Mosquitoes in South Wellfleet, and Green Heads too

This post explores my memory of a small plane flying over Blackfish Creek’s marshes, creating a cloud, while spraying for mosquitoes. There’s a new focus now on mosquitoes as the Zika virus spawns the current global health crisis. Here are some highlights of the mosquito’s history in Wellfleet and events that led to the spraying.

There are more than 3500 species of mosquitoes. In the Cape Cod towns that are surrounded by extensive marshland meadows it is the common eastern saltmarsh mosquito (Aedes sollicitans – later reclassified as ochlerotatus sollicitans). With the numerous freshwater ponds and wetlands, there are other species also, but distinguishing one from another was not done until the science of entomology developed. Until the late nineteenth century, these pests were simply something to be endured, although it was common knwledge that they were breeding in the marshes. The saltmarshes also produced the greenheads that become pesky by early summer.

Mosquito at work

Mosquito at work

Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford wrote about mosquitoes and their effects on people in his history of the colony, although his comment was a bit of a sarcastic remark: “They are too delicate and unfit to begin new plantations and colonies who cannot endure the biting of a mosquito. We wish such to keep at home until at least they be mosquito proof.”

Endurance lasted for more than two hundred years, although there may have been some useful efforts to follow native people’s solutions of smoking the area or the application of bear grease. The Barnstable Patriot suggested that a camphor bag hung in “an open casement” was a solution (1861) and an open bottle of Penny Royale in a room created the fumes to drive the mosquitoes away (1872).

For the greenheads, the marshes would be burned in the fall after the salt hay was brought in. The greenhead females lay their eggs on the tall marsh grass. Perhaps the name our family called them, “horse flies”, came from the early farmers’ knowledge to not bring their horses close to the marsh when the flies were hatching, since the animal would become uncontrollable when the pests started to bite. The familiar blue boxes in the marsh that we see today were first set out in 1970 by workers from the Cape Cod Mosquito Control Project. The boxes trap female flies prior to their mating, seeking a “blood meal” before laying their eggs.

In the late nineteenth century, Dr. Walter Reed and the entomologists confirmed that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes. Malaria had been worked on somewhat earlier by British doctors, and the connection to mosquitoes was established. Dr. Reed’s work was spurred on by the 114-day Spanish-American War when more than 5,000 men died, but fewer than 400 in actual battles. Malaria, yellow fever, typhoid and dysentery caused most of these deaths, and now the United States had tropical islands to manage, as well as the Panama Canal Zone.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also a period when leisure time became available, for some people, and tourism developed, especially around mountain and coastal towns. It took a little longer for the tourist economy to reach the outer Cape towns. In Wellfleet, it was supported by Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker, whose banana-importing business provided the capital to develop Wellfleet in this new way. He opened the bayside Chequessett Inn in 1902.

Much of the land Captain Baker owned was along the bayside, so the solution was to dyke and ditch the two thousand-acre Herring River marsh, a project undertaken in 1909 and just today is being “undone.” Captain Baker donated the land, with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Town of Wellfleet splitting the remaining $20,000 needed to build the dike. Even The New York Times reported in 1909 on this successful effort in Wellfleet.

Captain Baker, with his international interests, would have been knowledgeable about the urgent work around the world to eradicate disease-carrying mosquitoes. In 1903, the American Mosquito Extermination Society was formed, with the help of Henry Clay Weeks, a sanitary engineer working in New York City. In New Jersey, an entomologist from Rutgers University helped create success stories along the Jersey Shore, an effort reported in Massachusetts. In 1905, Henry Clay Weeks produced a short report on how to eradicate the mosquitoes in Wellfleet—this appears to be a study Captain Baker paid for, to help convince Wellfleet’s Town fathers to support this work.

In addition to eradicating mosquitoes, dike-builders saw their efforts as “reclaiming” useless marshland for potential agricultural uses, including cranberries and other fruits. In the United States, the urgent work to stop the spread of disease became strongly tied to the effort to increase “personal comfort.”

For more information on the re-working of the Herring River in Wellfleet, the Friends of Herring River website has an excellent paper on the importance of saltmarshes, and the natural processes that create and sustain them, as well as the history of the Herring River project in Wellfleet.

There were two other methods for eradicating mosquitoes: ditching and draining the marshes, and the application of kerosene to the marsh pools where the insects breed. At first this effort was town-by-town, as reflected in the appearance of mosquito-eradication funding in the annual Wellfleet Town Reports, beginning in 1903.

Ditching the salt marshes wasn’t a new strategy. There’s evidence that a modest effort was made by North American native people. But after European settlers arrived and saw the potential for pasturing livestock in the midst of the salt hay, more extensive ditching was adopted, especially in places where “gondolas” were used to gain access for harvest. (Here’s my earlier blog post on salt hay.)

By the late 1920s, mosquito control measures became a county-wide concern. In 1930, all the Barnstable County towns joined in an effort called the Mosquito Control Project, raising $200,000. By December of that year, the Barnstable Patriot reported that 216 miles had been ditched, an effort worked on by 28 men. They were digging trenches 100 feet apart, 10 feet wide, and 24 inches deep, believed to drain low places and prevent breeding. In addition, heavy oil was applied to the pools of water that collected in the marsh.

The privately funded effort became part of the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture’s Division of Reclamation during the Depression years, with the work providing much-needed jobs for Cape men. Some of the marsh-ditching work may have been done by the federally-funded Civilian Conservation Corps, as was the building of Nickerson State Park in Brewster. One report implied that the ditching took on a life of its own, and was directed more at creating jobs than eradicating mosquitoes. This effort peaked in 1934, with over 3,000 linear miles of ditches dug in the Massachusetts marshes.

While I cannot verify it, it seems that the marshes of Blackfish Creek must have been worked on. In the 1950s, my older brother would maneuver our dory through the marsh to tie it up near the highway, probably on an old post left at Stubbs landing, where we would cross over to the General Store. He remembers that we were following a channel in the marsh. However, by the time of this childhood adventure, the ditches of the 1930s may have already been filled in.

During this period also, the kerosene applied by hand by several Wellfleet workers would have been a seasonal activity. The oil on the water’s surface prevented the mosquito larvae from emerging from the water.

The Audubon Society in South Wellfleet reports that their marsh was never ditched, due to an agreement between the Massachusetts Project and the original owners, Oliver Austin and his son, who established the Sanctuary in 1930. (Here’s a blog post I wrote earlier about the Sanctuary.) Of course, now the Audubon-owned marshland is greatly expanded from what once was Lieutenant Island saltmarsh.

Mosquito eradication methods changed after World War II. A Swiss chemist, Paul Muller, looking for a way to protect woolens against moths, discovered an insect-killing chemical. His company shared it with a Department of Agriculture entomology research station in Orlando, Florida, that was charged by the U.S. Army to find new pesticides. In 1942, these scientists experimented and discovered that DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) was not particularly harmful to humans. The Army was desperate for pesticides to help control the lice that carried typhus, and the mosquitoes that carried yellow fever and malaria. DDT appeared to be the “miracle drug” right up in importance with penicillin and the vaccine for polio. One of the stellar achievements of World War II was the U.S. Army’s successful effort to prevent a catastrophic typhus epidemic in Naples in 1944. More than a million people were dusted with DDT powder. In 1948 Paul Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize.

After the War, DDT was the wonder product for controlling pests. That was how the plane with the dusting cloud came to be flying over Blackfish Creek. On May 4, 1950, The Cape Codder posted a brief note in their “Wellfleet” column that the C-47 would be resuming operations “from where it left off last year.” The article notes that a wind sock meant to be used by the crew was placed high in a tree. The Cape Cod Mosquito Control workers would also be busy “down in the meadow and the marshes.”

Even by the late 1940s, however, some were warning about the dangers in the growing use of DDT. After the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, it was yet another ten years before the federal government banned it use, although Massachusetts had put some controls on its use prior to that. Massachusetts’ Silent Spring Institute, organized in the early 1990s, has paid particular attention to the Cape Cod population who may still be dealing with the consequences of the DDT spraying on its marshland, cranberry bogs, and golf courses. Since development occurred in these same places, lasting effect of DDT in the soil is a subject of their studies. According to the Silent Spring Institute, Wellfleet was sprayed in 1950, confirming the newspaper account noted above.

Wellfleet Pesticide use, a map from the Silent Spring Institute website

Wellfleet Pesticide use, a map from the Silent Spring Institute website

Today, the Cape Cod Mosquito Control Project, one of nine districts in Massachusetts, is still actively working. (Their contemporary methods are spelled out here.) For four generations, the Doane family has led the Project. Their ancestor, John Doane, helped settle the Plymouth Bay Colony, played an active role in the settlement of Eastham, and became an assistant to Governor Bradford. Hopefully, he was able to withstand the mosquitoes as the Governor demanded.

Now, mosquito control in the salt marshes involves controlling water flow and making sure that fish that eat mosquito larvae can gain access to pools. They also implore everyone to eliminate containers that allow for any standing water, and urge homeowners to keep their screens in good repair. Most organizations—from the Audubon Society to the National Park Service—recommend spraying yourself with a repellent containing DEET before you take that summer hike.

Sources

William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, available online at: http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/bradford.html

The Cape Codder available online at www.snowlibrary.org

Barnstable Patriot (various) online archive: www.sturgislibrary.org

Malcolm Gladwell’s article “The Mosquito Killer” written for The New Yorker in 2001 and posted on his website: http://gladwell.com/the-mosquito-killer/

Patterson, Gordon, The Mosquito Crusades: A History of the American Anti-Mosquito Movement from the Reed Commission to the First Earth Day (partially available on Google)

“Sensory Guide” publication of the Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary, Massachusetts Audubon Society

Paper “Massachusetts Mosquito Control: Open Marsh Water Management Standards” May 2010 published here: http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/agr/mosquitos/docs/open-water-marsh-management-standards.pdf

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About pamticeblog@gmail.com

Family history researcher living in New York City.
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