Trapping gophers leads to book

Published 7:30 am Saturday, April 2, 2022

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It was time. My cousin Harold was ready and waiting for the gopher terrapin that showed up at the faucet in his back yard every afternoon. “Look,” he said.”Here it comes.” To our delight it crawled under the water flow and stood still for a few minutes. Then it plodded back toward the woods. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.

During some of his exploring close to a lake several blocks away, Harold had found the terrapin and made himself a new friend. It visited for months, then just disappeared.

Years ago when I was a reporter at a Baldwin County newspaper, a call on a couple who had donated some land, brought to mind my cousin’s adventure with the terrapin. The man I interviewed, Mr.H, was the son of German emigrants. He was very young when his family arrived in the small Elberta community. As we spoke, he somehow touched on how he earned extra money as a boy catching and selling gopher terrapins to local peddlers who ran regular routes in Elberta and neighboring communities. (I thought of Harold and his terrapin.) Before I left his house that day, I not only had notes for the assigned feature story plus an idea that had popped in my head. I told him he should write a history of his community. He said I was not the only one to suggest that. A few weeks later he called me. He and his wife would like for me to help him write that book. I bought a big notebook and made numerous visits to the couple’s house, taking notes in shorthand. It was a long process since I was doing it in my spare time. The book was published in 1990.

Mr. and Mrs. H. are gone now. Several years ago, he granted me permission to share the following excerpts from “Land of Milk and Honey.” This book presents a picture of a community past that has long faded.

For youngsters like John the gophers that dug their burrows on sandy slopes in the upland country presented an opportunity for them to make some money. Almost every Mom and Pop store in Pensacola had gopher cages and the demand was good. Some people considered the meat a delicacy.

The burrow was approximately four feet deep. The gophers hibernated during the winter but left the burrow to graze on tender new shoots of grass in the summertime. They laid eggs near the entrance to the burrows, covered them slightly with soil and allowed the sun to hatch them. They laid from four to eight eggs at a time. Some people ate the eggs, but they were a bit rubbery and did not appeal to the H family’s taste.

As soon as the young gophers were born, they were left by their mothers to be self-sustaining. The mothers did not take care of them in any way. The gopher hunters caught their prey by one of two ways. One could dig them out of the burrows, which was a hard and tedious task. The other method was by setting a steel trap for them. They weighed from three to eight pounds. An enterprising youngster could earn five cents a pound. It was a nice stash for a hunter in those days. The boy ran a regular route, searching for and trapping the gophers.

Who would have thought learning about trapping gophers would eventually result in a book about the gophers and a man’s musings about a community?