World's First Crop Dusting Took Place in Troy

By Judy Deeter

TROY — In 1921, nearly 5,000 catalpa trees stood on Harry Carver’s farm west of Troy. The trees were a source of frustration for Carver because they had become infested with worms. He watched as the leaves on his trees were eaten away. Eventually, he wrote a letter to the Wooster Experiment Station in Wooster to ask for their help. The Wooster Experiment Station was an Ohio state agency that worked to prevent and eradicate diseases or infestation of pests in plants and animals. Carver probably had no idea that the letter he wrote would make he and his farm part of both aviation and agricultural history.

Shortly after he sent the letter, Carver received a telegram from the Wooster Experiment Station advising that staff members J.S. Houser and Edmund Secrest were on their way to his farm. When they arrived, they, Carver and Carver acquaintance Herbert Johnston, took a good look at the defoliated trees. It was determined that the trees were infested with the catalpa sphinx worm — a caterpillar that only attacks catalpa trees.

Houser and Secrest felt that the trees would probably leaf again, but that the worms might come back too. They needed to find a way to fend off another worm attack. They might have to experiment with something.

C.R. Nellie, of Cleveland, came up with the idea of using an airplane to dust the trees with an insecticide to stave off further worm infestations. (He may have known that in 1906 a hot air balloon with mobile tethers had been used to help seed a swamped valley in New Zealand — the first time seeds were sown from the air). Arrangements were made for a worm eradication experiment that would to be done using an airplane and the date was set for Aug. 3, 1921.

It should be noted that a Dr. B.R. Coad, who worked as an entomologist for the Department of Agriculture in Louisiana to eradicate pests there, may also have been involved with the arrangements for the crop dusting on Harry Carver’s farm. Some sources indicate that he advocated for the use of a plane for the crop dusting experiment while other sources say that his research was furthered because of the results of the experiment here. Historical records are not clear about his role.

A plane for the experiment was obtained from the US (Army) Air Service in Dayton. The US Air Service was a forerunner of the US Air Force. It operated from May 24, 1918 until July 2, 1926. 

On the morning of the experiment, Lt. John Macready, of the US Air Service, piloted a Curtiss NJ4 “Jenny” from McCook Field in Dayton to what has been described as a “34-acre stubble field” on a farm near Troy owned by Edward Sweitzer. 

Equipment to dust the trees — a makeshift metal hopper — and the worm eradication poison — lead arsenate — was loaded on the plane at the Sweitzer farm. A French aviator rode on board the plane to operate the tree dusting equipment.

Watching on the ground were C. R. Nellie, who came up with the idea to use an airplane, J.S. Houser, who first inspected the trees from the Wooster Experiment Station and H.A. Gossard, Chief of the Ohio Department of Entomology. It is believed that there may have been other guests on hand for the event, but they are not named in reports of the experiment.

In the early afternoon of August 3rd, the plane flew 20 to 25 feet above the catalpa trees and dropped between 500 and 600 pounds of the lead arsenate. 

A study was made in the days following the dusting, which confirmed that the worms had been destroyed. The dusting is considered the world’s first crop dusting made by an airplane.

Today, crops around the world are regularly dusted or sprayed by airplanes. Crops are now sprayed or dusted, however, with more human and environmentally-friendly materials — instead of lead arsenate. Water and fire retardants are also dropped from planes to combat forest fires.

Lt. Macready’s assignment at the US Air Service was to test turbochargers at a high altitudes. Though he was an experienced pilot, he probably had received very little, if any, training to fly a crop dusting plane. There is an art to flying crop dusting or firefighting airplanes and not every pilot can do it. Pilots now train in special schools. Pilots working in the area of agricultural aviation are known as “Ag Pilots” and they study agricultural aviation flight training.

In 1923 — months after his historic crop dusting flight — Lt. Macready, along with fellow US Air Service Pilot Lt. Oakley G. Kelly, flew the first airplane non-stop across the United States. Macready is now in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Though recognized nationally as part of aviation and agricultural history, for years this story has been a “lost” part of our local aviation history.

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