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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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RATS. In 1947 an estimated one hundred million rats consumed 124,470,000 bushels of grain annually in the United States. (1) Known to occasionally attack the very young or very old, rats carry many diseases including the plague and typhus. Armed with sharp teeth, rats can chew through sun-dried bricks and slate shingles, climb a vertical wall and burrow eight feet into the ground. (2)

In 1895 it was reported by an official of the Waltham Watch Company of Chicago that rats' interest in eating anything greasy had led boys working in watch factories into an unusual business. Dropping rags used to polish gold watch casings onto the floor, the boys insured the cloth with bits of gold would be eaten. The boys also dropped bits of food onto the floor around their work area and then worked it into the floor with their boots. Smelling the food, rats would chew on the floor and ingest small bits of gold as they did with the rags. Twice a year the boys rounded up the rats, killed them and cremated their bodies. While the resulting "button" of gold was not great, it did provide some additional cash. (3)

c. 1916. One of many types of poison baits used on rats. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

In 1918 various Boy Scout patrols in Dubuque killed several thousand rats. The program, featuring competition for prizes and bounties, was scheduled to be repeated in 1919. An announcement was scheduled for the court of honor on November 13, 1919 as to the amounts of bounties which would be paid to the scout patrols for the skins of the rats killed. Additional prizes were to be offered to the patrols with the largest number of "rat casualties." (4)

In 1941 the city dump off the Fourth Street Extension was the home of a "horde" of rats. A reporter from the Telegraph-Herald was quoted:

        They were there in droves and didn't seem to find at all the
        light from the headlight of the car. They were moving about
        constantly seeking food and came close to the car to consume
        an especially large morsel. The honk of the horn on the car,
        however, sent them scurrying in all directions, but they were
        back again in a few seconds. (5)

The reporter commented that he was no alone in watching the rodents, "scores" of curious citizens also drove to the site to watch the animals scurrying around. The reporter suggested that visitors drive to the extreme west end of the dump, park facing north, and keep windows closed to avoid the smell and the possibility of a rat getting into the car. (6)

CITY ISLAND was once used as the city's landfill. In January 1950, the city began the "land fill" method of rubbish disposal. This was described at the time by Dr. Albert J. Entringer, city health director, as "the major city part of a recently started rodent control program." (7) Under the system, there was only one legal dump in the city--near the east end of 16th Street. Instead of simply dropping rubbish at a site and then burning the paper, a trench 7'-8' deep and 12'-15' wide was dug. When the trench was filled, a grader flatten the material and then covered it with two feet of dirt to prevent rats from reaching the rubbish. (8)

In November, 1951 twenty-five wooden boxes containing poison bait were placed in alleys near Dubuque downtown businesses. In the first day, half of the twenty-five pounds of bait used had been eaten. The city sanitary inspector commented that even better results could be expected after a snow storm when available food was covered by snow and the bait was easily accessible. Manpower to service two hundred boxes daily had been arranged by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Iowa State University entomologist, Dr. Harold Gunderson had visited Dubuque twice in connection with the rat elimination program reported that rats would not move into an area not providing food and shelter. He stressed covering garbage and keeping pets well fed so that they would not be tempted to eat dead rats. (9) Woodshop classes at Washington and Jefferson junior high schools each promised to make one hundred boxes as soon as the necessary materials were delivered. Gunderson estimated that after the initial phase of the campaign in which most of the rats would be killed it would require the services of one man about six days each month to continue the rat control effort. (10)

Bait boxes constructed by the Dubuque Boys'Club. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

In 1952 following a flood which drowned or displaced large numbers of rats along the river, the Public Health Committee of the DUBUQUE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE resumed efforts to eliminate them. (11) From materials donated by FARLEY AND LOETSCHER MANUFACTURING COMPANY and CARR, ADAMS AND COLLIER COMPANY, students at DUBUQUE SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL and member of the DUBUQUE BOYS' CLUB constructed two hundred wooden bait traps for distribution in alleys in an area bordered by First Street, Bluff Street, 14th Street, and Central. A second area was between 14th and 10th STREETS bordered by Central and Jackson. Individuals living outside these areas could establish their own bait traps since warfarin was available at most hardware and food supply stores. Traps had previously been placed near the city dumps. The traps contained warfarin supplied by the City Health Department. Setting up the boxes was done by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. (12)

City health officials and the DUBUQUE WOMEN'S CLUB encouraged citizens to keep garbage in covered metal containers and to clean up potential rat infestation areas before problems began. "Rat-proofing" buildings included springs on doors, metal flashing on doors and door frames, and the use of concrete to close rat runways between buildings and alleys. Warfarin was to be kept in water right stations out of the reach of children and animals. The food traps needed to be kept full because rats needed to eat the poison several times before it worked to kill the rodent. (13)

Following complaints of rats in an area bordered by First, Fourth, Locust and Central, a "rat patrol" of seven health officials conducted an inspection in the spring of 1974 of every building and found less evidence of the rodent than had been expected. Evidence of the area being kept clean was given for the results. (14)

Residents of the 1800 block of Key Way reported four or five 7-inch rats been killed or found dead in August, 1979. The source of the reported infestation was unknown, but city sanitation workers tagged improper garbage containers and a city crew mowed a block-long field of overgrown weeds along a branch of CATFISH CREEK running nearby. (15) Inspections of restaurants along Kennedy Road indicated no unsanitary conditions that might have attracted rodents. (16)

In 1980 residents of Sageville Valley between Dubuque and Sageville complained about a dumping ground operated by Dennis Sharkey and the resulting rise in the rat population. In an agreement with the county, Sharkey agreed to end the dumping of residential and commercial waste, open burning, and to compact the trash already there and cover it with soil. (17)



1. " 'Ratless Days' Called Finest Saving Method," Telegraph-Herald, October 29, 1947, p. 10

2. Thompson, Dave. "Formula: One Rat Per Person," Telegraph-Herald, May 24, 1964, p. 13

3. "Gold Lining in Rats," Dubuque Herald, July 19, 1895, p. 7

4. "Boy Scouts Plan to War on Rats," Telegraph-Herald, November 13, 1919, p. 4

5. "Manager Gets Many Tips on Killing Rats," Telegraph-Herald, June 22, 1941, p. 5

6. Ibid.

7. "City Buries Garbage in Rat War," Telegraph Herald, January 22, 1950, p. 17. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19500122&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

8. Ibid.

9. "In 48 Hours Rats Gobble Up Half of Bait Put Out in First Day of Campaign," Telegraph-Herald, November 25, 1951, p. 17

10. "Tasks Allotted in Rat Drive," Telegraph-Herald, November 8, 1951, p. 23

11. "Forecasts Not Altered by Rainfall," Telegraph-Herald, April 22, 1952, p. 1

12. "Chamber Leads Drive to Exterminate Rats," Telegraph-Herald, February, 11, 1953, p. 42

13. Ibid.

14. "Little Evidence of Rats Found," Telegraph-Herald, April 3, 1974, p. 10

15. Freund, Bob, "City Crews Tag Garbage Violations and Mow Lot in Anti-Rat Effort," Telegraph Herald, August 22, 1979, p. 10

16. Freund, Bob, "City, Residents Seek Source of Rats on West Side," Telegraph Herald, August 10, 1979, p. 2

17. Woods, Jeff. "Junkyard No Joke to Sageville Residents," Telegraph Herald,September 16, 1980, p. 1