CAMBRIDGE, Md. – 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 centre 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.
In 1925, Gibbs introduced what is known as his armadillo live trap, a trap that used a leg grip to hold the muskrat. When the foot trap was activated, thinly stacked sheets of metal were released that formed a cage around the ‘rat. The leg trapped was instantly released, and the cage raised itself several inches out of the water to keep the ‘rat from drowning. Gibbs perfected the design and replaced it with a mesh bag, live-trap cage that not only raised itself out of the water, but activated metal flags to alert trappers of a live catch.
As for the armadillo design, it was soon out of production, but surviving examples now fetch in excess of $3,000 on Internet auction sites.
“It was a muskrat ranch down here. I was told that trappers would sit in shanties on the marsh, to watch a line of traps, and when the metal flag popped up, indicating a muskrat had been caught, they would rush out and get it out of the trap and put it in a can,” said Gibbs memorabilia collector Tom Bradshaw. “My father, Leroy Bradshaw, told me that they had even rigged up carbide lights on the trap flags at night so the trappers could sit in the shanty or out on the marsh with binoculars and watch for the light.
“This operation was 24/7 when he was catching them alive. Somebody had to be on the marsh constantly,” he said.
Bradshaw came across the Gibbs legacy while doing research on family history. In 1915, Gibbs had leased 200 acres of marsh from his great-great-grandfather, Joseph William Bradshaw, who owned marshland contiguous with the Gibbs marsh. “I had heard about the ‘Gibbs marsh’ all my life, but really didn’t pay any attention to it until I found out he had dealings with my family.
“When Gibbs bought the marsh and came down here to duck hunt, his friends told him he could pay for it in one winter by trapping muskrats off the marsh and selling the hides or, at a minimum, make enough money to pay the taxes on it,” added Bradshaw, a Dorchester County commissioner and collector of Gibbs traps and catalogues.
Then Bradshaw discovered a civil case in which Gibbs was being sued by his ancestors.
“They claimed Gibbs missed a lease payment and that was grounds to have him turned off the marsh, he said. “Gibbs won the case.”
When the Bradshaws tried to get rid of Gibbs again, in 1927, claiming they did not get another rental payment, Gibbs again won the case. The court, in siding with Gibbs, also mandated that the Bradshaw family execute another 10-year lease with the trapper. The court prohibited any Bradshaw from setting foot on their own marsh during the lease period.
For at least two centuries, muskrat pelts, or “hides,” as trappers now call them, have been a commodity that farmers, watermen and trappers relied upon for supplemental income. E. Lee LeCompte, a Dorchester County native and a Maryland game warden in the first quarter of the 20th century, was the man who detailed the contribution Gibbs made to the trapping industry.
Dorchester County, in 1925, had the distinction of being the top muskrat producer in the state. It also had some of the highest prices for marshland — up to $100 an acre. At that time, C. H. Seward of Cambridge was one of the largest marsh owners, with up to 10,000 acres. Muskrats were big business and driving real estate prices.
The Baltimore Sun noted that muskrat trapping was big business: 1 million pelts were sold in Maryland during the 1928 trapping season. The next state with more, Louisiana, had 5,000,000 sold that year.
In the years that Gibbs trapped his Dorchester marshland, Giese said he took tens of thousands of muskrats from the marsh. “There were pronominal numbers of ‘rats here,” Giese said.
Gibbs claimed that in the years he had the marsh in Dorchester County (1913-1936), he caught 75,000 muskrats. As for muskrat “meats,” they were quickly bought by dealers in Baltimore and Philadelphia where muskrat was featured on menus in the best restaurants of the day as “marsh rabbit.”
In addition to income from his own muskrat trapping operation, and the income from his trap factory sales, Gibbs expanded to selling muskrats live. Because black pelts have always commanded a premium price, Gibbs wanted to stock some of his marsh with black pairs and devised a system for trapping the ‘rats alive, penning them and then selling them worldwide.
In 1926, Gibbs wanted to raise ‘rats and sell live black fur pairs. He set aside about a third of the 850 acres he owned and leased for corralling live muskrats. Confinement was believed to limit their need to feed, as the ‘rats competed for dwindling food sources in confined sites. So in 1925, he began feeding them.
“Mr. Gibbs had in captivity 25 muskrats, which were fed at one feeding 15 pounds of combined sweet potatoes, cabbage, parsnips, turnips and carrots, which were devoured entirely within a single night,” LeCompte said. “His regular method of feeding is from 6 to 8 ounces of food per day.”
In 1928, Gibbs trapped 1,060 live muskrats and sold them for $20 to $25 per pair for blacks and $15 to $20 per pair for browns. They were called brooders. Gibbs saw money to be made, as the same muskrats dead would have brought $6.50 for a black pair and $4.50 for a brown pair. By 1929, he was selling 2,800 live ‘rats annually. Sales were made across the nation and internationally.
Gibbs was still engaged in developing innovative traps. He spent 10 years trying to solve the problem of how to activate a clean kill when trapping skunks, opossum and fox. In the 1930s, he was manufacturing a special “Gibbs U.S. Standard Trap,” made exclusively for the federal government, used to trap beavers and otters.
There seemed to be no end to trap sales and profits. Then, when the Great Depression hit, the demand for pelts fell and trap sales suffered, Bradshaw said. “That’s when I think Gibbs wanted to sell his company to the Animal Trap Co., of Lititz Pa., in 1936.”
But Gibbs wanted to continue a trapping operation and live sales — just not in Maryland. In 1936, he purchased 3,000 acres of marshland on the Currituck Sound in North Carolina, Bradshaw said, and stocked the marshland with live black muskrats shipped by train or steamboat from his Dorchester ranch. At his North Carolina muskrat farm, Gibbs busied himself building ditches and canals.
According to an article about Gibbs in the 1937 edition of Time, Gibbs was “the biggest muskrat breeder in the United States.” The article noted that the progressive trapper and inventor, using a plane, was able “to find 4,000 muskrat houses on his marsh and calculated they were home to 20,000 muskrat,” a difficult and demanding job normally done on foot.
In 1940, Gibbs sold all 650 acres of his Dorchester County marshland to his son, William.
William Gibbs sold it to Morgan Bennett Sr., in April 1944, who in turn sold it to Dr. John Robinson of Talbot County in 1959. Robinson, in turn, sold the 650 acres of marsh to the late Robert Carpenter in 1963.
As for the man who created and changed an industry, Gibbs is now all but forgotten and virtually nothing about him can be found on Internet searches. As for the trenching machine, it remains the largest artifact left of the Gibbs muskrat trapping legacy.
“This has been quite a learning experience for me,” Bradshaw said. “He revolutionized trapping around the world, and some of his designs are still in use. And nobody knows who he was.”
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/