In New London, Ohio a visitor has the uneasy feeling that he had better finish up his errands in a hurry before a crew of stagehands folds up the whole place and stores it away in some huge property closet. Just around the next elm tree one keeps expecting to meet Frank Craven, who will point across Prospect Street and drawl, "There goes our Emily Webb."
In New London there is a gray depot with a mansard roof. There is a weekly newspaper featuring a frontpage column, Chenango Charlie Says. There are real, kindly, white-haired ladies sitting, knitting, on the deep front porches and ever ready to serve their guests some Ma Perkins sugar cookies. At the high school baccalaureate service the Senior Girls' Triple Trio sings. "Hallelujah, praise ye the Lord""—the Supreme Court notwithstanding.
New London is peaceful and gracious and Our Town, which makes it all the harder for the visitor to convince himself that he is at the world capital of a sport that was once as much a part of rural life as the buggy or the sweet chestnut: a bizarre and exciting sport—"shush," say the old ladies on the porches—that was eventually to be outlawed, namely, hunting with ferrets.
Turn back the clock now (there is that Our Town lilt again) a generation or two. back to the first 40 years of this century. New London had a nickname then—Ferretville, U.S.A.—and it was a working, not a promotion, cognomen, since mail so addressed regularly reached the little Ohio town. In and around the community, New Londoners bred, raised and sold 30,000 or 40,000 ferrets a year. These long, sinuous weasels, originally native to Africa and Asia, were shipped from New London to docks, ports and factories all over the world, where they were used to control rats. They were also used as experimental animals in medical laboratories and for such worthy jobs as pulling telephone wires through long underground conduits.
Mostly, however, the little predators being raised in New London were shipped to the Cottontail Belt, which runs mainly from the Mississippi east, and sold to country and small-town boys who either did not have the price of a gun or did not need a gun as long as they had a ferret. Given a good aggressive hob (the male of the species) and a burlap bag to hold over the mouth of a bunny hole, a ferreter could take as many rabbits as a gunner. And ferreting was something more than just a method of getting rabbit stew. If you wanted excitement you could run your weasel down a woodchuck hole or a fox den. The result was sometimes more action than the average burlap bag would hold.
In those days if you met a friend out walking in the December powder snow empty-handed but with a coat pocket that wriggled, the question was not "What have you got?" but "What color, brown or white?" Ferrets were sold in hardware, sporting and general stores as commonly as steel traps or case knives, and almost all of them, or their ancestors, came from that Detroit of the ferret world, New London.
Despite the fact that no other place challenged New London's claim to being Ferretville, the town has made no effort to memorialize or capitalize on its former fame. About the only physical remains of the ferret boom are a few of the long breeding sheds and a mush house or two (mush made of milk and whole wheat was the ferret diet), which ex-ferret ranchers have not gotten around to demolishing. None of these falling-down sheds are marked with historical plaques. There are no ferret museums in New London, no oil paintings of grand champions, no Hob Inn Motor Lodge. There are, of course, many ferret memories, since the majority of citizens over 40 seem to have been somehow involved with the animals. However, even talk about the good old days is somewhat muted in New London. No one actually denies that New London was Ferretville, but the fact is not being pushed. There is a sort of three-billy-goats-Gruff routine that crops up in ferret conversations in New London:
"I was just in it in a small way. Kept 20 or 30 in the shed. Now, Farnsworth was in it big."
"My brother had a few, but the Hartmans shipped thousands."
"Talk to Donald Day, or to Morrie Smith down at the tire shop. He's still crazy about ferrets."