Museum exhibits recalls how hordes of mice moved into town after Buena Vista Lake bed flooded in 1926
Weather forecasters are warming up to predicting a wet winter for drought-ravaged California. In fact, a VERY wet winter because evidence is mounting a pending “El Nino” condition could drench the state this fall and make a dent in what is now a four-year drought – sort of like what we experienced last weekend.
Heavy rain most assuredly will make news in Taft, but probably not like it did almost 90 years ago when an unusually wet winter triggered what was at the time called “the strangest occurrence of its kind in the history of the country.”
It quite literally amounted to an invasion – of mice. And, it led to an all-out war that pitted man against mouse.
According to information culled from the archives at the West Kern Oil Museum, which has an exhibit recalling that bizarre event, it all began with drought conditions that dried up the 30,000-acre Buena Vista Lake bed.
Water that typically flowed into the lake had been diverted, and that led to the planting of 11,000 acres of barley and maize in the lakebed.
It likewise was a perfect breeding ground for the mouse. With natural enemies like the coyote and hawk pretty much eradicated, mice flourished and with all that food and the fact a pair of mice can produce more than 16-thousand offspring in a year millions of the little critters flourished at Buena Vista.
Then, in November of 1926, it started to rain. And rain. And rain.
It flooded the mice habitat so they headed for the hills – the Honolulu Hills three miles to the west to be exact. They were wet – and hungry.
Mice swarmed over the offices and houses at the Honolulu Oil Company. In those days oil company employees typically lived near company headquarters.
Swarms of mice squeezed into fencerows, pushed into sheds and warehouses, even shoehorned themselves into the walls of the houses.
Oil workers shifted from producing oil to killing mice – more than 50,000 in a single day with poisoned barley.
But the invasion continued.
By Dec. 4, voracious field mice reached Ford City and Taft. They then pushed into Maricopa.
There was a run on mousetraps and cats. Even 28 mousetraps in a single home couldn’t make a dent and once gorged the cat simply watched uninterested.
First the oil companies, then the town and finally the county joined the fray.
The county horticulture commissioner ordered trenches dug along a nine-mile stretch and filled with poisoned grain. A hundred dead mice per foot was the body count.
The state agriculture commission joined the battle and distributed 1,500 pounds of poisoned grain per day.
Although some progress had been made by late December the mice kept coming and even widened the hunting field, swarming across Taft Highway into the Elk Hills and the tiny town of Tupman. Thousands were squashed under the tires of cars, making the roadway slippery and dangerous.
Finally, the locals called in the Feds, and on Jan. 22, 1927 the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey sent in a professional poisoner to take command.
To make the story even more bizarre, his name was Piper – Stanley Piper. He hired 25 locals and set up a command post on Pelican Island in the dry lakebed. Naturally, they were dubbed “The Pied Piper and the Mouse Marines.”
The first thing Piper did was gather statistics to determine his challenge. He discovered that on a single acre of land there were about 44 million mice.
At first, poison grain was the primary weapon in this war, but Piper and his Mouse Marines got some help. All that water in the lakebed suddenly attracted more than a thousand seagulls, ravens, hawks and other birds of prey looking for a meal. About the same time “a contagious disease also flared in the rodents ranks.”
By mid-February Taft’s famous mouse war was declared over.
Piper and his Mouse Marines – with a little help from Mother Nature – had beaten back the invaders.
Visit the Oil Museum located at the corner of Wood Street and Highway 33 (just look for the big wooden oil derrick) to learn more about the mouse invasion and Taft’s history. A children’s book titled The Great Mouse War, written and illustrated by Patricia Richey, is on sale in the Museum gift shop.