By Robert Strauss
Today’s Machining World January 2007 Volume 1 Number 1
“I guess you could call me the Head Rat,” said Andy Woolworth, whose rather more official title is Executive Vice President of the Woodstream Corporation. “I think I have the best job in America.”
Arrayed around Woolworth in the Woodstream conference room were some of his favorite Woodstream products – all of which are meant, in various ways, to get rid of mice. The most basic of these is the Victor EASY SET®.
“It is, to be frank, what people think of when they think, ‘Mousetrap’,” said Woolworth.
“It is an American icon, and I am just proud to be the person in charge of selling it.”
Since it was invented about 100 years ago, the EASY SET®, with its signature red “V” prominent, has been the slayer of more than a billion mice.
“At a price point of about two for a dollar, it is the simplest, cheapest way of getting rid of mice,” said Woolworth, not with the maniacal tone of an executioner, but more the matter-of-fact chant of a businessman. “Even though, as they say, we are always looking for a better mousetrap, we know we have an awfully good one here.”
Though it is cliché, there has been little that has symbolized American ingenuity more than the attempt to build the perfect mousetrap. Ralph Waldo Emerson was widely, if incorrectly, quoted as saying, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” (What he actually said was, “If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs than anybody else, you will find a broad, hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods,” but a later biographer distilled it to the “mousetrap” version, which people seem to like better.)
“That’s why I think inventors still try to build the mousetrap,” said Woolworth. A few dozen of them try Woodstream every year, and, in fact, Woolworth said the company is working with a few inventors for refinements on its traps and other pest control devices the company makes under different brand names.
“They have heard the line so often that it peaks their interest. It is truly American to think you can do something perfect, and the mousetrap signifies that,” he said. “But we make more mousetraps right here in Pennsylvania than any company in the world. And we are always looking for something better.”
Woodstream started as an outgrowth of the Oneida Community, one of the first utopian communes, in upstate New York. A commune member, Sewell Newhouse, developed the first high-quality leg-hold trap in 1848 and started marketing it to traders and trappers then exploring the Great Northwest and the Mississippi River basin.
The Newhouse traps, with silver and steel, became famous throughout the West, but by the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century the business itself died down, and the Oneida company started making cutlery instead. Along the way, though, it acquired other trapping-type businesses, one of them being the Mast Mousetrap Company in Lititz, Pennsylvania.
In 1899, in response to continuous infestations of mice in a neighboring popcorn factory, John Mast tinkered around and finally came up with a heavy springsteel wire mechanism. He bolted it to some wood and put some cheese on a miniature platform on the front. When the mouse sniffed around the cheese and stepped on the platform – pow – the spring would smash down on his neck, killing him almost instantly.
Woolworth’s grandfather bought the firm, which was by then selling most of the leftover trapping equipment as well in 1920, calling it the Animal Trapping Corporation of America. It became Woodstream in 1966, and soon after branched out into hunting and fishing equipment. In the 1980s and 1990s, it bought or developed more rodent and wildlife control devices, from electric fences for corraling large animals to organic chemicals for mold and fungus to Perky Pet, the largest bird feeder company in the world.
Still, when Woolworth, with the help of other investors, came back into the business in 1986, he realized that it was the old Victor mousetrap that was the nexus around which the company could grow.
“Like I said, you see that red “V” and you know you have a product that everyone can associate with,” he said. “It just makes you want to, well, build the better mousetrap.”
Though he had grown up in nearby Lancaster and had the opportunity to go into the business as a young man, Woolworth chose instead to go to Harvard University– where Ralph Waldo Emerson himself had matriculated a century-and-a-half before – majoring not in business, but English literature. He took jobs in New England before returning home to work with Woodstream in 1986.
Lititz is the perfect home for the better mousetrap saga. It grew out of a Mennonite center of the mid 18th century, when the Germans – popularly known as the Pennsylvania Dutch – settled the hilly farm areas a day’s horse and buggy journey west of English Quaker Philadelphia.
“This has long been an area of hard workers with generally conservative mindsets and religions,” said Woolworth. “Mennonites, Amish, even Quakers, all had that work ethic. Not everyone is Mennonite now, or even German, but I think somehow we have continued here to have that idea that hard work and smart work pays off. We have never had trouble having good employees who want to make the product better.”
The town has a population of only 9,000, but is headquarters to an impressive variety of industries – from Sturgis Pretzels, which claims to have the first pretzel bakery in America, to Wilbur Chocolates, which makes some of the elite Godiva products, to Clair Brothers and Tait Towers, which do sound systems and staging for theatrical and rock and roll acts worldwide. Downtown Lititz is full of antique shops, churches, and bed and breakfasts, many in buildings that date back to the 18th century.
“I think we also have one of the best weekend farmers’ markets around, too,” said Woolworth, a thin, but muscular man with only slightly greying hair. “I would say, without question, it is a Norman Rockwell kind of town.” Except it has the Head Rat, and he is out to get every darned rodent he can find.
“Actually, rats are harder. Rats and cockroaches will be there when the final holocaust hits. They seem to be able to survive most anything,” he said, and then an almost maniacal grin comes on his face. “But mice, well, mice are more fragile.”
The problem with mice, said Woolworth, is that they multiply quickly. They reach maturity in 45 days and can procreate every six weeks, with litters of up to five each time. “You can see, if you don’t get them early, it can be a real problem,” he said.
Woolworth likes to show off the Victor line in size and sophistication progression. First, to be sure, is the Quick Set, the old hard spring standard with the red “V.”
“It is still the standard, and there are still more of them around than any other kind. It is an effective lowcost way to rid the millions of mice invading people’s homes,” he said. Woodstream sells them to more than 100,000 retailers, Woolworth said, and despite competition from Germany, China and third-world countries, he believes it is the best spring-loaded trap around.
“It is not the kind of thing that is best hand-made, so the Chinese don’t compete. We do it on precision machines, so it is sturdy and snaps down perfectly each time,” he said. The company also makes a version with a plastic Swiss-cheese-looking plate for the mouse to sniff and step on. Strangely enough, though, the cheese is not as effective as all that. Mice, said Woolworth, tend to eat nuts, not cheese. When catching a mouse, then, the best bait is peanut butter.
“But I don’t think Skippy is going to partner with us any time soon,” he said with a chuckle. “I think they want to have Mickey Mouse smiling and eating Skippy, not some mouse ready to die.”
The next step up are the Quick Set and the Quick Kill mousetraps, plastic contraptions that have lids over the bait areas. The mouse goes after the bait, setting off a lever that rigs the lid to smash over him. On the Woodstream website (www.victorpest.com), the Quick Set and Quick Kill – two somewhat similar styles of effective mouse execution – go for $3.99 to $4.46 for a two-pack, while the Easy Set sells for $2.25 for a four-pack. Woolworth said his up-and-coming market, women and the elderly, go for the Quick Set and Quick Kill more often.
“You know, they don’t want to see eyes bulging and tails coming out,” he said. “Women and the elderly are growing markets for us, what with the differences in living situations these days, so we want to cater to them. This way, they just pick up the trap, don’t see the mouse, and throw it away.”
Woodstream also caters to another group – those who want their mice caught alive and put back in the wild. The Poison Free trap is a maze of sorts that, when baited correctly, traps up to four mice, but neither suffocates nor has a snap mechanism to kill them, allowing the trapper to release them far enough away from the house so as not to have them return.
“That way, even the PETA folks have an alternative,” said Woolworth. Woodstream also sells glue traps – either glue-backed pads or plastic containers with nut-sprinkled glue, but even Woolworth disdains them, except in dire situations. “I agree with the PETA people with the glue,” he said, noting that when a mouse gets stuck, it often takes a couple of hours for him to die, either from dehydration or through a stress-induced heart attack from not being able to get out of the deadly glue pit. “Unless there is a big infestation, I would be a bit more humane and go for the quick kill.”
The new big item, though, is the Victor Electronic Mouse Trap, which can be used again and again for those nasty rodent invasions. “It is such a high frequency that even dogs and cats can’t hear it, and it rings at 103 decibels for a mouse, so it is like a foghorn combined with nails on a chalkboard, an unbearable cacophony,” he said. It does not kill the mouse, but drives him far away.
“Although if you have guinea pigs or pet mice, you don’t want to buy this, because it will drive them nuts.” Woolworth, though, said he is never going to sit on his snap-trapping laurels, that someday, somehow, there may well be a better mousetrap out there.
“We think we know everyone in the field and that most of the innovation comes right off our own floor,” he said, noting that even the EASY SET® trap has had minor fixes along the way from one or more of the 300 Woodstream employees in Lititz. “I won’t tell you the secrets, but each time, it has gotten better.”
He claims that the EASY SET® traps are 88 percent effective and the Quick Sets are up to 92 percent in trapping nearby mice, while even the better handmade brands coming out of China only get their prey 40 percent of the time. “They are just not
sturdy enough. That is our key,” he said.
“Still, there may always be that better one,” he said, “and we just hope when it comes, it comes right to us.”