Mosquito Control in the Napa Valley

The following article is a summary of the district written by the first board president, Robert C. Whitthorne. Mr. Whitthorne served on the board from 1925 to 1938.

Mosquito Control in the Napa Valley

Robert C. Whitthorne

There are many facets in the history and progress of Napa County, and the record of accomplishments is replete with the many dedicated persons whose names and deeds are synonymous with the development of this beautiful valley. However, there are many whose names never reach public acclaim, although their contributions to society are very important to the health and welfare of the people of this valley. I refer in particular to the members of the Carneros Farm Center who through a long, arduous task, extending over a period of about three years, were instrumental in forming the Napa County Mosquito Abatement District. Many of these people have since passed away, prominent among whom were Fred Pare, Paul Miroux, Thomas Elrick, and numerous others.

I, with my family, moved into the Carneros district of Napa Valley early in 1922 and shortly thereafter was elected director of the Carneros Farm Center. The mosquito problem at this time had become unbearable and as a detriment to use and livability was realized to be a serious factor in the future development of this area. Means had to be found to combat the nuisance.

Fortunately I ran across a news article to the effect that a Doctor _________, who was lecturing at the University of California, had been instrumental in the formation of a Mosquito Abatement District in Delaware, which was very effective in controlling the pest. I wrote Dr. _______, stating our problem, and invited him to come to Napa and address our group. This he did and outlined in detail the steps necessary for the formation of such a district. It seemed a huge task for our small group; however, a motion was made and carried that a committee be formed to come up with an outline of a plan of action. A committee consisting of Harrison Bentley, Fred Pare, Paul Miroux, and myself as chairman was appointed. This group was augmented from time to time with members of the Las Amigas district.

First truck of the Napa Country Mosquito Abatement District. Note oil drum and sprayer

After a few weeks of study and survey of the task ahead, the problem seemed impossible, as at the time a very large portion of southern Napa County was swampland. In order successfully to eradicate the mosquito and its breeding grounds, it would be necessary, first, to drain the many potholes and low spots and get rid of large areas of cracked land by ditching and plowing, with much hand labor required.

In our first approach to the problem, it was planned to have a District embracing the southern end of the County, but it soon became apparent that the area would not provide a sufficient tax base with which to finance the operation. It was necessary to bring the City of Napa into the picture. A plan of action was outlined: first, to secure all the information available to us on the subject and then through every means possible try to impart this information and sell the idea to everyone in the District, including the City of Napa. On October 29, 1923, a representative group from the Carneros district, accompanied by Farm Advisor Herman Baade, appeared before the Napa City Council to discuss the mosquito nuisance. Mr. Baade introduced Mr. Mr. L.G. Lennert of the State Board of Health, who outlined the procedures for establishing and maintaining a Mosquito Abatement District, at a tax not to exceed ten cents per hundred dollars. After much discussion, the Council voted to put the matter over until such time as Mr. R.M. Butler, head of the Department of Public Health for the City of Napa, could be present.

Again on November 5, 1923, another group appeared before the Council, requesting a resolution be drawn up and presented to the Board of Supervisors, asking that the city be included in the proposed Abatement District. At this meeting the committee presented a considerable amount of evidence obtained from ranchers, stockmen, and dairymen, complaining of the pestilence and its effect on the economics of their operations. Beef cattle, dairy herds, and sheep were never able to rest, as they ran most of the time trying to rid themselves of the pest. Ranchers and dairymen had a serious problem in trying to keep help; all workers during the mosquito season wore veils as protection. The labor turnover was exceedingly high.

The arguments presented had little effect on the Council, and finally Mr. Butler moved that the matter be deferred for further study. About this time we seemed to get the “message” that we were not particularly welcomed at the meetings of the Council. After this session the committee began intensifying the campaign by circulating petitions throughout the City of Napa and the lower section of the County, appearing at meeting of service clubs, farm centers, and other groups, explaining the situation and requesting support. The workhorses of this committee being Harrison Bentley, Paul Miroux, and myself, were soon dubbed the “Three Mosquitoeers”, a name that stuck with us for a long time. After the petitions had been fully circulated and were in compliance with State laws, it was again time to appear before the Council.

Spraying mosquito breeding places in cracked ground.

On June 30, 1924, the committee, accompanied by a large delegation from the city and from Carneros and Las Amigas districts, came before the Council, presenting the petitions and again requesting that the Council accept them and adopt a resolution to the Board of Supervisors requesting the City be included in the proposed Abatement District. The petitions were accepted and filed with no further action.

On July 7, 1924, in order to keep things alive, we appeared before the Council requesting that action be taken on the petitions. Discussion became a bit heated; however, the Council
voted to table the matter until a full membership of the Council was present.

On July 21, 1924, once again we appeared before the Council with the same request, and after considerable discussion the Council proposed that a committee from Carneros district and the City of Napa meet with the Board of Supervisors of Napa County, at a date to be fixed by Carneros, for the purpose of discussing the matter thoroughly. This meeting was held, but no concrete action was taken.

At a meeting of the Council on May 5, 1925, a communication from the Napa County Farm Bureau was received and read, unanimously endorsing the Mosquito Abatement District and earnestly petitioning the Mayor and City Council to join the proposed District as a matter of community betterment and a most profitable and progressive measure.

A delegation of representative property owners living in the area to be incorporated in the proposed District again appeared before the Council, addressing the Board at length relative to the mosquito nuisance prevailing in this area. Mr. Lauda G. Lenert, from the State Board of Health, was present and again outlined the problem, stating that a Mosquito Abatement District should be formed and requesting that the Council pass a resolution that the County Board of Supervisors include the City of Napa in the proposed District. The Council listened but took no action.

On May 18, 1925, we again appeared before the Council with a rather large delegation, and after much discussion the Council finally voted that it would be in the interest of the Council to adopt such a resolution, provided that a petition to form such a District be county-wide and contain resolutions from the cities of St Helena and Calistoga that they be included.

This action by the Council seemed to be meant to be the “coup de grace” for all future action by the committee and to put an end to further needling of the Council, as it appeared to impossible to interest the upper portion of the valley in such a project. But this contingency had been foreseen, and the committee had done considerable spadework by appearing before the upper valley Farm Centers and other organizations, with a plea for cooperation.

Our first big break had come when we appeared before the Board of Trustees of St Helena on May 12, 1925. Colonel J.N. Salladay, a member of the Board who had been active in mosquito control work during the building of the Panama Canal, took over and really presented our case to the point that he introduced this resolution, which was seconded by Trustee Hooks: “Whereas certain qualified electors and registered voters of the unincorporated territory of the County of Napa and also certain qualified and registered voters of the Town of St Helena have appeared before the Board of Trustees and represented that petitions are being circulated among the qualified voters of the County of Napa, etc., etc….It is therefore Resolved by the Board of Trustees of the City of St Helena that the Board of Supervisors of the County of Napa are hereby requested that the said Mosquito Abatement District be formed as hereinbefore set forth, all the incorporated territory of the Town of St Helena to be included, and it is further resolved that a copy of this resolution, duly authenticated, be forwarded to and filed with said Board of Supervisors.”

On May 22, 1925, at a special meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Town of Calistoga, called for the purpose of discussing the formation of an Abatement District, a delegation from the Napa area and the Carneros and Las Amigas farm centers appeared before the Board and after discussion of all the ramifications involved in forming such a District, requested that the Board pass a resolution of intention. One of the main arguments presented was the fact that the lower part of the valley had been paying taxes on Predator Control and Forest Fire Protection, although these services had no direct bearing on our welfare there. After some discussion, Trustee Owen Kenny moved that it was the sense of the meeting to pass such a resolution. On being seconded by Trustee C.E. Butler, the motion carried.

On May 25, 1925, the committee from Carneros and Las Amigas districts again appeared before the Napa City Council and assured that body that we had in fact obtained the necessary resolutions from both St Helena and Calistoga and that these were in the process of being formally presented to the Board of Supervisors in accordance with law. The members of the City Council of Napa could hardly believe that such a feat had been accomplished, and a heated discussion took place. However, a promise was promise, and finally Councilman Sheppard introduced the following resolution and moved its adoption: “Whereas pursuant to law there has been presented to this Council a petition signed by more than ten percent of the qualified electors of the City of Napa, praying that a Mosquito Abatement District, comprising the proposed boundaries set forth in such petition, within the entire territory embraced within corporate boundaries of the City of Napa is included therein. Resolved that the City Council of Napa does hereby request the inclusion of the territory within the corporate limits of the City of Napa in such Mosquito Abatement District.” On being seconded by Councilman Trubody, the motion for adoption carried.

On May 29, 1925, the Board of Trustees of Calistoga passed a formal resolution confirming the resolution of intention passed on May 22.

At a meeting of the Board of Supervisors on July 14, 1925, a resolution relative to the forming of a County-wide Abatement District was introduced by Supervisor Hein, who moved its adoption. The motion to adopt was seconded by Supervisor Maxwell and upon roll call was passed by a unanimous vote of the Board. The resolution is rather long and is on record in the minutes of the meeting of July 14, 1925, as shown on page 145, Book 1 of County Records. It wound up by stating: “It is further declared and ordered that all of the territory within the limits of the County of Napa, be, and it is hereby created a Mosquito Abatement District.” The clerk was ordered to transmit a certified copy of this resolution to the Secretary of State at Sacramento, California.

On August 11, 1925, the Board of Supervisors announced the following Board of Directors of the Napa County Mosquito Abatement District: P.E. Kelly, certified by the Board of Trustees of Calistoga; Colonel J.M. Salladay, certified by the Board of Trustees of St Helena; Dr. C.E. McCormick, certified by the City Council of Napa; and Robert C. Whitthorne and James H. Bentley, named by the Board of Supervisors as directors at large.

Now that the District was a reality, organization for carrying on the project was begun by calling the first regular meeting of the Board of Directors, which was held in the Farm Bureau office in the Chamber of Commerce Building on August 17, 1925, at 10 a.m., as directed by law. The Board organized by electing R.C. Whitthorne president and James H. Bentley, secretary. R.C. Whitthorne and Dr. C. E. McCormick were selected by lot for two-year terms expiring January 2, 1928. The other members drew one-year terms expiring January 2, 1927. At this first meeting it was requested that the Board of Supervisors raise the sum of $11,000.00 to start the work of control for the coming year. This was approximately a five cent tax.

Shortly after the Board was organized, several applications for the position of superintendent of the District were received from persons in New Jersey, Mississippi and Florida; however these were all turned down for one reason or another. On December 20, 1925, the Board appointed Mr. H. E. Wyman of Walnut Creek as the superintendent at a salary of $175.00 per month, and at the same time a Mr. R. E. Hackley of the Matadero Abatement District, was hired as an advisor on a part-time basis at $41.00 per month. These gentlemen reported for duty on January 11, 1926, and started a survey of the worst trouble areas and began by preparing sectional maps showing the many sloughs, potholes, and low areas, and laying out the many ditches that should be dug to drain off the spots that would allow water to stand for long periods of time. It developed that there would be a considerable amount of ditching, placing of floodgates, and elimination of cracked ground to be done before any small benefit would be noticed.

All the early stages of the various types of mosquitoes concerned in control work are found only in water, the young being called “wrigglers” because of their peculiar swimming movements. Since water is the vital necessity for the propagation and breeding of the mosquito, it is apparent how necessary it is to (1) keep the area drained of all small pools of standing or stagnant water; (2) fill or plow up cracked ground; (3) apply oil sprays and insecticides; (4) plant top-feeding fish, particularly the minnows of the Gambusiaspecies, that live on larvae; and (5) eliminate all cans, barrels, etc., that can hold water.

The maps drawn showed pretty well the areas, which should be ditched, and those to be sprayed with stove oil, insecticides not being used in the early stages of control work. Also plotted were the large areas of cracked ground with large cracks that went down to the water table. The extent of this type of land was such that spraying each crack was an impossible task. Plowing up of this soil, together with proper drainage, was the only solution. Most of this area was farmable; however, since the cost of preparing the soil for planting was beyond the ability of the average farmer, a cooperative deal was made, wherein the District assisted the landholder in cultivating and also in repairing levees and floodgates.

Inasmuch as it was soon seen that a boat was needed to transport men, oil, and equipment to strategic areas, a 30-foot motor launch was obtained from the U.S. Navy Department in 1926 at a cost of $75.00, and an engine and other accessories were installed by the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. This boat and a later replacement served very effectively to facilitate the dispersal of oil storage and to transport personnel.

Heavy equipment used in filling cracks and sloughs and preparing for culitvation

As the work of drainage was gradually expanded it was soon apparent that material progress in mosquito abatement was being accomplished but that a long road to full control lay ahead. One big step was in the negotiations between the District and certain property owners for the installation of pumping equipment. One such installation, authorized in October, 1927, was on the Keller and Zeller ranch, where for the cost of $300.00 for ditching, the owners agreed to install a pumping plant and plow up all cracked ground. On completion of this work and installation a very noticeable improvement was seen.

The District under the law had the power to abate certain areas, but almost all the control work was accomplished through cooperation with the landowners and the operators of numerous duck clubs without the necessity of instituting abatement proceeding. Most of the farmers were cooperating to the best of their abilities. Certain nonresident owners, however, were noncooperative, one such being the Magoon Estate, which owned a large place near Buchli Station. It was not until after hearings of abatement proceedings before the Board on June 4 and June 18, 1928, with District Attorney Wallace Rutherford in attendance, and in the Superior Court of Oakland, California, on October 16, 1930, that the Magoon interests complied by performing the work specified by the Board, chiefly the plowing of a large acreage of cracked ground. Success in this case put the District in a rare bargaining position regarding other potential abatement proceeding.

On July 6, 1928, Mr. Wyman tendered his resignation, which was accepted, and Chairman Whitthorne was delegated to secure the services of a competent man to act as superintendent of the District. This assignment offered a challenge, as I felt that the District needed a working superintendent rather than an entomologist. About this time the various Farm Centers were busy erecting their display booths in the Napa Fair Grounds. While working on the Carneros booth, it seemed that all I could hear around the grounds was: “I don’t know! Why not see Mr. Emerick?” So I decided to find out who this man, who seemed to have all the answers, was. It developed that he was Arthur Emerick, who was erecting the Bennett Farm Center booth and was the manager of the Bell ranch in the Calistoga area.

After a few days of sizing up Mr. Emerick, I approached him with the proposition of becoming the superintendent of the Mosquito District. He was a bit reluctant to take on a job of which he knew absolutely nothing, but after a tour of the District he agreed to give it a try. He was appointed on August 6, 1928. On September 4, 1928, he entered into the control work with a vigorous attack on the problem of educating the people of Napa Valley on the control work that could be done on their own score by keeping their property free of cans, barrels, etc., in which standing water could collect. he saw to it that irrigation ponds, lily ponds, and animal drinking troughs throughout the County were stocked with fish which kept these breeding areas under control. Maintaining a supply of Gambusiawas no small problem, as these fish were in big demand and were planted by the thousands throughout the County, as well as furnished to Alameda and Solano Counties.

In the early part of 1934 the U.S. Government set up a Civilian Works Project and allocated approximately $415,000.00 for mosquito control work in California. The Board was requested to specify certain work to be accomplished under various projects and set up three: No. 1, lower western area; No. 2, east side of the Napa River; and No. 3, St Helena and Calistoga areas. These projects were under Napa County control, and Mr. J. H. Bentley, secretary of the Mosquito Abatement District, was appointed as Federal County Supervisor. These and other projects subsequently approved employed approximately 50 men in ditching, drainage, and related work, greatly reducing the general cost of abatement work in many areas. Much more time was now available for a closer inspection of sewer farms, septic tanks, dairies, and freshwater streams and ponds. As a result, the District has been successful in the control of the malaria-carrying Anophelesmosquitoes. These have been found in the Berryessa, Carneros, and Oakville districts.

Napa County Seal

Mr. Emerick carried on this work for almost twenty-five years, retiring upon reaching the mandatory age of 70 in 1951. During this period Mr. Emerick, familiarly known as “Ham”, laid a solid foundation for mosquito control work and will be long remembered for his untiring efforts.

Upon Mr. Emerick’s retirement, Mr. William Rusconi, then the assistant superintendent, was promoted to the position of District Superintendent and has expanded the operations in line with the rising population of the Napa Valley. Under his supervision the District operates with the most modern techniques and equipment and is a model of efficiency in this work.

To many of the citizenry of Napa County, mosquitoes are now practically unknown. However, should abatement work be curtailed to any great degree, conditions could become intolerable in a very short time.

Sources: Minutes of meeting of Napa City Council, of Boards of Trustees of St Helena and Calistoga, of Board of Napa County Supervisors, and of Board of Directors, Napa County Mosquito Abatement District.

Photographs by courtesy of Mrs. Mildred Dutro, from album of snapshots of Mosquito Abatement District operations taken by her father, Arthur Emerick.