Edward Avery McIlhenny
Born in 1872 at Avery Island, Louisiana, McIlhenny was educated by private tutors before attending Dr. Holbrook's Military School in Sing Sing (now Ossining), New York. McIlhenny enrolled at Lehigh University, where he joined Phi Delta Theta fraternity, but he dropped out of school to join Frederick Cook's 1894 Arctic expedition as an ornithologist. In 1897 he financed his own Arctic expedition to Point Barrow, Alaska, where he helped to save over a hundred stranded whaling fleet sailors (including Japanese adventurer and entrepreneur Jujiro Wada). McIlhenny also holds the Louisiana state alligator record, catching a gator just over 19 feet in length.
On his return to Louisiana, McIlhenny assumed control of McIlhenny Company, overseeing Tabasco sauce production as president of the organization until his death fifty-one years later. During his tenure, McIlhenny expanded, modernized, and standardized sauce production, as well as experimented with new ways of promoting the world-famous product, such as advertising on radio.
McIlhenny also introduced the now ubiquitous modern screw-top Tabasco sauce bottle, which replaced the original cork-top Tabasco sauce bottle that had been used from 1868 to 1927; he also redesigned the iconic Tabasco diamond logo trademark, largely creating the version known today.
In a venture unrelated to Tabasco sauce, McIlhenny also operated a nutria farm on Avery Island from 1938 until his death. During that time, he intentionally released a large number of nutria into Louisiana's wetlands, as did a few other individuals during the same time period. At the time, state and federal agencies advocated for these releases. They believed nutria would provide a profitable new fur resource and help manage the spread of overly abundant plants such as water hyacinth and alligator weed.
After the releases, however, the feral population became unmanageable, and its overwhelmingly negative impact on Louisiana's wetlands became apparent. (Nutria feed on vegetation that is crucial to sustaining Louisiana's coastline and protecting the state's sugarcane and rice fields.) By 1960, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries estimated the nutria population along coastal regions to exceed 20 million. The latest report from the U.S. Department of the Interior estimates that 100,000 acres (400 km2) of Louisiana's coastal wetlands are currently being affected by nutria "eat outs".
Though McIlhenny is popularly attributed with singlehandedly helping to introduce nutria to Louisiana, the nature of his role in the animal's proliferation is a complex one. He publicly embraced the notion that he was the first to import and release nutria into the wild; however, subsequent historic inquiries prompted by McIlhenny Company suggest that other individuals preceded him in the state's nutria business. The Tabasco Web site, TABASCO.com, states that McIlhenny was "at least the third nutria farmer" in Louisiana and at least the second to intentionally release nutria into the state's wild.
McIlhenny founded the Bird City wildfowl refuge on Avery Island around 1895, which helped to save the snowy egret from extinction. Enrolling the help of businessman and conservationist Charles Willis Ward, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Sage Foundation, McIlhenny was instrumental in securing nearly 175,000 acres (708 km2) of south Louisiana coastal marshland as wildfowl refuges. He banded over 285,000 birds during his lifetime and ran a game farm on Avery Island that experimented with breeding new animal varieties. He helped to introduce the nutria to Louisiana, although — contrary to popular belief — he did not import the creatures to Louisiana, nor was he the first Louisianan to set them loose in the wild on purpose.
McIlhenny used his 170-acre (0.69 km2) personal estate, known as Jungle Gardens, to propagate both Louisiana-native and imported plant varieties, including azaleas, irises, camellias, papyrus, and bamboo. He wrote numerous academic articles, mainly about birds and reptiles, oversaw the publication in English of two European botanical treatises, and edited Charles L. Jordan's unfinished manuscript The Wild Turkey and Its Hunting (a book often mistakenly attributed to McIlhenny). He also wrote books about alligators, egrets, and African-American gospel music, including:
- Befo' De War Spirituals (1933).
- Bird City (1934).
- The Alligator's Life History (1935).
- The Autobiography of an Egret (1940).
Death and legacy
McIlhenny died in 1949, three years after suffering a debilitating stroke; he is buried on Avery Island. Today, Jungle Gardens and Bird City continue to serve as havens for bird and plant species; they are also popular tourist destinations. Furthermore, the nearly 175,000 acres (708 km2) of coastal marshland he helped to set aside as wildfowl refuges continue to exist as state wildlife areas. McIlhenny's illustrated and written documentation of plant and animal life on Avery Island was donated as a collection to Louisiana State University. The E. A. McIlhenny Collection of natural history books at the Louisiana State University Libraries is named in his honor.
- Shane K. Bernard, Tabasco: An Illustrated History (Avery Island, La.: McIlhenny Company, 2007).
- John Bockstoce, The Arctic Whaling Disaster of 1897 (New York, N.Y.: Explorers Club, 1978).
- Shane K. Bernard, "M'sieu Ned's Rat? Reconsidering the Origin of Nutria in Louisiana: The E. A. McIlhenny Collection, Avery Island, Louisiana," Louisiana History, 43 (Summer 2002), 281-93.