A Look at the Archives: The Moth Superintendent Ascendancy 

By Town Archivist Ashley Large

It’s summer. Let’s talk about bugs! Yes, those beings that several times outnumber the humans on this planet and are the bane of every BBQ… There are not enough citronella candles on this earth to stem the tide.

I’m looking at you, pincer bugs of my childhood swimming pools. In all seriousness, so many insect species are very beneficial – bees and spiders, to name just a few. I personally love spiders because they snack on silverfish, that creature which digests archival documents. 

Let’s talk about Bedford bugs and how they are now part of the documentary history of the town. 

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In 1904, Charles Jenks wrote an impassioned plea for citizen involvement in quelling the moth epidemic. (1904-1905 Annual Town Report) Photo from Town of Bedford Archives

A Little Background

In 1869, Frenchman Leopold Trouvelot accidentally introduced spongy moths (formerly known as gypsy moths) to Massachusetts when his European specimens mysteriously made their way into his backyard in Medford and found a welcome environment in which to live and grow. [1]

This would have a profound effect on our northeastern arboreal landscape, as well as the way we respond to species deemed to be pests. 

You see, spongy moth caterpillars, the larvae of the Lymantria dispar moth, are very destructive to the trees in which they are born. They can swiftly consume the foliage of an entire tree, leaving it bare and in danger of death; indeed, the Latin lymantria generally translates to “destroyer.” [2] Oaks are particularly susceptible. 

Certainly, in the past, these moths and others had been seen as pests extraordinaire. If we are to go by Bedford’s annual reports, mentions of the spongy moth show up in the list of books acquired by the Bedford Library starting in 1892. Most were published by the state as agricultural guides to understanding and extinguishing the nuisance as swiftly as possible. It is clear that the state saw these critters to be a growing problem that needed to be addressed. 

[1] Spongy Moths. https://www.massaudubon.org/nature-wildlife/insects-arachnids/spongy-moths. Accessed July 21, 2023.

[2] Lymantria dispar. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lymantria_dispar. Accessed July 21, 2023.

The Tree Warden 

It was apparent that the town needed to find a way to deal with this threat. Initially, this came in the form of the Tree Warden. According to the town’s documentary history, Bedford has had a Tree Warden in some form for at least the last 126 years. This position has been quite a long-lived part of Bedford history and the first incumbent was Charles W. Jenks in 1897. When appointed, Mr. Jenks went to work to control moth populations and did so until 1906 when the work became too much in addition to his other duties. 

On May 23 of that year, the Select Board took over control of the “moth work” and Warren A. Cutler was appointed to be the first Superintendent of Work for Suppressing Gypsy and Browntail Moths, while Jenks continued as Tree Warden. 

The Moth Superintendent 

Cutler’s first report on the moth work in 1906. Photo from Town of Bedford Archives

The work exploded from there. Moths were everywhere. It began with spongy and brown tail moths and grew into tent caterpillars, Elm Leaf Beetles, Dutch Elm Disease, Cottony Maple Scale, and more. Tools against the spread included lead arsenate in casein, as well as creosote, as pesticides. These were sprayed on trees or painted on nests to kill the insects living inside. 

In 1949, 10 years after it was discovered to have insecticidal properties, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane was first reported to have been mixed with lead arsenate and sprayed on infested trees in Bedford. You may know this chemical by its common acronym – DDT. 

Other tactics included burning fallen trees and other brush which might harbor the insects. Perhaps the most creative was paying school children to collect specimens and bring them to the Superintendent in return for 10 cents per 100 nests, as was done in 1940. 

The Works Progress Administration even had a hand during the Depression. In 1938 and 1939, a team of 10 WPA men spread out on the eastern side of town, painting creosote on moth nests. This had the desired outcome of lessening the moths’ effects in that area in 1939. 

The annual reports also tell us that, in 1956, the new Board of Public Works took over the work of both the Tree Warden and Moth Superintendent and the latter position did not show up again in documentation. 

The Moth Superintendent, perhaps a unique phenomenon in Bedford and the Northeast, is part of the town’s history and is revealed in the archival documentation that we strive to preserve today.

A note in the 1940 Town Warrant stating that $75 of the Moth Department’s yearly appropriation would be for paying children to collect caterpillar nests. Photo from Town of Bedford Archives

This is the fifth in a series of articles by Bedford Town Archivist Ashley Large. She shares some of the interesting items that are in the town’s archives.

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