton mills of the Carolinas, even Henry Ford’s factory in Detroit.

Farmers did not surrender meekly to this invader. Some used a hand-made mop to dab mixture of arsenic and molasses onto every boll, a dangerous, tedious, laborious task that had little effect. Many gathered up their cotton stalks as soon as possible after the crop was harvested and burned them completely. By then, weevils had moved into woodlands and found a secure place to over-winter.

In time, more potent chemicals became available. Tractors and special spraying/dusting machines made it possible to deliver them. Crop dusting airplanes could deliver treatment even after crops were too developed for ground machinery. It is impossible to know how many farmers were killed or sickened by working with the chemicals or their impact on birds, other animals and the greater environment. And the poisons were only partly effective against boll weevils and proved to be too expensive.

Eventually, a control program was developed. Less destructive chemicals are available but never used until weevils actually are detected in baited traps. Cotton has returned to South Georgia as a viable crop, one produced by a platoon of complex machines and hardly touched by human hands.

Passing by a cotton field after harvest, old timers cringe at the waste, all that cotton left behind by that newfangled combine. There was a time when a farmer would roust his family out and into the field the very next day to pick that scattered cotton.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.