The worms were coming! The worms were coming!
To some, the sight of a wriggling, writhing, wormy caterpillar is a wondrous event in nature's metamorphosis. To others, like the farmer, who sees his life-sustaining, family- feeding, bill-paying crops devoured in front of his very own eyes by legions of this loathsome larvae, it was an abhorrent abomination.
Farmers in Laurens County and southern Georgia had already heard of the voracious armyworm. They were used to dealing with all ranks of pesky, pernicious pests which threatened their crops. Dire forecasts of a weevil invasion had been heard for years.
But this time, in the summer of 1912, it was war.
That spring, W. D. Hunter, in charge of all field crop investigations in the South, warned of the dire consequences to come. Despite the fact that all evidence to that point indicated that the abnormally harsh temperatures of the previous winter had all but destroyed the moths, Hunter expected another invasion emerging, perhaps from South America.
The initial ground invasion was launched by the dreaded legion of the Spodoptera frugiperda. J.D. Williams, an enterprising, veteran farmer of Bulloch County, was hoping that 1912 was going to be another banner year for his cotton and corn crops. On a Sunday afternoon, in the last week of spring, Williams was out in his cornfield, some three miles from Metter, when he discovered the presence of thousands of creeping caterpillars crawling up and down his immature corn stalks.
"The field looks as if no corn had been planted there save for the young stalks lying on the ground," Williams reported on Tuesday. The worm, which cuts off the corn stalk at the bottom, destroyed nearly 50 acres of corn, which was rivaling cotton as the main cash crop.
Alarms were broadcast to the region's farmers. who immediately instituted frequent inspections of their plants. The invading army moved to the Ohoopee District of Toombs County, where they, with their mandibles mashing everything in sight, devoured the entire 20-acre cotton field of R.B. Cowart in a single, profit-erasing day.
Lawson E. Brown, state president of the Farmers Union, sent out the word far and wide of how to attack the writhing larvae. He told farmers to dig a row between the plants. When the worms crawled into the row, the farmer would drag a log down the row and bury them. Another method was to apply a mixture of Paris Green and flour and sift it onto the plants. More than 100,00o circulars were sent out to farmers around the state detailing how to deal with the invading larvae.
By the end of June, State Entomologist, E. Leo Worsham, began to report that Georgia farmers were winning the battle, although massive damages were inflicted in and around Thomasville, Tifton, Baxley and Hazlehurst. Worsham thought, at best, the cotton crop would be about two-thirds of the normal yield. By the end of June, reports of widespread devastation were coming out of Central Georgia in Bibb and Houston counties.
"Never before in the history of Georgia has a pest of this nature been checked so quickly," contended Worsham, who credited the farmers of the state and the work of his office in eradicating the enemy.
Worsham's back patting didn't bring a complete halt to the armyworm's offensive actions. Terrell County farmers suffered considerable damages. Ravenous armyworms destroyed Sumter County's entire and critically vital melon crop. One innocent lad in Putnam County brought a big jar full of the havoc-reeking creatures to a farmer, not even knowing of their dangerous proclivities.
By mid-July, the worms were infiltrating the growing fields of Baldwin, Greene and Putnam counties. Even the hay fields were not immune to attack. Congress was considering Federal aid to fight the onslaught.
As reports were published of attacks closer to Dublin, cautious Laurens County farmers banded together and did not wait on their national government to take action. More than 6,000 pounds of Paris Green was purchased at a cost of nearly $800.00. A committee was formed to sell the chemical mixture to local drug stores, which couldn't afford to carry that much poison in stock. Reports of wide spread infestation in the county were coming in during July.
On the negative side, Paris Green is a copper-based, highly toxic compound, first used to kill rats in the sewers of Paris, France. When used as a pesticide, Paris Green often killed the grass and trees where it was applied. So much for any organic corn eaters.
Congress appropriated a token amount of $25,000.00 and even sent a Federal expert, Dr. W.F. Webster, to the South to examine the problem.
But, W.W. Kicklighter, a farmer from Groveland, Georgia, wrote a bold letter in red ink to the United States Congress. In a simple-termed letter, Kicklighter respectfully asked that he be given a check for the $25,000.00 appropriated to get rid of the army worms.
He explained it to the politicians like this, "I had ten acres of corn and the armyworms had just started in." I drove my turkeys into the field and they ate the armyworms up in two days," wrote Kicklighter, who went on to proclaim that if he had not turned out his turkeys into his cornfield that he would have lost 500 bushels to the pesky varmints. Kicklighter's reward never came.
J.R. Dixon, of Parrish, Bulloch County, Georgia, too saw first hand the neutralizing force of his turkeys. He turned a flock of them into his field and at once they began to seek out and devour every wiggling worm they saw. Dixon scurried all around the county, borrowing turkeys to aid in his defense of his 20-acre corn field.
The idea of using turkeys to eat the caterpillars was nothing knew. Thomas Affleck had published the same and his very own theory in a widely published letter back in 1846.
At the 66th annual convention of the Georgia Agricultural Society, held on August 14 and 15 in Dublin, E.R. Worsham gave a belated speech on the eradication of the army worm, which was finally coming under the control of Georgia farmers. Worsham then began to supervise the state tax payer paid funding of thousands of pounds of powdered arsenate to finally eradicate the thoroughly dreaded Lepidoptera
The war of the worms was soon won by the farmers of the South. The same could not be said for the war against the boll weevil, which followed on a second front and almost singlehandedly, weather and economic conditions excepted, wiped out most of the cotton crop in Georgia in the mid 1910s, sending agricultural communities around the state into a Great Depression more than a dozen years before the Stock Market Crash in 1929.