Geek Trivia: In 1910, America Seriously Considered Setting Up Large Scale Ranches For Farming?

A hippo peeking up out of the water.Malcolm Macgregor/Flickr

Answer: Hippopotamuses

In the early 20th century, America had two distinct problems that involved a rather novel one-part solution. Problem number one: at the turn of the century, the meat industry couldn’t keep up with booming population growth and there were widespread meat shortages. Problem number two: the invasive water hyacinth was choking southern waterways and not only killing off local fish populations, but also making the waterways difficult to navigate.

The solution that was, for a time, seriously entertained? Importing and ranching hippopotamuses. Proponents of the plan, most notably Frederick Russell Burnham (adventurer, soldier, and inspiration for the Boy Scouts movement), Louisiana Congressman Robert Broussard, and Theodore Roosevelt, argued that it was a perfect solution. Hippos would provide huge amounts of meat, they could be ranched on previously unusable land (Gulf Coast wetlands), and their voracious appetite would take care of invasive water plants like the water hyacinth. While this proposal seems outlandish and impractical, it actually made it as far as the congressional floor where it, in bill form, only failed to pass by a single vote.

It wasn’t just a failed vote in Congress that doomed the plan, however. Ultimately, the proposal lost traction due largely in part to the industrial agricultural revolution which helped farmers and ranchers reshape previously inhospitable land to be more suitable for traditional livestock. When it became easier to just raise more cattle, the appeal (and risk) of importing hippos and trying to contain them became less palatable. As for the water hyacinth problem, well, that never went away. To this day, states invest millions of dollars in manual and chemical removal of the fast-spreading weed.


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