Column: Often-overlooked muskrats are part of our historyWe never gave real muskrats a choice. We — people long before our time — decided, “Those are muskrats.” And so they continue to this day.
By: Ray Crippen, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Just suppose this morning there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that no one in the world could be called a human being any longer.
There will be an election —
Human beings may vote to call themselves (a) Honeys, (b) Sweeties, (3) Cuties, (4) Muskrats.
We can’t know how the voting would go, of course, but it is a safe bet we would not vote to call ourselves muskrats. Ugh.
We never gave real muskrats a choice. We — people long before our time — decided, “Those are muskrats.” And so they continue to this day. If a decision had been made to call them cuties, if we said, “Look at the little cuties in the water,” this would be a different world in some ways.
Muskrats — cuties — probably deserve a better fate. They were in our native land before humans arrived on the scene and they thrive to this day, first of all because they bother no one. Unlike squirrels or rabbits or deer or wolves, they mind their own businesses, keep to themselves, build their lodges and largely stay out of our sights. They pose no threat to any among us.
The abiding misfortune of muskrats is their bare tails. Muskrat tails have no fur; hence muskrats are dismissed as rats. If they had bushy tails like their rodent cousins the squirrels, if muskrats had tails of lush auburn fur, they might indeed be thought of as cuties.
Because muskrats are largely dismissed from most of our thoughts it is hard to appreciate that they have been an important part of our history. Muskrats first attracted people to our region, to our rivers and streams and sloughs, to their own great disadvantage.
Andy Dillman, credited with being the first white human to settle on the Worthington townsite, spent a fall and a winter on the east bank of East Lake Okabena, drawn by muskrats and trapping muskrats. Muskrat pelts were bought for hats and coats and boots.
I have always liked the story of Jacob Dodge, who, like Andy Dillman, was lured to a lake shore —Round Lake — by muskrats. “All you could see or think of anywhere around was just prairie. Prairie and sloughs. My nearest neighbor was 25 miles away.”
A reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press believed Jacob Dodge had affection for muskrats:
“Rats — as Mr. Dodge calls them — had a big and beneficent part in his younger life. His very tone of voice as he says, ‘Rats,’ has a quality to it of whimsical affection. When you hear him use the word you realize that poets have overlooked a bet. They haven’t done enough with rats …”
Jacob Dodge would leave his family, his wife and his small son, for several days while he forged his way to Spirit Lake or Estherville to trade muskrat pelts for food.
“The only money there was was rat hides. The walls of the store over at Spirit Lake were all lined with rat skins. If you didn’t have rat hides you could not buy anything. So I got me about 70 traps. … The lakes and ponds were full of rat houses and as soon as the ice got off I went to work. The first April I got one thousand rats …”
Humans in our region continued to peril rats into the 20th century. By 1929 the Ocheyda Fur Farm south of Worthington had erected two miles of fence, as a Worthington newsman reported, “buried from a depth of one to two feet enclosing 135 aces of land which formerly was a swamp.” Minks and badgers and raccoons and opossums could be found at the Fur Farm but, mostly, there were muskrats:
“Several thousand muskrats are found in the swamp. One thousand rats have been purchased and liberated to thrive in the swamp with the original rats that for some time have made the swamp their home. Muskrat houses dot the swamp, runways are found all through the grass and on bright days they can be seen enjoying the sun from the tops of their houses…”
I was driving around Lake Okabena the other day. On The Grade I saw a muskrat squashed by a car. That made me feel bad.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.