Harmon’s Histories: Montana’s early tick fever research drew protests, violence

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

These days, the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton are making headlines in COVID-19 research. Before that, it was SARS-1, MERS, Lyme disease and Ebola.

The Bio-safety Level 4 labs have a colorful and controversial history, dating back more than a century to the initial reason for their existence: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

Most of us have heard about the tick-borne disease and early day researchers like Howard Taylor Rickets (who discovered the source: ticks, and the bacteria which caused the disease) and Clarence Birdseye (who collected thousands of specimens of small animals and ticks, and later went on the create a giant frozen food company).

But somewhere along the line, I had either never known or had long forgotten the original controversy surrounding the labs – and it is quite a story.

In the spring of 1913, the “War On Woodticks” began. The federal government appropriated $15,000 to investigate and exterminate the offending bugs. The state of Montana added $5,000.

Montana’s state entomologist, Professor R. A. Cooley and his federal counterpart, Dr. W.D. Hunter, headed up the effort, putting entomologist H.P. Weed in charge of experiments to be conducted in the Bitter Root valley. (An aside: “Bitter Root,” two words, was the common reference to the area until relatively recent years – when the two words have been combined into a single word, “Bitterroot”).

Montana’s first tick research laboratory, near Florence. Date unknown.

Among the most urgent work was rodent warfare, brush burning and the building of “dipping vats” for cattle and other livestock. At first, officials reported local ranchers were enthusiastic about the enterprise.

On April 9, 1913, state and local officials readied the vats with an arsenic solution “worked out by Lt. Colonel Watkins-Pitchford in the Union of South Africa,” made up of “8 or 8 ½ pounds of arsenite of soda (80% arsenious acid); 5 ½ pounds soft soap; 2 gallons paraffin (kerosene); 400 (Imp.) gallons of water (480 U.S. gallons).”

But the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) response overshadowed reason. The Montana State Board of Epidemiology reported, “The feeling aroused in the Florence district (was that) almost no one was willing to have (a vat) located on his property. The chief reasons advanced for this were that ticks would be brought to their land by the stock and that the neighbors would object to having it located there.”

Sometime during the night of June 10, 1913, “person or persons unknown” smashed the concrete vat on James Dunbar’s west-side ranch near Hamilton, rendering it useless. Seven nights later, the dipping vat at Florence was blown apart by dynamite.

Ravalli County Attorney James D. Taylor headed the investigations. Within a few days, Dunbar was arrested and charged with malicious mischief. He at first refused to post bond, but changed his mind after a day behind bars.

Dunbar’s case finally went to trial July, 27, 1913. He was quickly acquitted, then immediately sued the officials in charge of the dipping program, Drs. Fricks and Cogswell, as well as Professor R.A. Cooley for $10,000 in damage. Dunbar claimed his reputation had been damaged and he had been humiliated by the arrest. 

Tick-dipping vats in the Bitterroot Valley. (Archives and Special Collections, Mike and Maureen Mansfield Library, University of Montana)

By the time the case went to trial in December 1913, though, Dunbar had already agreed to drop his complaint against Cogswell and Cooley, leaving Dr. L.D. Fricks of the U.S. Public Health Service as the only defendant. After hearing the evidence, the court ordered the jury to return a verdict in favor of Fricks.

No arrest(s) were ever made in the Florence dynamiting case.

Meantime, a warrant was sworn for a Stevensville cattleman, John Jacobson, for breaking quarantine after not having his livestock dipped in either of the two non-damaged vats. The case was settled just prior to trial, when Jacobson agreed to have his stock dipped.

By 1914, with rancor ebbing, Dr. Fricks reported the remaining dipping vats operating near Victor and Hamilton as well as a new one at Gold Creek, accommodated thousands of sheep, horses, goats and cattle.

Fricks noted in his year-end report to the State Board of Epidemiology that “some objections were raised by (stock) owners” at the new Gold Creek station, but “it is expected that they will co-operate more willingly hereafter (so) drastic measures were not pushed the first year.”

Despite the bumpy start, Rocky Mountain Labs continued to “work on spotted fever … on several fronts. Within a few years, Drs. Roscoe Spencer and Ralph Parker produced the first effective vaccine.

“Parker for a time conducted his studies in a woodshed (and later in) an abandoned schoolhouse on the west side of the valley” that became known as the “Schoolhouse Lab.”

In the late 1920s, the state appropriated $60,000 to build a permanent facility in Hamilton – something that again caused angst among local citizens. A half-dozen lab workers had died over the preceding decade, and there were still “pockets of fear and distrust.”

Homeowners near the proposed site sued to stop construction, but lost. RML, on its website, says, “In an effort to alleviate town fears, a small moat was built around the perimeter of the facility to be filled with water. Ticks, it was supposed, could not swim the moat.”

Today, Rocky Mountain Labs have morphed from tick research to a state-of-the-art biomedical research facility, overseen by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and more specifically by one of its 27 components, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.