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Small Minnesota town turns pests into a party : Viola’s Gopher Count rewards a year of rodent hunting with a bounty and a celebration.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a quiet week in Viola, Minnesota. There was a bit of a woebegone stir over old Lyle Splittstoesser. For the first time in nobody can remember how long, Lyle didn’t take top honors in the town’s official Gopher Count, which took place on the third Thursday in June as it has every year since 1874.

Odd, too, don’t you know, because Lyle’s got gopher killing down to a science. He knows just where to look for the burrows and how to stick the traps in. Sometimes, when he’s especially feisty, he’ll stand patiently by the hole and wait for a gopher to pop his head up and then Lyle’ll blast it with his shotgun.

“Oh those miserable so-and-sos,” he’ll say, in language that has to be cleaned up here for tender eyes. “What I can’t figure out is that as long as we’ve been killing these things they still don’t thin out. They’re as many now as there ever was.”

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Nobody likes gophers in these parts, which is surprising because the homely rodent is the state mascot. Gophers, especially the rat-like “pocket” variety, throw out huge mounds of dirt in alfalfa fields. Come harvest time, that clogs up farm equipment. Small streaky gophers eat seed corn before it can grow.

Every year come Gopher Count, somebody raises a big stink about it, but folks here say those city know-it-alls don’t have to risk losing a finger cleaning out their hay mowers or pay $200 to replace a dull sickle.

On Gopher Count day the township pays a $1 bounty for evidence of each pocket gopher killed any time since last year and 25 cents for other types of gophers. This year it shelled out $1,978 of its taxpayers’ money, a record. Since gopher killing is a yearlong pastime, it gets a little inconvenient to save the whole gopher. Most people just save the feet in an old coffee tin or mayonnaise jar in the freezer till the time comes to collect.

Alta Mae Splittstoesser doesn’t like gopher feet in the house so Lyle keeps his in some old socks in the garage. This year, when he dumped the socks onto the judges’ table, they counted only 176 pairs of feet, far shy of his record of 1,500. Lyle admits he’s been in a bit of a slump, but then Alta Mae’s been sick and that’s kept him busy. She’s better now, though, so he’ll likely make a comeback next year.

This year’s champion was 16-year-old Shannon Deats, who brought in 385 pairs. His parents, Floyd and Donna, are quite proud. They’re also happy to have a little more freezer space.

Lyle’s loss represents a kind of a passing of the torch to a new generation of gopher hunters. And that’s only in keeping with tradition.

It all began 116 years ago with some local boys playing baseball. After the game, they went over to Wendell Vine’s pasture for some lemonade and, as boys do, started bragging about who was the best gopher hunter. The two baseball teams made a bet--whichever side caught more of the pests over the next year would treat the other to a picnic.

As things like that do, it caught on and everybody in town got involved. Pretty soon, the party part of Gopher Count got bigger than the gopher part. People claim it’s the longest running town festival in Minnesota and the second longest in the country after the Kentucky Derby, but nobody knows for sure.

Gopher Count has survived wars, droughts and even the fire that wiped out most of the town back in the Depression. Only about 70 people still live in Viola, but about 3,000 show up every year for Gopher Count.

Traditions die hard. The anti-rustling society stopped staging mock lynchings decades ago. But the parade always follows the counting ritual and always goes around twice because the town is so small. This year, there were 70 floats--one for every resident--and many were recycled over the weekend for the parade to kick off Cheese Days in nearby Elgin.

After the parade there’s always a political speech. Hubert H. Humphrey III and Walter F. Mondale have taken turns on the stump. And then come the pie-eating contest, the doll buggy parade, the cakewalk, the tug of war, the three-legged race and the concerts by the Sweet Adelines and the polka band.

Especially inspiring this year was the ceremony during which Merv and Marge Merta, the reigning Gopher Count King and Queen, passed their crowns over to the new royal couple, Helmer and Marie Underberg.

“I don’t know if we’ve done you a whole lot of good, but we haven’t done you any harm, either,” Merv said in summing up his year of responsibilities.

And that’s the news from Viola, Minnesota, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the gophers are nervous.


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