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Bitter Water - The Reality Behind The Episode's Storyline


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southplains

Many, many times the Ponderosa’s trials and tribulations emulate that of the historic King Ranch in Texas; many of the plotlines appear to be derived directly from King Ranch history. One example is the story depicted in the Bonanza episode “Bitter Water.” (Bonanza trivia: the original title of this episode was “Cattle Plague.” I don’t know about you, but I think “Bitter Water” has a much more dramatic ring to it.)

In “Bitter Water,” cattle infested with the dreaded Texas tick are planted in the Ponderosa herd by an embittered neighbor. The news of the infestation spreads wild and fast, with intentional help from the guilty neighbor, and ranchers all over the Carson Valley are demanding that the Cartwrights take action to prevent the tick fever from spreading to their ranches. In the mid-19th century the only course of action available was to kill infected and exposed cattle and burn the carcasses. The Cartwrights would be forced to kill their entire herd since all the animals would be considered to be exposed. A drastic solution, but it was one the other ranchers felt (rightly) was better than everyone losing their cattle to the disease. No one knew of a remedy, or why only southern cattle communicated the plague, nor why the disease disappeared in the winter. No one could comprehend how perfectly healthy southern cattle could convey such a deadly disease to northern cattle, while the northern cattle sick with the malady seemed unable to transfer it to others.

Why was “tick fever” so feared? It was first taken note of in 1814 in South Carolina, but little attention was paid to it until Texas ranchers began driving longhorns to Kansas railheads. Southern livestock are immune to the fever, but as they passed through northern states, northern herds immediately fell prey to it. The fever killed approximately thirty percent of the northern herds. By far the greatest losses seemed to occur by driving Texas cattle through Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and Indian Territory for distribution as feeders to the various western states. The problem was so serious that five states passed quarantine laws against southern herds, which was devastating to Texas ranches. States banning southern cattle were aroused to great indignation because some Texas cattlemen persisted in driving their herds north; armed parties confronted and turned back the invading herds. Missouri farmers in 1866 established a "shotgun quarantine" against the passage of trail herds from Texas. James Daugherty, later of Abilene, TX, was flogged by a mob of Missouri farmers on a drive to Baxter Springs.

All Texas cattle were considered suspect, even though livestock in the colder climes of the Texas Panhandle were tick-free due to the harsh weather there. The disease died down during the Civil War, when Texas cowboys went to war and Texas cattle ran wild. After the war when those wild cattle were captured and driven north to market, the disease reappeared.

In “Bitter Water”, the Cartwrights decide to try the radical idea of dipping their cattle in a sulphuric solution to kill the ticks and thereby stop the spread of the fever. In real life, it was Robert Kleberg, legal advisor to King Ranch owner Richard King (and eventually his son-in-law) who came up with the idea.

The King Ranch was enormous; indeed, it made the fictitious Ponderosa look small in comparison. Even today it is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island and is still one of the largest ranches in the world. Large or not, the King Ranch was like all other Texas ranches in that it was in danger of being destroyed because of tick fever.

Kleberg, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, finally figured out that ticks carried the disease. He designed and built the first dipping vat so that every head of livestock could be immersed in a sulphur and oil solution to rid them of the ticks. He dipped about 20,000 head of cattle on the ranch in an attempt to demonstrate the efficacy of the method.

cattle%20dipping%20vat_zpsvlxqtfgl.jpg

Cattle being dipped about 15 years after Kleburg developed the process. Image from www.texashistory.unt.edu

Bonanza writers allowed Ben Cartwright to come up with the solution about 30 years earlier than Kleburg discovered it in real life. Another thing Bonanza didn’t tell us was that the dipping wasn’t an overnight success; it took thirty years of constant effort to finally rid the south of the pest. Local law was sometimes needed to force owners to comply with the eradication effort. There were even skirmishes called “The Dipping Vat Wars” where protestors dynamited dipping vats. Some people were against dipping even after it was proven to be a cure because the solution was so strong it often killed the cattle as well as the ticks. A solution strong enough to kill the ticks but spare the cattle wasn’t developed until after the turn of the century.

Texas pastures were eventually proclaimed clean, and in 1906 a narrow strip of grasslands along the Texas/Mexico border was designated as a protective zone. In 1982, Congress authorized federal tick riders to carry firearms, so "Texas fever" had come full circle, from cowboys carrying firearms to force cattle drives past "shotgun quarantines" by those opposed to the cattle movements; to inspectors carrying firearms to protect themselves while examining cattle for ticks. To this very day, approximately sixty tick inspectors ride these lands, living in remote camps and watching for stray stock in their specific zone. If Mexican-owned cattle are found, they are turned back across the Rio Grande. If American-owned cattle are found, they are immediately inspected for ticks and turned back north if found clean. If ticks are found, the owner is notified and his ranch quarantined for six to nine months. Even today, nothing may leave ranches in this borderland without being inspected—no livestock or hides, or even dirt, gravel, posts or firewood.

So now you know why all those ranchers shown on “Bitter Water” were so up in arms when tick-infested cattle were discovered on the Ponderosa! Much more than a simple pest infestation, it often meant devastating losses of cattle herds resulting in the annihilation of ranches ranging over hundreds of miles. It was certainly something to be . . . well, ticked off about. Now that you know the facts, go back and watch the episode again, and you might be a bit more understanding of why the Cartwrights' neighbors reacted as they did.

Additional note: if you would like to visit a real-life Ponderosa---aka King Ranch---you can do so. They give tours and have a visitor’s center and a museum. Here’s their website if you’d like to learn more: http://www.king-ranch.com/

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Top Hand Cattle Co.

There are still guys who ride the river. Tick Riders track and catch cows and horses that swim over from Mexico

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Top Hand Cattle Co.

I have a buddy that worked the river. Said he was tired of getting shot at with guns that had more bullets than his. It's a war zone down there. Pipeliners find bodies all the time. The cartels use the pipeline cuts like highways. Of course you never hear the man in the White House talk about that do you?

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southplains

There are still places that deserve the name, "The Wild West!" The border is definitely one of those places. Border ranches typically find several bodies a year on their land. And yeah, it is very frustrating--and very odd--that the dangers on the border seem to be ignored by both the national media and Washington.

In one article on tick riders, I read that they are among the very few cowboys who will retire with a government pension--if they live long enough to retire.

So very ironic that the reality is even more dangerous than what the Hollywood writers depicted for the Cartwrights.

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This was a fascinating post, SP. Loved the idea that there's still a "no-man's land" for safety from the ticks. And if I ever make it to Texas I would love to visit the King Ranch.

And modern-day inspectors...do they have some kind of official name like FDA employee, or is their job title really still "tick inspector"? Can you imagine that on a resume?

sandspur

lovin' the history

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southplains

And modern-day inspectors...do they have some kind of official name like FDA employee, or is their job title really still "tick inspector"? Can you imagine that on a resume?

Hmm, good question, and I don't know the answer. Editing in: see post below. "Mounted Patrol Inspector" is the working title.

Top Hand, do you know what your border buddies called themselves, or what their official job title was?

(When I texted him at 9:30 last night, he was still working, so it might be awhile before we hear back--if today is his day off, he's probably still asleep, and if it's not, he's probably groggy in the saddle! Ranching hours are tough.)

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southplains

Found this job position posting from 2014 on www.usajobs.gov.

Job Title: Animal Health Technician (Mounted Patrol Inspector)

Department: Department of Agriculture

Agency: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

SALARY RANGE: $31,628.00 to $56,406.00 / Per Year

OPEN PERIOD: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 to Tuesday, February 18, 2014

SERIES & GRADE: GS-0704-05/08

POSITION INFORMATION: Full Time - Term not to exceed 13 months; May be extended up to 4 years.

PROMOTION POTENTIAL: 08 DUTY LOCATIONS: 9 vacancies in the following location(s):
Rio Grande City, TX and Zapata, TX

WHO MAY APPLY: This announcement is open to all United States citizens.
Five positions will be filled in Zapata, TX and four positions will be filled Rio Grande, TX

SECURITY CLEARANCE: Other

SUPERVISORY STATUS: No

KEY REQUIREMENTS
  • You must be a US Citizen or US National.
  • Males born after 12/31/59 must be registered with the Selective Service.
  • Subject to satisfactory completion of one year trial period.
  • Valid state driver's license is required at the time of application.
  • Position is subject to random and applicant drug testing.
DUTIES:

The duties described are for the full-performance level. At developmental grade levels, assignments will be of more limited scope, performed with less independence and limited complexity. The duties may include, but are not limited to:
• The incumbent makes unassisted horseback patrols through rough and remote terrain in an assigned sector of the tick quarantine zone along the Texas-Mexico border for the purpose of locating and inspecting livestock which might be carrying cattle fever ticks or other exotic ticks, scabies mites, screwworm, or other foreign animal diseases.
• Trailing, apprehension, inspection, and treatment of unpredictable livestock. Determines animal origin and treats accordingly and inspects premises in and bordering the quarantine zone, and investigates additions to or losses of livestock from such herds.
• Makes periodic inspections of vacated premises to detect bad fences, cattle tracks, or other evidence of illegal use of the premises. Gathers substantiating facts on bad fences for the issuance of quarantine notices.
• Prepares detailed reports of illegal livestock movement or premises use and serves as a witness in court proceedings as necessary.
• Independently conducts complex investigations of alleged violations of State and Federal laws and regulations governing interstate and international movement of livestock.
• Collects physical information which may involve sign-cutting and tracking techniques, and uses this information to detect and apprehend strayed or smuggled Mexican livestock. Forwards a report for final action.
• Issues warning letters for quarantine violations. Appears as a witness and furnishes expert testimony before local, State, and Federal courts.
• Collects and makes tentative identification of ticks according to genus, species, stage of life cycle, sex, and sexual maturity.
• Evaluates and determines the possibilities of exposure to other livestock or premises and recommends courses of action.
• Processes livestock in accordance with regulations. Mixes, tests, and applies pesticide solutions and recommends dipping notices when required and advises livestock owners of dipping locations and dates.

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southplains

Here's an interesting article about the Del Rio Tick Force. It talks about modern tick riders and the dangers they face. It might be pretty eye-opening to some who don't know what it's like down there.

whl5tickride.jpg

PAUSING BRIEFLY on the bank of the Rio Grande near Quemado during a tour of the Fever Tick Eradication Program were, from left to right, Kevin Varner, Edward Avalos, Larry Jung, Jere Dick, Kelsey Johnson, and Mark Davidson

USDA Officials Join Tick Riders For First-Hand Look At Border

By John Bradshaw

DEL RIO — Several USDA officials, including Under Secretary Edward Avalos, traveled to Texas earlier this month for a few meetings and tours. Among their stops was a day on horseback with the Del Rio tick force.

Saddling up that morning were Dr. Kevin Varner, Texas Area Veterinarian in Charge, Dr. Mark Davidson, Veterinary Services Associate Regional Director, and Dr. Jere Dick, Associate Deputy Administrator for Veterinary Services.

Leading the ride were Larry Jung, Assistant Director of the Fever Tick Eradication Program, and Kelsey Johnson, Del Rio County Supervisor.

Avalos, who is the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, is a Las Cruces native who spent the majority of his career with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture before his presidential appointment as Under Secretary. He asked many questions and seemed genuinely concerned with improving the fever tick situation.

After a brief meeting at the Del Rio tick office, the group drove to Quemado, where everyone mounted up and headed down to the Rio Grande.

Safety was an issue. The Border Patrol had been alerted and was on the lookout for any activity. The ride had been kept quiet beforehand, because word might have spread to Mexico and perhaps to those who would have disrupted it.

All tick riders carry sidearms, either .40-caliber semiautomatics or .357 revolvers. They carry radios, which have spot locators and panic buttons.

There is a new policy for tick riders that is often difficult to follow. They are not supposed to ride within sight of Mexico and make targets of themselves. In many areas they are able to ride within yards of the river and still be shielded by the brush and cane, but in others it is impossible.

There were many areas near Quemado where the Texas side was flat and clear of brush, while the Mexican side rose above the river and was covered in dense brush. At one point the group paused on the bank of the Rio Grande, and Varner began asking questions of Jung and Johnson. Jung suggested the group move out of the open before taking any breaks.

All that caution is not unjustified, either. One tick inspector was shot at, or perhaps shot over as a warning, when he rode up on six men all dressed in black.

Tick riders have badges, though not many wear them. Johnson does not wear his.

“Badges just give them something to shoot at,” he explained.

The Border Patrol alerts the tick riders if an area has any activity, and the tick riders return the favor when they come upon anyone. Inspectors vacate an area when people are seen, though that was not the case until recent years.

Johnson told of an instance from a few years back when tick riders spotted four horseback smugglers. The Americans called the Border Patrol, and the Mexicans ran for the river.

The tick riders gave chase, but the smugglers’ head start was too lengthy. The smugglers would have easily made the river ahead of their pursuers, had they not earlier gone through a wire gap and closed it behind them. The tick riders were close enough that there wasn’t time to open it, so the Mexicans abandoned their horses and drugs and fled on foot.

Johnson admitted that he would not pursue anyone now, though.

“We just try to mind our own business now,” Johnson said.

Tick riders typically get the weekends off, unless there is a project to handle, or if the Border Patrol calls and reports stray livestock. There are many Mexican ranchers who know the weekends are clear and take advantage by crossing their cattle for some free grazing. When the tick riders figure out this is happening, and they usually do, they work the weekends and impound the cattle that have been driven across.

There is also quite a bit of rustling still going on. On the Moody Ranch, near Del Rio, Jung said several young bulls have been found with 60-foot ropes dragging from their necks. The Mexicans rustlers also set up snares along trails near the river.

Avalos asked if U.S. livestock ever strays across to Mexico, which Jung said happens but is rare.

“Once they go over there, very seldom do you get them back,” Jung said.

The Del Rio tick riders have been busy lately, because the river is low. Dry weather always exacerbates the problem of stray livestock, because the animals are looking for feed and can easily ford the low river. Floods last year wreaked havoc on fences on both sides of the river, and many are still down.

The group stopped at a spot on the bank of the river where tick riders had snared a Mexican bull the night before. They often use snares on trails frequented by stray livestock. Most snares are just a lariat rope tied off to something solid, with the loop left hanging over a trail, and a knot tied in the rope to keep the loop from choking the animal.

Tick riders also rope stray livestock, and they often bring in portable panels and corral them.

Avalos was curious about the financial side of impounding the livestock. As Jung and Varner explained it, USDA breaks even on cattle that are sold when they are not claimed by their Mexican owners. Horses, because of the extremely poor market, lose money every time.

Horses are tested for EIA, piroplasmosis, glanders and dourine. Those with a clean bill are sold at public auction, for anyone to buy. Unclaimed cattle, after testing for bangs and TB, may only go to slaughter.

The equine testing costs $89 per horse, which is added to the feed bill. They then bring as little as $10 at auction and average about $40-50. Mexican owners often refuse to claim their horses, knowing they are not worth what it takes to get them back.

Mexican cattle captured in Texas are given a U.S. brand before they are returned to Mexico. Cattle with that brand, when caught again, cannot be reclaimed and are sold.

The Del Rio tick office and the Mexican cattlemen attempting to reclaim their strayed stock have been set back lately by a new Mexican port veterinarian who has not been allowing Mexican cattle to cross back to Mexico. Dr. Jere Dick left the meeting with the intention of speaking to SAGARPA and resolving the issue.

Many areas in the permanent zone do not have cattle turned out on them, which actually makes things more difficult for eradication efforts. Varner described cattle as the ideal host for fever ticks. Cattle soak up the ticks like a sponge but are then fairly easy to treat.

Deer, on the other hand, are not easy to treat and are the cause of many of the problems. Deer numbers were low when the tick was first pushed out of the country, but thriving populations are now carrying the tick across the river and beyond.

Downriver from Eagle Pass there has been a problem with red deer lately. According to Jung, over the last three years 32 red deer have been killed, 28 of which had ticks.

Avalos inquired about the proposed high fence project, specifically the location. This project, on which an environmental impact study is underway, would be a cost-sharing endeavor between USDA and landowners to fill gaps between current high fences to limit wildlife movement.

The majority of this fence would be in Starr and Zapata counties, with a small amount in Maverick County. These are areas with much existing high fence and many problems with ticky deer.

The fence is just another tool, Varner said, and not a magic bullet. The more tools they have to work with, the better, he added, and USDA is committed to finding proactive tools.

Later, Varner said USDA plans to fight the ticks on the river, not somewhere north of it in a temporary zone. However, he said the ride outlined just how porous the border is.

“We are going to have continued pressure from Mexico. The tick is there. Our producers are at risk of exposure on a daily basis,” Varner said.

Back at the tick office, Avalos thanked everyone for taking him out and showing him what is actually going on with the tick eradication efforts.

“Too many people don’t know what is going on here,” said Avalos.

http://www.livestockweekly.com/papers/11/05/05/whl5%2821%29bradshawavalos.asp

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As I recall it, "Bitter Water" also dealt with the issue of water rights and the damage that could be done to a ranch if the water on which it depended was diverted upstream to other uses. With the big drought in California this issue has become critically important there, but at the time Bonanza was getting started I assume it was another aspect of ranch life that people in other areas didn't understand at all.

Even with the mild "adjustment to truth" of having the Cartwrights discover cattle dipping thirty years early, I think this was a very interesting episode that has aged very well. I wish the later seasons had more episodes like this one!

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southplains

I'm amused the job description for mounted patrol requires a valid driver's license.

:lol: That is pretty ironic!

As I recall it, "Bitter Water" also dealt with the issue of water rights and the damage that could be done to a ranch if the water on which it depended was diverted upstream to other uses. With the big drought in California this issue has become critically important there, but at the time Bonanza was getting started I assume it was another aspect of ranch life that people in other areas didn't understand at all.

Even with the mild "adjustment to truth" of having the Cartwrights discover cattle dipping thirty years early, I think this was a very interesting episode that has aged very well. I wish the later seasons had more episodes like this one!

We have our own issues with water rights here. Usually what happens is this: some wealthy person from the city (and for some reason, it's ALWAYS from the city, usually Houston or Austin--) comes out, buys up a bunch of land, spends truckloads of money digging a huge lake, and then pumps water from under the ground to fill it. They don't think about the fact (or don't care) that they are stealing already low resources out from under all their neighbors. Their reasoning is that they can afford to do it, and nothing else matters. The latest knot-head to do this did it so he could have a pretty lake for his zebras and exotic antelope to graze around--and he did it right in the middle of the worst drought in U.S. history. Can we say selfish moron?

I wish there were more episodes like that too, Sklamb. And I don't mind the timeline adjustments at all. I love that much of Bonanza, fictional though it is, has its basis in true history.

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At least in California the situation has forced city-dwellers as well as farmers and ranchers to begin to come to terms with the realities of water-distribution. It's sad to see that the equally harsh (and older) drought in Texas hasn't had a similar effect there--although that may have something to do with the attitude that aquafers must be inexhaustible, like oceans. Looking at an empty river bed makes it easier to tell that rivers certainly are exhaustible. Of course, oceans and aquafers are also finite in size, but they are on a different scale, and aquafers are also extremely difficult to visualize. Out of sight, all too often out of mind indeed.

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southplains

At least in California the situation has forced city-dwellers as well as farmers and ranchers to begin to come to terms with the realities of water-distribution. It's sad to see that the equally harsh (and older) drought in Texas hasn't had a similar effect there--although that may have something to do with the attitude that aquafers must be inexhaustible, like oceans. Looking at an empty river bed makes it easier to tell that rivers certainly are exhaustible. Of course, oceans and aquafers are also finite in size, but they are on a different scale, and aquafers are also extremely difficult to visualize. Out of sight, all too often out of mind indeed.

I wouldn't say that it hasn't had at least some effect in Texas. Many places in Texas have had water rations in place for quite some time now, albeit temporary ones. (Which no doubt will eventually become permanent out of necessity.) Granted, we have a long way to go. But we are slowly moving in that direction, with surging interest in native plants and grasses that use less water rather than flowers and lush lawns. After surviving the worst drought in American history, we're learning the hard way.

About 10 years ago, there was talk of California wanting to buy water from Texas. There was plenty of screaming about that from Texans, I can assure you. As far as I know, that ridiculous idea was completely dropped. At least, there has been no mention of it recently. (And there had better not be!)

Here's a little tidbit you can add into the mix of controversy: as of February 2014, California was exporting a hundred billion gallons of water per year to China in the form of alfalfa. That's enough to supply a million families for a year. They use water to grow alfalfa to export. So I'm afraid I can't agree that the state of California has "come to terms with the realities of water-distribution." They are just using it up in different ways. A role model to follow? Not really.

That said, any produce being exported by any state is, in reality, exported water, so California isn't the only one. They are, however, America's largest grower of food crops.

But I don't blame the farmers and ranchers of California, or of any other place. The ultimate answer to water shortages does not lie in "farmers and ranchers coming to terms with the realities of water distribution." No, it lies in people around the world coming to terms with the fact that everything they put in their mouths takes water to produce. Do you know what water rationing to farmers and ranchers means? It means much higher food prices. It means a drop in availability of food at the grocery store. And eventually, it means food rationing for you.

Much better to cut water to things like golf courses, parks, private lawns and the like. There are lots of water-related luxuries most of America and Europe partake in that nobody thinks about. Farms and ranches should be the LAST to be rationed.

Unless, of course, you don't care whether you eat or not.

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southplains

It never seems to stop raining here for very long, but everyone on piped water supplies is metered, so every drop used is having to be paid for. Makes people take a lot more notice about what they're wasting, if they have to pay for it.

That's how it is for the majority of people here too, Inca. Most people get their water from piped supplies, and everyone pays for it. Even those who have private wells pay for the electricity to pump it, which amounts to the same thing.

Obviously things have to change regarding water, but I don't know what the blanket solution is.

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This is such an interesting discussion to me. Yes indeed "things have to change regarding water." I know this intimately since my husband works in the water industry, currently creating a "fresh water industry hub" right here. He constantly travels extensively, both internationally as well as within this country, and is working closely with the White House about this. His verdict on the western U.S? It