Talking ferrets in New London is something like asking a financier who made his first million in the Klondike or the used-car business about early times. There was nothing demeaning about raising and selling ferrets, but there is the impression that New Londoners now regard the whole business as having been a little gay and sporty for Our Town.
The first ferrets came to New London around the turn of the century and were imported from England. (Ferrets have been domesticated for several thousand years—Plutarch gave them high marks as mousers—but they became most popular with the 19th century British sporting squirearchy.) One story has it that an unknown farmer imported a single English ferret, which escaped and turned up in the barn of Levi Farnsworth. Farnsworth, who became Mr. Big among the ferret breeders, apparently experienced a "eureka" moment upon finding this strange beast, the first such he had ever seen. He became enamored with, if not the personalities, then at least the commercial possibilities of ferrets. Nobody seems to know if he returned the first strayed ferret, but by 1905 he had imported breeders of his own and was advertising ferrets in sportsmen's and sportsboys' magazines.
News about making money gets around fast, and soon various neighbors, seeing that Levi was on to a good thing, began to convert their own chicken coops into ferret pens. The real ferret boom started during World War I, when it was discovered that ferrets made the best experimental animals for influenza research. In the crash effort to combat the great flu epidemic and to prevent its recurrence, laboratories ordered thousands of New London ferrets. There were 20 or 30 New Londoners each raising and selling between 2,000 and 5,000 ferrets a year. There were also many smaller backyard ranchers acting as subcontractors for the big operators. In retrospect, it seems that while the great ferret rush lasted everyone in and around New London who was not mortally allergic to weasels had a few pairs stashed away in the garage or basement.
Ted Cunningham, now an officer in the Savings and Loan Banking Company of New London, started as a clerk at the New London Railway Express office in 1915. "We shipped out five or six carloads of ferrets a night, night after night," he recalls. "There was some money made out of ferrets in our town. Not fortunes, as the word is used now," Cunningham adds, with a banker's reticence, "but some people made very comfortable livings, very comfortable indeed."
"We did well with ferrets, I am not ashamed of it," admits Mrs. Everett Hart-man, a placid, practical lady who, with her late husband, raised thousands of ferrets over a 40-year period. "I had a friend who asked me one day how I could stand those smelly little animals. [Ferrets, like all of the weasel clan from the skunk on down, have what can delicately be called a musky odor.] I just told her that the money didn't smell."
One of the nicest things about ferret ranching, aside from the smell of the money, was that the work was light. A man and his family could raise two or three thousand ferrets a year without undue strain. Several hundred breeding females (jills) were caged in each of the long, unheated coops. The mush they were fed was not much more difficult to mix up than domestic breakfast food. In the months of the year when the females were pregnant or nursing, horse-meat was added to the mush. But in those days old horses were plentiful and were sold to knackers instead of to suburban riding academies, so this dietary supplement did not add appreciably to a ferret breeder's overhead.
Ferrets produce two litters of somewhere between four and a dozen young a year. Though they were occasionally stricken with distemper, diphtheria, foot-rot and flu, the New London ferrets generally ate their mush and multiplied without incident. Concurrently the New London ferret ranchers went about their business of crating up the animals and peddling them around the world at $5 or so a head.
As most good things seem to do, this pleasant and profitable arrangement came to an end. Technological change destroyed the commercial ferret market. As civilization became more adept and less cautious about producing lethal pesticides, ferrets were replaced as ratcatchers on ships and docks by a variety of toxic powders, fumes and pills. In the laboratories it was found that such rodents as hamsters were easier to handle and cheaper than ferrets.
Ferrets were displaced from sport for a less scientific reason. They were declared illegal. About 1920, many states began enforcing laws which either banned ferreting outright or else made it extremely difficult and expensive to carry on the pastime. Currently, though automatic pistols and switchblade knives are freely marketed, citizens in almost every state of the Union are fully protected from the evils of owning, using or associating with ferrets.
The laws of Pennsylvania are more or less typical of the benevolent legislation that has made America safe from ferrets. To own a ferret in Pennsylvania one must obtain a license from the state game commission. The fee is $10 per ferret, and at such rates a man could go broke quickly if he owned a compatible pair. By way of comparison, you can get a dog license for $1 and a hunting permit for $5.20. In the Keystone State it costs only $15 for a menagerie license, under which one can presumably keep anything from a bushmaster to a rhinoceros—anything, that is, but a ferret.