Whenever we drive through a mid-sized American town that has obviously seen better days, we wonder what industry built the once stately homes that have fallen into gentle disrepair. In most cases, it seems, such towns have fallen victim to the decline in manufacturing—Waterbury’s reign as “Brass City,” for example, certainly seems like a distant memory. Yet there are also cases in which a town’s core industry was built on a dubious fad, such as the turn-of-the-century vogue for patent medicines. That is precisely how the hamlet of Prospect, Maine, briefly rose to prominence. The town’s inhabitants, it seems, had a special knack for obtaining one of the most essential ingredients in liniments of questionable quality: skunk oil:
Neither tradition not the memory of living man runs back to a time when Prospect was not the skunk oil metropolis of Maine. Even in the times when angleworm oil and snake oil ran skunk oil a close race for leadership Prospect maintained its reputation for producing more skunks to the acre and fatter skunks than any other town. In the days of the civil war gen. Heagan, a veteran of the conflict with Mexico, gained a reptuation for benevolence and a small fortune by extracting the oil from skunks and sending it to the army hospitals for the relief of stricken troops.
The piece goes on to state that, due to an exceptionally cold 1905 winter that killed many a skunk, the reeking rodent’s oil was fetching up to $6 per gallon—or about $142 in 2010 dollars. We initially figured that today’s prices would be a fraction of that, but boy were we wrong. Perhaps there is hope for Prospect yet.