stinging fire ant would not invade Texas for another century, but the Lone Star
State had no shortage of pesky critters in the 1870s.|
Back then, folks
who made their living in agricultural pursuits considered cutter ants and the
“California ground squirrel, commonly known as the gopher” particularly onerous.
The gopher, declared German immigrant J.C. Melcher, “is a great pest to the farmer,
destroying quantities of grain and doing great injury to gardens and orchards.”
and his wife had come to Texas by way of Galveston. En route to the German settlement
of New Braunfels, they found the Colorado River flooded. While they waited for
the water to go down, Melcher had ample time to visit with ferry owner and Fayette
County pioneer John Moore, also a noted Indian fighter. When Moore found out that
Melcher was a cabinet maker, he said that a man proficient at that trade could
make a good living right there. Moore soon convinced Melcher to forget about New
Braunfels and stay in Fayette County.
In 1855, Melcher opened a general
store at Black Jack Springs, a community between La
Grange and Flatonia. While meeting
the retail needs of his customers, he heard plenty of sad stories about crop-eating
A creative sort who despite his success as a merchant still
liked to make things with his hands, Melcher invented a solution. He called it
“The Victory Ant, Mole, Gopher and Ground Squirrel Exterminator.”
consisted of two major components, a cast iron “fire chamber” and a wooden pump.
The operator heated sulfur with coal in the 12- by 24-inch furnace, causing a
build up of sulfurous gas in the chamber. It had a sharpened flange that went
into the ground over a gopher or ant hole.
The 11- by 11-inch pump, nearly
three feet high, at 30 strokes a minute pushed two cubic feet of gas into a pest’s
underground domicile. That much gas, Melcher asserted, could fill a two-inch gopher
hole 2,000 feet long with deadly fumes.
The Fayette County man’s device
must have been quite effective. His invention won first place at the 1879 State
Fair of Texas, an event then held in Austin. Melcher received an ornate “Diploma,”
complete with an engraving of the limestone Capitol that would burn down a few
Less than a month after winning his prize, on Nov. 18, 1879,
Melcher received from the U.S. Patent Office a patent for his pest-control device.
Word of the invention’s effectiveness soon spread. The Jan. 3, 1880 edition of
the Scientific American had a story on the Exterminator that gave it and its creator
Melcher soon went to a job printer and had a handbill
“I have manufactured over 400 pumps during the last few years,”
the inventor-entrepreneur said in the advertising piece, “and have taken great
pains to bring them as near perfection as possible and will continue to improve
them if I possibly can.”
The piece also announced that “territorial rights”
to tell the device could be purchased “very cheap for cash, land, notes, or other
Just how many salesmen Melcher recruited and how well
his business went is not known by his descendants.
stayed in Fayette County, but in the early 1900s one of his sons, Edmund Max Melcher,
decided to seek new opportunities elsewhere in the state. Narrowing his options
down to either Houston or the growing
port city of Port Lavaca,
Melcher flipped a coin. Port Lavaca won the toss, and his branch of the family
has been in Calhoun County ever since.
After settling in the coastal town,
he worked as a clerk at the Bay City Trading Co. for several years. In 1912, he
and a partner opened a general merchandise store. Five years later, Melcher purchased
a building at 203 E. Main Street and opened a hardware business. The store has
been in business ever since.
Ed Melcher’s son, J.C. Melcher II, inherited
the store and kept it open through the Depression and assorted hurricanes. Today,
J.C. Melcher III, great-grandson of the inventor of the Exterminator, still runs
the family hardware store. Hanging on the wall in a room filled with old merchandise
is a copy of the handbill J.C. Melcher printed to advertise his invention.
that piece of paper is the only known evidence of Melcher’s product. A fire at
the old family homestead at Black Jack Springs destroyed Melcher’s house and any
unsold Exterminators he might have had around.