Building a better muskrat trap

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CAMBRIDGE, Md. (AP) - Under a flapping, rusting tin roof, in an aging shed near the marsh, is one of the most curious pieces of machinery in Dorchester County. Almost 100 years old, it is also one of the rarest contraptions of its kind.

It is all that remains of an enterprise started here in the marshes, in 1913, by Walter Abner Gibbs, a retired railroad man who came to Dorchester County that year to hunt ducks and ended up revolutionizing the muskrat and animal trap industry. Gibbs bought 650 acres here, from William Applegarth, which was adjacent to what is now the Chesapeake Marshlands (Blackwater) National Wildlife Refuge to trap muskrats using his own patented traps. He eventually expanded his operation to catching thousands of muskrats alive and shipping them across the nation and around the world.

“This,” said Bill Giese, pointing to the rusting machine, “was the trenching or ditching machine Gibbs used. I think it was custom made.”

The brown iron cogs, gears, shafts and chains were last operational perhaps 70 years ago. Throughout the years, someone stripped it of its large gasoline engine. About 14 feet long, 8 feet wide and weighing several tons, it may be the last piece of equipment of its kind in the world. It was saved because Giese, a former refuge employee of 39 years, appreciated its historical significance and made arrangements to get the machine off the marsh and store it almost 35 years ago. Sections of the remaining wood cleats are blackened from marsh fires.

The trenching machine could only operate on relatively hard marsh. Its weight and movement would make it dangerous to operate in soft, low-lying marsh.

“I don’t know exactly how it worked, but there are two cutting wheels - one was used to cut a trench as it moved across the marsh. Then slabs of wood were put in the trench, making an enclosed area to corral live muskrats. Then when Gibbs got an order for live muskrats, he would go out and live-trap them,” Giese said.

To this day, sections of the wooden stockade built to corral muskrats can still be found in the marsh, Giese said. Originally, 3 feet of wood was buried vertically in the marsh and 3 feet remained above ground. It didn’t take Gibbs long to discover that the ‘rats gnawed their way to freedom, so a wire fence was soon introduced.

“When the refuge bought an adjoining tract of marsh years ago, we had a boundary corner setting right in the center of this machine. Of course, it caught my eye, and I had heard about Gibbs for years from local folks. I thought it would be a shame to leave it rusting in the marsh. I thought there would be some remote possibility that maybe, someday, the refuge would do something with it in respects to the Gibbs trapping history here. We went back there with an excavator and trailer and loaded it up.”

That was in the 1970s.

There was also another, now long-gone, major piece of machinery that worked on the marsh. Working from a barge in 1915, Gibbs used a steam-powered excavator to dig 8 miles of canals through the marsh to encourage propagation and healthy population numbers of ‘rats. These canals also made it easier to access the vast marsh tract by skiff, and allowed muskrats to develop “runs” from the canals to their homes.

By 1915, Gibbs needed more marshland and rented 200 acres adjoining his marsh from Joseph William Bradshaw. On his own marshland, Gibbs built a workshop in which he invented traps and made repair parts for his developing line. Though he lived in nearby Church Creek, Gibbs also maintained a home near the shop. A marsh fire decades ago destroyed the workshop, but the home, though in ruins, still survives.

That same year he got a patent for his first muskrat trap featuring an innovative under-spring mechanism. In 1919, he introduced his Model 1 two-trigger trap. His business took off with the introduction of this trap that not only caught the ‘rat by the leg, which was traditional, but embodied a second system of jaws that sprung to hold the body of the rat, making it impossible for it to lose a leg, escape or to gnaw its leg off.

By 1919, according to a 1937 article in Time magazine, Gibbs was in full animal trap production at his main factory in Chester, Pennsylvania, with traps for English sparrows to bears, with huge sales: 2 million traps annually with gross sales of $400,000. Even hawk traps were made to keep them from eating his trapped muskrats. As for his 1919 Model 1, which took six years to develop, it would be widely used on the Eastern Shore until the 1950s.

Until the 1920s, trappers relied on thin boards, often cypress shingles, cut to the size and shape of a specific animal on which to dry hides. Gibbs created the wire hide-stretcher in the 1920s, a design that remains the stretcher of choice with trappers. It allows faster and more uniform drying and curing of pelts.

Gibbs got a patent in 1921 for his Gladiator trap, used to trap house rats. He said it took several years to perfect, and a smaller version was marketed for catching mice. The Gladiator became the design of choice for what is now the Victor mouse trap, still sold today, almost a century later.

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