Gopher Day in Starkweather, 1916
The flickertail ground-squirrel has always been a common sight across North Dakota’s prairies, what with its twitching-whiskers and sharp movements, darting across pastures and road-ditches. It is famous for flicking, or jerking, its tail while running – or before zipping down a gopher hole. Although small in stature, these rodents flourished in such massive numbers that they lent the “Flickertail State” its nickname for decades. However, farmers detested flickertails because the little varmints feasted on wheat-kernels, causing big income losses.
Most people called flickertails ‘gophers,’ but their real name was Richardson’s ground squirrels. Flickertails were lumped together with their smaller cousins, Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrels, otherwise called striped gophers, and known as detestable pests, because EACH gopher could eat a bushel
In order to fight gophers, farm-communities across Dakota offered rewards for killing them. Indeed, on this date in 1916, the Grand Forks Herald reported on the big “Gopher Day” event in Starkweather, which is north of Devils Lake. An estimated 1,000 people came for the town’s annual Gopher Day event. The Starkweather Concert Band played throughout the day and at an evening dance. Another highlight was a speech given by Mr. U.S. Ebener, the gopher-killing expert. But the biggest attraction of Gopher Day was the counting of the gopher-tails – each tail providing evidence of a dead gopher. J.H. Weaver carried off first prize of $12 for bringing in 1,418 gopher tails. May Revis won second prize with 1,140 tails.
The traditional way for youngsters to catch gophers was to place the loop of a 4-foot-long string around the edges of a gopher’s hole and yank it when the gopher poked its head out. Others used gopher traps or hunted them with small-caliber .22 rifles. The most efficient way, however, involved strychnine poison. Newspaper ads boasted of its effectiveness in killing the pestiferous pests.
Starkweather was not the only town to have Gopher Days from 1895 through the 1920s. One “Gopher Day,” held in Fessenden, reported 100,000 gophers killed, with a bounty paid of 3 cents per tail.
Because of the poisons, the flickertail/gopher population rapidly diminished. By 1917, some predicted that the “Flickertail-State” might lose its namesake, with gophers joining bison as animals near extinction.
But flickertails endured, going underground along marginal lands, so that gophers survive on today’s prairie-lands, twitching their whiskers and dodging humans, to live another day.
Dakota Datebook written by Michelle Holien and Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.
Sources: “Gopher Day Is Big Event; Great Crowd at Starkweather,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, June 22, 1916, p. 3.
“Some Real Doings In Starkweather,” Grand Forks Herald, May 16, 1915, p. 6; “Kill 18,000 Gophers In Day,” Grand Forks Herald, June 6, 1915, p. 14; “Starkweather To Have ‘Gopher Day’ In June,” Grand Forks Herald, May 25, 1921, p. 6.
USGS, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, “Richardson’s Ground Squirrel,” "http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/mammals/mammals/richard.htm" www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/mammals/mammals/richard.htm , accessed on March 10, 2015.
USGS, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, “Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel,” "http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/mammals/mammals/13-line.htm" www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/mammals/mammals/13-line.htm , accessed on March 10, 2015.
“The Soo Road,” Grand Forks Herald, May 3, 1902, p. 5.
“North Dakota Soon To Lose Its Namesake,” Bismarck Tribune, May 14, 1918, p. 3.
“Flickertail Joins Buffalo in Hunting Ground Beyond Pale,” Bismarck Tribune, May 29, 1917, p. 2.
“Mickelson’s ‘Kill-Em-Quick’ Gopher Poison,” advertisement, Ward County Independent [Minot, ND], June 16, 1910, p. 11.
“Gopher Day At Brinsmade,” Grand Forks Herald, June 21, 1914, p. 14.
“100,000 Gophers Killed In 1 Day In Wells County,” Grand Forks Herald, May 27, 1921, p. 3.
“Bounty On Gophers,” Grand Forks Herald, March 9, 1910, p. 1.