The gerbil genius and rat wrangler of Brant Lake
by Alan Wechsler
Brant Lake, a small hamlet of cottages and unpretentious lakeside homes, is a short drive from Northway Exit 25. There’s a small beach, a well-stocked general store, a post office and not much else. It’s the sort of place you’d expect would make a fine getaway for the second-home owner or a safe environment to raise a family. What you would not associate with this quiet community is the scampering, burrowing, brown-and-white rodent with the soft, rounded ears and endlessly twitching whiskers—the gerbil.
Without a doubt, the tens of thousands of children who keep these animals—watching them spin on their metal wheels, scratch against the glass of their converted fish tanks, chew apart cardboard toilet paper tubes and perch on hind legs to eat food pellets—have no idea how their pets came to this country.
Know this: It happened here, in Brant Lake, at a place known as the “Rat Farm.”
The Rat Farm—Tumblebrook Farm, officially—supplied mice, rats, voles, moles, hamsters, rabbits and guinea pigs to laboratories around the Northeast. The man responsible for this enterprise, the man who helped popularize the gerbil in the United States, was Victor Schwentker. Though locals called him Dr. Schwentker, he was no doctor. And though the gerbil comes from the dry steppes of Mongolia and China, Schwentker never set foot in Asia. He wasn’t, in fact, even a native of the Adirondacks.
Schwentker was born March 20, 1899, in Schenectady, corporate headquarters for General Electric at the time. He went to Mississippi A&M to study agriculture, and then studied genetics at the University of Iowa. But he hardly had the demeanor of a quiet scientist. He enlisted during World War I, serving as a U.S. Army aviator in France. Upon his return, Schwentker sneaked illegal liquor down from Canada. With G-men hot on his trail, he caught a boat to South America, where he flew a crop-duster and broke polo ponies. Then he wandered around the U.S., driving cattle, riding freight trains, laboring in wheat fields.
Eventually he settled in Philadelphia, working for G.E. as an electrical engineer. In 1929 he met and married Mildred West. Then the stock market crashed, and Schwentker lost his job.
The couple came north that year, to West’s former home on Brant Lake, where this story really begins. Not long after he arrived, Schwentker got the idea that biology labs were looking for reliable companies to supply animals for experiments. He bought himself some rabbits and never looked back.
With his knowledge of genetics and farm technology, Schwentker understood that labs didn’t need just any old rat. They wanted animals that were clean and free of illness, animals that were bred specifically to act as subjects for a particular disease—animals made to order.
Schwentker spent the next thirty-five years learning how to provide just that. From rabbits he expanded to mice and guinea pigs. Then came World War II; Tumblebrook Farm was never the same.
When the Pacific front opened, in 1941, tens of thousands of soldiers headed to battles on tropical islands, where they met enemies even fiercer than the Japanese: malaria and yellow fever. Military brass demanded that doctors quickly find ways to prevent these deadly illnesses. The development of vaccines required animals to experiment on; often many types of rodents were needed, since different creatures had varying sensitivities to diseases. Schwentker was so skilled as a breeder that he was able to produce new hybrid animals to fit any requirement.
His was a profitable business. One female mouse could give birth to eight litters a year. Each litter contained as many as eight babies, which were old enough to breed in less than two months.
Soon the military recognized Tumblebrook’s value. For several years, according to Schwentker’s daughter, Pat Greenwald, the farm was considered a Navy installation, with a permanent detachment of guards to ensure that thousands of white mice were safe from the Axis powers. Shipments from Brant Lake were so important that generals and admirals were sometimes bumped from military flights in order to accommodate crates of conscripted rodents.
By the end of the war, the lab consisted of a half-dozen buildings on a hill across from the house. To reach Schwentker’s office, you had to climb a small concrete stairway with a wrought-iron railing. Affixed to the railing was a metal silhouette—a mouse standing on its hind legs, tail extended, sniffing the air—which Schwentker, a talented craftsman, had sculpted. He owned a large metal shop and a wood shop, and when he wasn’t building a better mouse or reading—he often would go through a book a day—he was doing something else with his hands.
Schwentker invented and built all the thousands of cages in his labs. They were actually metal drawers, stacked nine high like small filing cabinets. He also made the wheeled carts used to deliver food and water.
The family farmhouse also took a lot of Schwentker’s attention. Over the years, he built additions onto both ends, plus a brick fireplace. Then he filled the home with rooms and rooms of furniture. On the sill of one window, he installed a small metal plaque, etched with a bible quote: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, whence comes my strength.”
His wife, unfortunately, did not share his love for the mountains and preferred city life. Mildred West had met her husband while he was vacationing in Brant Lake as a young man. She was born and raised here, but when Schwentker asked for her hand, she didn’t think twice about leaving. Intellectually, she was his equal, earning a master’s degree in education at Columbia University at a time when most women didn’t even consider going to college.
“I think she would have preferred being in Philadelphia,’’ recalls Greenwald, “where he would go to work every day with a briefcase and you could have had quiet dinner parties.”
But it was not to be. Necessity brought them back to Mildred West Schwentker’s home town.
Frequent weekend visits by city friends helped make life easier for Mrs. Schwentker. And daughter Pat loved living in Brant Lake. Her father was a man who enjoyed children. He gave many tours of Tumblebrook Farm to school groups, and sometimes gave animals to local kids for pets. He could recite Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” from memory and told funny stories about the man who lived under the radiator. Schwentker even built his only child a giant playhouse in the back yard.
During one of Pat’s birthday parties, Schwentker organized a treasure hunt that lasted for hours. The kids ended up digging at a beach where they found, buried under the sand, a tin box wrapped in chains and padlocks. The birthday cake contained the keys. Inside the box were bags of brilliant pennies. Schwentker had bathed the coins in acid to make them shine bright as gold.
“He was the best,” Greenwald says. “He understood children and he liked children. He enjoyed their nonsense.”
By the end of the war the farm was the biggest employer in Brant Lake, with forty workers. Bradley Persons, of Warrensburg, now sixty-one, says he, his father, several brothers and other relatives all had jobs there.
Schwentker was a kind and patient boss, recalls Persons, who worked for him in the early 1960s. At the time, Persons was a volunteer fireman. Sometimes he would arrive at Tumblebrook lacking sleep after fighting a fire all night. Schwentker, on those days, always rapped on the door before entering Persons’s work area. That way he wouldn’t catch his employee napping and embarrass him.
“That’s the kind of guy he was,” Persons says.
It was not always an easy job. Many lab animals, including rats, mice and hamsters, are naturally skittish and don’t like to be handled. The worst were the cotton rats, giant toothy beasts that could grow up to eight pounds.
“Most of the guys that worked there were afraid of them,” Persons explains. “When I handled them I would wear leather gloves up to my elbows. I had them bite right through my leather gloves. Their jaws would lock on, and you would have to drown them to get them to let go.”
A farm promotional pamphlet written in the early 1950s explained why so many different lab animals, including cotton rats, were needed: “Our work at Tumblebrook has largely been devoted to the development of special strains of laboratory animals with high susceptibilities to specific infection . . . yet there still exist many diseases for which no suitable laboratory animal is known.”
At the time, the lab sold nine different species, including three types of rats, three types of mice, a meadow vole and what were known then as “Chinese hamsters.” Schwentker was also looking into adding such rodents as the rice rat, lemming mouse, long-tailed shrew, kangaroo rat and Philippine tree shrew, as well as the Australian bandicoot. At one point he even tried to breed rhesus monkeys but had little success.
The need for more-suitable animals led Schwentker to the gerbil. History didn’t record how he first learned of these energetic rodents—through reading, probably. But in 1954, after much effort getting the little creatures through customs, Schwentker had his first pair.
He was very impressed. Gerbils rarely bite, because the burrowing rodents have few natural enemies. With their innate curiosity, most gerbils even enjoy being handled. And they require little maintenance.
“Gerbils are probably the easiest to manage of all the laboratory animals,” Schwentker once wrote for a trade journal. “Their requirements are so uncritical and undemanding that what might constitute neglect for other animals will be satisfactory care for gerbils . . . they can be ignored for two weeks without undue concern.” By the 1960s, researchers were using the gerbil to test treatments for cancer, heart ailments, dental problems, high cholesterol levels, plague and radiation poisoning, plus psychological experiments.
Meanwhile, Schwentker helped make the gerbil a household pet. He had always given free hamsters to children or local schools. After he started raising gerbils, he was contacted by the New York City toy store FAO Schwartz, which was putting together its Christmas catalog, and the educational supply company Childcraft, according to Greenwald. The companies sold the gerbils through Schwentker for about two years—enough time to popularize the rodents around the country.
“By 1965,” wrote Donald Robinson Jr. in his book How to Raise and Train Gerbils, “through TV appearances, press articles, classroom interest and word-of-mouth, gerbils became well established as very desirable pets.” But by then the Rat Farm was no more. Schwentker was in his mid-sixties. Robinson had bought Schwentker’s animals and much of his equipment in 1963 and moved it to West Brookfield, Massachusetts. Schwentker sold some of his buildings, including the metal and wood shops, to a local contractor.
Schwentker spent the rest of his life on Tumblebrook Farm, working around the house and enjoying the land. He died at home on December, 19, 1990, at ninety-one. His wife had died only a few months earlier.
Pat Greenwald lives in New York City but stays at the farmhouse for much of the year. Often her three children and four grandchildren come to visit, still playing in the playhouse Schwentker built her (one grandchild, age nine, is named Victoria after Pat’s father). The house remains filled with furniture the “Doctor” built himself.
Today, most of the buildings are in good shape. An antique-boat repair business owns most of what’s left of the farm, but lab equipment is visible through the windows.
On the banister of a stairway leading up to one structure, you can still see the profile of a curious mouse, standing erect with his tail in mid-twitch.