The Dipping Vat Saga: “Looking Back”

From 1907 to around 1943, Arkansas participated in a federal initiative to eradicate the ticks that caused Texas tick fever among the state’s cattle herds. The ticks mainly came into the state during the 19th century Texas cattle drives, although there is some evidence that they were in the state before the Civil War.

Arkansas’ climate and the common cattle practices at the time provided the perfect environment for the spread of this tick that passed on parasitic blood diseases. The diseases resulted in weight loss, infertility, reduced milk production and even death. This caused great monetary losses for farmers and the rejection of their cows in the national market.

Federal eradication districts were established in Arkansas in 1915. All stockmen in those areas helped finance the program by paying a five-cent-per-head annual tax. Twenty-five to forty concrete dipping vats were situated in each county so that no farmer had to travel more than three miles to get to one.

In the 1920s, the Arkansas legislature passed a law requiring all cattle owners to dip their cattle to eradicate ticks and promote better livestock. However, many livestock owners were opposed to such a regulation. These obstructionists, known as “kickers” caused all kinds of trouble for pro-dipping groups government agents and vat owner through violence, destruction and public protest.

Some were afraid that the practice was dangerous and would kill or injure their cattle. Some didn’t want the government telling them what to do while others opposed the perceived hardships the law imposed. Still others just didn’t think it was all that important and did not want to exert the energy or resources needed to abide by the law.

The incidents below happened in one of the small towns of central Arkansas, a burg composed of only about a dozen homes, a post office and a few businesses such as a blacksmith shop, barber shop and a couple of general stores.

In this little town was an organization called the “Spit and Whittle Club,” composed of about 15-20 men who gathered on Saturdays or rainy days to discuss the important matters of the day. To be accepted into this exclusive organization, the potential applicant had to demonstrate his ability to spit and whittle in an acceptable way, exhibiting both poise and dignity.

The whittle test was fairly easy because most applicants had been using knives since the early days of boyhood. The spitting test, however, required the prospect to be able to spit with tobacco, snuff or a pipe in his mouth. Distance, accuracy and volume were judged and while sound was not essential, a loud, explosive noise usually gave the applicant a better chance.

Anyway, the Spit and Whittle Club gathered one moonless night on the banks of the Caney Creek to plot their course of action. They paired off and chose a certain dark night in June for their demolitions. Altogether, ten dipping vats were targeted.

One of the members obtained the needed dynamite from the county seat and brought it back concealed in a sack of shelled corn. The chosen night was filled with intermittent “thunder,” heard by many area farmers who were surprised the next day when they discovered it had not rained.

By mid-afternoon the next day, the sheriff, accompanied by two bloodhounds and a handful of deputies, was on the scene to investigate. The dogs were never turned loose, and the authorities were soon convinced, through a little arm-twisting, to return to the county seat. Not a shred of evidence was ever turned in and collected.

One man was eventually apprehended and taken to court, but on his way to the trial, pitched two sticks of dynamite into a dipping vat as he drove by in his two-horse wagon. No convictions ever arose from the matter and eventually the perpetrators admitted that the dipping law as a good one.

They allowed that they had made a mistake but thought they were doing the right thing at the time.

Destruction of the vats continued into the mid-1930s, but agencies continued to provide information and education about the importance of the practice which led to more widespread acceptance. The cattle tick was considered to be eradicated from Arkansas and the U.S. by around 1943 but voluntary dipping continued in many areas.

Information for this article was obtained from the September 1962 Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings, a publication of the Faulkner County Historical Society, and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

Photo as appeared in the Log Cabin Democrat.

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.