Scuprats of
Salt Creek

by Henry Swain

Now that our new library has been open for a while I wonder how many observant readers have noticed the holes in the fireplace stones? I’m not referring to the slight indentations left by the lifting tongs in setting the stones. Nor am I including the weathered chisel marks left by the original shapers of the stones. I mean the shallow holes about the diameter of a quarter.

Some of these stones came from the abutments of the old bridge site just south of town. The abutments mark the last traces of the old Nashville to Bloomington road that was abandoned in the late 1920s after the re-location of state road 46 and the building a new bridge adjacent to the old bridge site.

There is a relationship to the holes in the stones and the fact that they came from the old bridge abutment stones. Stories from early settlers in Brown County give reference to a strange animal no longer with us. It seems very likely that it was this now extinct species of marsupial that may explain the holes in the library fireplace stones.

The SCUPRAT (curare marsupium) was a kind of cross between a groundhog and a muskrat. It was smaller in size than either but had the gnawing power of a groundhog—except its incisors were sculpted like miniature satellite dishes. The scuprat was not a stone borer but a woodborer. Its main diet was the sap from trees growing along the creek banks. It also feasted on mussels from the creek by cutting holes in their shells then sucking out the contents.

Curare marsupium means scouring rats, derived from the scouring motion the scuprat used in its boring method. A woodpecker makes holes by the repetitive force of its blows. The scuprat created its holes by a rapid oscillating rotational motion of its head as the sharp concave teeth did their work. The smooth shallow concave holes left potato chip like shavings next to the holes.

The scuprat pelts were prized among the Indians for the smoothness and light beige color of their fur. Some pelts were made into small drawstring pouches for carrying arrowheads and other prized agate stones or beads. Early white settlers used theirs as money pouches. It was probably the rare light color and exquisite feel of the fur that lead to their extinction. The last scuprat reported in Brown County was near the Lon Weddle farm along Salt Ccreek shortly after World War I.

Since the scuprat was not a stone borer you may wonder how they are related to the stones in the Library fireplaces. While the scuprat was a woodborer it had to keep those concave incisors sharp to do their work in wood. When I was a boy we kept a large pedal grindstone in the barn to keep our tools sharpened. Water dripping from a can suspended above the turning grindstone wheel kept the tool being ground cool so as not to lose its temper. This illustration should give you a hint. The scuprat used the sandstone abutments close to the water for sharpening their teeth.

Scuprats needed to frequently flush their teeth in water as they sharpened them in order not to overheat them. The sandstone bridge abutments provided ideal spot for the scuprats to perform their dental hygiene maintenance.

I doubt there is a living person in Brown County who has ever seen a scuprat. Many have probably never heard of them. Within the faces of our library fireplace stones we make connections with our past. Past is prelude.