hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires

 

News July 2024

 

The high-pitched buzz of summers past

Maury Thompson

 

To some, the common mosquito represented an engineering marvel.
“A scientist computes that with the aid of a machine constructed on the principle of the boring, drilling and pumping apparatus of the mosquito, a hole could be bored to the center of the earth in less than a day,” The Morning Star of Glens Falls reported on Nov. 6, 1890.
Mosquitoes and black flies were a common topic of humor and advice in the region’s 19th century newspapers.


“If Noah had foreseen the future and killed the two mosquitoes which took refuge in the ark, he would have rendered some of the strongest words in the English language unnecessary,” the Washington County Advertiser quipped on Feb. 9, 1881.


For people living in upstate New York and New England in that era, mosquitoes were more perplexing than an August thunderstorm.


“Excessively hot — yes, indeed. This is mosquito’s holiday,” the Ticonderoga Sentinel wrote on Aug. 3, 1877. “A healthy, well-proportioned, live skeeter can elicit more adjectives these days than a thunder gust. The latter dies out. The skeeter, never.”


Even after the end of the mosquito season, there was little cause for rejoicing.
“Mosquitoes have retired from business only to recuperate for the coming season,” the Ticonderoga paper reported on Feb. 14, 1879.


The South Granville correspondent was poetic in the May 9, 1879 issue of The Granville Sentinel: “Growing longer — the days. Growing warmer — the weather. Growing plentier — the mosquitoes.”


Another Sentinel correspondent penned a few lines, “no doubt dashed off on the inspiration of the moment,” published on June 22, 1888: “The June bug disappears in June, the cut worm late in May. The mosquito takes his bonnet off, and says, ‘I’ve come to stay.’”


At times, the summertime plague of mosquitoes seemed beyond human understanding.
“The state entomologist, in discoursing on the subject of mosquitoes, says that ‘while the people are familiar with the mosquito, they, in fact, know nothing about it.’ If this is so, it certainly is no fault of the mosquito,” The Granville Sentinel wrote on May 27, 1887.


The Morning Star of Glens Falls pointed out the upside of late-season frosts in a report published May 30, 1895: “The frosts which occurred about two weeks ago, of course, did some damage. But farmers say they were really blessings in disguise because they destroyed insects that were getting in shape to do mischief later on.”


“Fishermen are as plentiful as mosquitoes in summertime,” the Washington County Advertiser reported on April 25, 1888. “All report indifferent success.”


It seemed the insects were particularly bothersome in the late spring of 1887.
“Mosquitoes are here in such numbers to be a perfect pest,” the Advertiser’s Wilton correspondent reported on June 8, 1887. “The oldest inhabitants never knew anything like it before. They are such a torment to horses while at work that in several instances men who were plowing have been obliged to leave the field with their teams.”


In contrast, the mosquitoes weren’t too bad in 1885.
“Burt Williams and Charles Schofield went fishing and have returned, having met few mosquitoes and fewer fish. They had a good time though,” The Lansingburgh Courier reported on June 13, 1885.


Some news stories explored remedies for keeping the insects at bay.
“It is said that a piece of red ribbon about two inches width, stretched across the open space of a window, will keep out mosquitoes,” The People’s Journal of Greenwich reported on Sept. 5, 1895. “For some unknown reason, the little pests never pass the red ribbon. It seems improbable, but one who has tried it says that it never fails.”


Another idea may have been a forerunner of the modern bug zapper.
“An imminent scientist is arranging the method for the killing of mosquitoes by electricity,” The Granville Sentinel reported on Aug. 5, 1892.


The Lansingburgh Weekly Chronicle in its Sept. 11, 1865 issue detailed a method for making oneself into a mosquito trap: “At this season, when mosquitoes are so troublesome … take a few pounds of rosin, a little pitch, a little glue, and a little lard and bile ’em. Stir and boil until is it about as think as guava jelly, then apply, while hot, to the entire surface of the body. The mosquitoes will fly onto you and stick, and you can have a penknife in your right hand and cut their heads off at leisure.”


Inquiring minds want to know if the following mosquito remedy might have had an unintended consequence of attracting mice.


“A citizen of Cincinnati has discovered that a small quantity of Limburger cheese taken to bed with him every night keeps the mosquitoes away,” The Mechanicville Era reported on Sept. 28, 1882, adding that “this certainly shows good taste on the part of the mosquitoes.”


Even when one feels utterly under siege, it seems a particularly bad idea to try to kill mosquitoes with a shotgun.


“Our nights were spent waging war with the mosquitoes,” reads a travel narrative of 12 Chatham residents who took an otherwise “delightful” carriage trip through the Adirondacks, including stops at Schroon Lake and Lake George.


“The first battles were fought before dark,” explained the narrative published in the Chatham Courier on Aug. 17, 1881. “One of the boys undertook to fire a shotgun, but failing in that we manufactured our own weapons, which consisted of wet towels rolled in round balls, which we fired with a vengeance known only to those who have long tried.”


The effort ultimately proved fruitless.
“After we were settled in bed for the night, an army of mosquitoes invaded our rooms and completely surrounded us,” the travelers wrote. “Valiantly we struggled, vainly we endeavored to kill them. Still they came, hourly refreshed by the meals they were taking.”

 

Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.