The Great Mouse Invasion - West Kern Oil Museum
Something is very wrong with this exhibit. At first glance it seems like a normal home furniture tableau -- but then we realize that it's carpeted with mice. Every chair, table, and cabinet is sprinkled with gray rubber rodents. One of them on the rug is caught in a mousetrap, but a dozen around it aren't. It's the Great Mouse Invasion of 1926-27!
The rodents are by no means the focus of the West Kern Oil Museum, but they're the cheese that has tempted and ensnared us.
As its name suggests, the West Kern Oil Museum devotes a chunk of its space to the local petroleum industry. The region around Kern was once dotted with over 7,000 wooden oil derricks. Visitors can tour the museum grounds to see a towering restored derrick and historic buildings. Inside the museum are scale models of oil field operations and an account of the Lakeview Gusher, a well-gone-wild in 1910, resulting in the world's largest accidental oil spill.
And then there's what you might expect in a local history collection derived from donated items: Indian artifacts, wildlife taxidermy, old tools, memorabilia from a long-gone U.S. Army Air Corps field. We see a saber-toothed tiger skeleton, mannequins in period garb, and claims that Taft is the birthplace of dobro guitars. School groups can sit at tiny desks in a recreated early grammar school classroom, and interact with a mock "Main Street" lined with old timey businesses.
For a town that was once named "Moron," careful thought has gone into this collection of county history.
The Great Mouse Invasion
Back to those rubber mice, which help bring back to life what is considered the biggest rodent infestation in U.S. history, according to the museum (mouse plagues are still reported in Australia).
In 1924, the Bureau of Biological Survey (old name for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) launched a shortsighted project to eliminate coyotes, hawks and other predators in Kern County. This had the unanticipated effect of allowing the region's mice population to breed unimpeded (female mice have 5-10 litters year, averaging 6-8 mice/litter). The dry Buena Vista lakebed northeast of Taft planted with crops -- wheat, barley, corn cotton -- was home to millions of house mice and meadow mice. But after the autumn harvest, a mouse can get mighty hungry....
A rainstorm in late November 1926 started to fill the lakebed, triggering an abrupt, collective rodent exodus radiating in all directions. Newspaper accounts describe the mounting horror, as mice waves scampered across oil fields, camps and ranches. They ate everything. Oil workers dug long, shallow trenches seeded with poisoned grain. Some mice succumbed, but survivors were breeding so fast it didn't matter.
The mouse army was 50 million strong when it reached Taft. The main highway was reported as "slushy with dead mice." Residents complained of mice running across their beds all night long. No matter how many traps were put out and emptied each day, replacement mice poured into the gap. They were insatiable. They ate an entire sheep in its pen. The mouse-to-Taft citizen ratio was estimated at 20,000 to 1.
In January 1927, the Bureau of Biological Survey was called in to help, and they sent their top infestation man, Stanley Piper. Piper (who objected to being called "Pied" anything) calculated the mice population at over 100 million. He had a plan to decimate the infestation at the source, the old lake bed, apparently still used as a breeding hub for the mouse army.
Piper was preparing to launch the campaign, when a kind of Biblical miracle occurred: birds suddenly arrived -- every variety of airborne predator, owls, hawks, ravens and more -- all treating the lakebed like a giant mouse buffet. Another large rainstorm in mid-February 1927 drowned the remaining mice. The infestation in Taft ended. Everything was back in balance.
That's a crazy story all right, but true. We're grateful the West Kern Oil Museum tells it. If it were up to us, we'd totally commit to it: glue rubber mice on all the displays, in every building, up the side of the derrick, and rename as the Mouse Invasion Museum.
That's why they don't let us run museums.