One ton of dead flies.
It was an estimate, naturally. But still, if even close to this much, it was certainly an achievement. One deserving recognition. And on a late December day in 1989, a Carroll College professor visited Bill Brown, the man responsible for killing that amount of flies, which if all loaded together, nearly equaled the weight of a small car.
The professor went to see Brown to interview him for a speech when presenting him with the college's annual Community Service Award for all his accomplishments as a lifelong scientist, for all of his inventions, all generally banged together in his basement. All done with hopes to help his fellow citizens.
But one invention in particular - the one that literally wiped out nearly every fly in Pewaukee and was credited with singlehandedly eradicating polio in the village limits - needed special acknowledgement.
The professor found Brown, then 85, at his Pewaukee home, still in good health, still tirelessly at work. Inventions, as described later in the speech, of "curious nature" surrounding him. There was an arthritis-treatment apparatus made from an old Chevy headlamp, a stereomicroscope fashioned from an Army tank periscope, a fossil carver retrofitted from a dental drill. A "beautiful" homemade hygrometer sat on the dining room table.
There was also a variety of cameras Brown modified to better capture "natural phenomena." One, the professor specifically noted, had even been shoved "directly down the orifice" of Yellowstone's Old Faithful. (It was pulled out only seconds "before the hot geyser erupted and park personnel intervened.")
Today, many of Brown's photos are at the Pewaukee Historical Society museum. "We have a long-distance photo of Holy Hill that Brown took from Lapham Peak," says Richard Rosenberger, a historical society member. "It's not the most artistic shot. But, then again, he took it with a telephoto lens made from a 14-inch tin can."
It's a recent Tuesday evening, and Rosenberger stands in the Clark House Museum's exhibit hall on Wisconsin Avenue, where a few of Brown's inventions were donated after his death in 1993. (A copy of that award speech is here, too. Incidentally, Brown never was a student at Carroll College. He did work, while a teenager, as an electrician's helper at the campus, where he was once shocked and nearly killed while tinkering with a boiler).
"This is the 'snow shoveler' Brown invented in 1945," says Rosenberger, pointing to a rototiller-type contraption that has a roughly 4-foot plywood circle -a half-dozen shovel blades protruding from it - screwed to the front. "He used it to clear his driveway for 30 years."
Rosenberger now points to a clear two-quart jar, with an illustration of a skunk attacking a fly hanging above it. "And this," he says, "is his 'Big Stinky.'"
In the late 1940s, Rosenberger explains, when flies were considered a primary carrier of polio, Brown was in his basement figuring out the perfect trap - one based on the principle that flies are attracted to each other by odor - "to get rid of them."
Shortly after, the village board placed out nearly 30 to see if they worked. Soon, Popular Mechanics Magazine was reporting that a small Wisconsin village, in only one month, "caught 105 quarts of flies." Flies from a half mile away, the article continued, "are attracted to destruction in a jar-style trap…"
Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture tested Brown's trap, finding it to be 75 times more effective than standard government traps. Brown quickly teamed up with a Milwaukee manufacturer to better mass produce it - for everyone to begin their own personal war on flies. (A 1953 advertisement for the "Big Stinky" ran in Popular Science magazine. The tagline read: "Kill 'em by the gallon!")
"There's a German adage that if you swat a fly," said Brown, in a 1967 Milwaukee Sentinel article, "24 flies will come to the funeral." (At the time, Pewaukee had a network of nearly 100 "Big Stinky" flytraps out, killing roughly 15 million flies a summer. A teenage boy had to bicycle the 10-mile route daily to empty the dead flies and bury them. This was the recommended disposal, by the way. Flies, supposedly, are good fertilizer).
Essentially, Brown continued, flies are initially attracted to a "special" chemical solution and a bit of rotting meat left at the jar bottom. They enter the one-way ducts at the top, get trapped and die. The dead fly scent attracts more flies … and on and on.
The result? There wasn't a case of polio in Pewaukee for 20 years. Of course, the article concedes, the Salk vaccine played a role. Still, Brown's trap had another undeniable lasting effect. The village, it concludes, "is a picnicker's paradise."
(Note: "Big Stinky" flytraps are currently manufactured at C R Industries in Cudahy. Company owner and Pewaukee resident Clarence Weisflog says "Big Stinky" sales steadily increase every year. Weisflog adds that he never had the privilege to meet Brown - but personally continues the good fight in the village. He has a "Big Stinky" in his yard).