The Odd History of Cattle Dipping

Across the state, mysterious concrete trenches sit as silent evidence of a bygone rural practice — cattle dipping.

illustration of cattle dipping
Illustration by Anna Thornton

Ever seen an old cattle-dipping vat? A concrete trench in the ground? There’s one in Propst Park in Bay Minette, one on County Road 55 in central Baldwin County and one in the swamp at Hal’s Lake Hunting Club in lower Clarke County. There are others around the country, but you won’t see one being used.

Raising beef cattle has always been a big business here. The Spanish raised cattle on Dauphin Island, among other places. The Indian / white Creek Métis of the Tensaw and Little River country in the 1780s – 1815 — people like William Weatherford and David Tate — were serious cattlemen, to the consternation of the Creek traditionalists who abhorred salt beef as a cultural and religious abomination. The Indian “prophets” who encountered salt beef would shake uncontrollably. Antebellum Alabama cattle were commonly grazed in the piney woods in the summer and the swamp in the winter.

The “Texas Fever Tick” came into the United States very early with Mexican cattle and spread throughout the country with the long trail drives that were commonplace before railroads were built. Northern cold winters usually killed the ticks, but not in the South. The pests carried a parasite which destroyed cattle’s red blood cells.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture started a tick eradication program in 1884, but it was limited. In 1906, Congress authorized the Department to begin joint state-federal efforts to eradicate ticks, but the Alabama Legislature in 1907 limited the program to counties which did not have open range laws, and most did. In 1915, (the same year the boll weevil arrived in Alabama, causing a need for agricultural diversity) cattle interests met with progressive Governor Charles Henderson of Troy and began a tick eradication program. The need for beef for soldiers in World War I caused a ban on the transport of tick-infected cattle, and so in 1919, the state finally adopted a tick eradication program.

- Sponsors -

Unfortunately, the program, along with the elimination of open range laws for cattle, were viewed with alarm by many rural Alabamians who resented a strong central government’s interference with traditional ways. The native Alabama cattle — usually called “Cracker cattle” — raised by the common people had developed an immunity to the fever, and the problems were mainly with the fancy European cattle breeds being imported by the richer cattlemen. There was a clear class conflict between the open-range libertarians with local cattle — often lumbermen, too — and the wealthier cattlemen with their fenced-in fancy breeds. Locals began dynamiting dipping vats; the act became such a problem that, in 1919, Governor Thomas Kilby was offering rewards for the capture of the dynamiters.

Clarke County was the last county in Alabama to adopt the program. In 1927, the state veterinarian sued Clarke County to get a court order to make the county adopt a tick program, and the Alabama Supreme Court, speaking through Judge Anthony D. Sayre (father of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald), ordered it done. Clarke County set out to operate 205 dipping vats, some old and some new, using an arsenic dip during two weeks in the spring and two weeks in the fall.

At some point, the practice of dipping cattle stopped. But some of the old vats are still out there — smothered in crawling vines and dead leaves — but standing nonetheless in quiet tribute to a fascinating footnote of Alabama history.

David Bagwell is a retired attorney and amateur historian living on the Eastern Shore.

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!