Minnesota, aptly named “the Gopher State,” clearly had its start in Grant County where most pocket gophers resided during my childhood and teen years. My father’s idea of paying for a post-secondary education had everything to do with gophers and nothing to do with the University of Minnesota’s Goldie.
For some odd reason, it all began in about the second or third-grade. The magical year of growth when I was “old enough” to set out on foot with my father to the fields of dreams. The lessons of the outdoor classroom beckoned my father to teach. We were always reminded about how lucky we were.
Trapping gophers was a layered lesson. First, we had to learn about those mounds of black earth and what they entailed. They were the homes of the gophers. And “we” did not want those mounds of earth in “our” fields. What was underneath those mounds of earth destroyed crops and interfered with the economy. But luckily, like my father, I too could trap gophers for bounty cash.
It wasn’t hard to find the gopher mounds. Heck, my father came to a dead stop on old County Highway #82 if he saw a black mound of dirt in one of his fields. When observed from the highway we knew that when we got home there would be the trek to the dreaded mound(s). Many times, those mounds were on the opposite end of the entire farm. My father had great vision, in more ways than one.
With gunny sack over my shoulder, I was first “tricked” into the suspense, excitement and the adrenaline of trapping (the chase) my first gopher. First step, use the metal rod to “probe” into the mound of black earth and find the tunnel. Once this was found we would begin digging, by hand, the freshly turned earth, cleaning out the tunnels. I never, ever saw a pocket gopher above ground, or came face-to-face with one as I was invading its home. Pulling out a few snakes and lizards, on the other hand, was just part of the fun. When this happened, I usually ran screaming, encircling the now half-cleaned out tunnel, catching my breath and dreading the whole, ugly job I had to complete.
I had to go back. I had to put my hand back in the tunnel. Once it was cleaned to dad’s satisfaction, it was time to set the cinch trap. Carefully easing the opened and “ set” trap into the tunnel, no snack to entice the varmint was needed. Gophers like the dark, and they burrow and live in the dark. They carry dirt in their pockets, and they gnaw away at crops and plants with their teeth. (Notes from dad’s lesson).
Once the trap is set, the next step is placing old, dry boards over the hole. These awkwardly shaped boards each weighed at least 100 pounds (in my estimation) as I carried them in my gunny sack. The boards were critical to the process. Once the trap is set and the tunnel is covered with the boards, the boards are then covered with excess black earth.
And then, with that trap set, it would be with horror that we observed what seemed like endless mounds of earth before us. How many gophers lived in our fields? I still recall the fresh smell of overturned black earth.
And so, the process continued. Hopefully I would bring at least one gopher home to dad. My sister and I would set out together, to trap gophers on our own. Dad would review the lesson of how to set a clean trap if we had too many plugged holes.
Those gophers were smart critters. I hated checking on my traps…only to find a plugged hole. That meant the gopher outsmarted me, and I had to redig and reset the trap. I had experienced the taste of victory, and success was sweet. I could feel the weight of my money bags. The next hope would be that of having a dead gopher in the trap.
Another lesson, quite brutal when you think about it, was what we had to do if the gopher was still alive in the trap. I would carry it home in my gunny sack as it wiggled and squirmed all the way across the fields of dreams. Once home on the back porch, dad would tell me it was part of the process to bang it over the head with one of my boards until death called. Quite an education, I must say.
As I live and breathe, this story is not yet complete. Once the gopher was dead we had to then cut off its front feet to get paid for our bounty. And yes, dad required us to complete the entire process. And so, with a hammer, I would use a flathead screwdriver, blade side down, placed over the knuckle of the foot… and proceed to pound until I had a set of front feet to put in the tin can.
Dad kept the tin can, the receptacle for our collection of gopher feet, on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen. What good, kind, caring and understanding wife/mother wouldn’t be okay with that? As we continued to trap gophers, it was dad who determined when we finally had enough sets of front feet to take to Erdahl or Elbow Lake to collect our 25 cents per bounty. That was a big day.
It would only take 3,000 years for me to pay off my college tuition. Occasionally a striped gopher would wander into a trap, and we’d get a mere eight cents for that. Or, every now and then dad would bring out the old .22, and we had shooting lessons with those blasted striped gophers as our target. Regardless, I was contributing to the college fund.
And yet, it seems that the best education actually was in the fields of dreams. Outdoors. As usual, my dad was right.