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INSECT LOVERS STILL OPENING HOMES TO ANTS

Were he alive today, Frank Austin would be pleased to know that millions still follow his benevolent credo: "Don't step on that ant; give him a home instead."

That probably goes against the natural instincts of most Americans, who barricade their kitchens against infiltration.But Austin found a way to get people to take ants into their homes and, what's more, pay for the privilege. Sixty years ago this month, he patented his homes for ants: two vertical panes of glass with dirt in between.

The idea of watching ants at work became so popular that Austin and his helpers were building 400 ant homes a day in Hanover during the 1930s.

He line eventually included the Antville Fire House, the Antville Coal Mine, the Ant Arctic Polar Expedition, an Ant Boro village and an Ant Palace.

Spinoffs included a radio series, a line of children's books, a newsletter named The Bugville Bugle, cricket and bee houses and butterfly rearing kits.

Roxy Roberts, 72, of Hanover, worked for Austin in 1937. "It was like a new toy," she said, recalling the homes' popularity during the Depression.

The houses started at about $3.50.

The New York Times dubbed Hanover the "center of the new ant industry."

Along with the homes, Austin sold ants for $4 a quart - up to 3.65 million ants a year. He made a small fortune selling the homes and their inhabitants.

Before becoming an ant man, the Dartmouth College graduate taught engineering at the school. In 1896, he was part of a team at Dartmouth that was the first to expose X-ray pictures of humans.

After fighting patent battles with competitors, Austin moved to Orlando, Fla., where he operated a roadside museum until his death in 1964.

Although it's not like the good old days of the '30s, Austin's idea still provides millions of homes for ants throughout the world, under names such as ant farms and ant colonies to avoid Austin's patent on the name ant homes.

They essentially do the same thing - give an ant a home under the watchful eyes of humans.

Milton Levine, 78, who founded Uncle Milton Industries in Culver City, Calif., said his company is the biggest manufacturer of ant farms and has sold more than 12 million since 1956.