Insect Armies Made Night of Day

Clearing grasshoppers from a field

Clearing grasshoppers from a field Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society

Kansas State Historical Society

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This article is reprinted from the Kansas City [Mo.] Star with permission of the Star and the author. Frances S. Bush is a free-lance writer whose articles appear frequently in the Kansas City Star and Times. Pictures from archives of Kansas State Historical Society.

Pioneer farmers who settled the West were victims of nature's violence in many forms heat, cold, drought, flood, blizzards, tornadoes but the disaster that descended upon them, literally, in the middle '70s of the last century was different from any they had known.

Grasshoppers, by the millions.

There was the natural revulsion of human beings from contact with insects, and then there was the eerie feeling that what began to happen to them in 1873 and grew into total ruin in 1874 and 1875 had actually been described with complete accuracy some 4,000 years earlier.

It was in the Old Testament, Exodus 10: 'And the locusts went up all over the land of Egypt . . . very grievous they were; before them there was no such locusts, as they, neither after them shall there be.

'For they covered the face of the whole earth so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land and all the fruits of the trees . .. and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field ...'

It happened just like that, and no one who saw the solid waves coming, sometimes extending for miles, ever forgot the experience. My grandmother, who was a child in Kansas then, used to tell how they stood at their windows to watch and when the great cloud hit the house it was like a hailstorm. She recalled with awe how a pair of overalls was eaten off the clothesline.

An eyewitness in Missouri wrote of watching grasshoppers cross the Blue River at a point where it was 100 feet wide. Insect armies 'would march to the water's edge and commence jumping in, one upon another, until they pontooned the stream.' Climbing out over a bluff on the opposite shore, until they passed over it in a sheet six or seven inches thick, causing a roaring voice.'

Unbelievable sights were everywhere stripped peach trees with bare seeds left hanging on the branches, sheep shorn of their wool, water unfit to drink, railroad tracks brought to a half because of rails made slippery with the insects' bodies.

Missouri alone suffered more than $15 million of crop damage, with Jackson County the hardest hit $2.5 million.

Grasshoppers and locusts, entomologically, are of the same family, which also includes crickets, katydids, mantises and others, the difference between grasshoppers and locusts being in the length of their antennae.

It was largely the Rocky Mountain locust, a short-horned grasshopper, in this huge invasion of states from the Dakotas to Texas, extending east into western Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota.

Charts made since that time show that drought conditions and grasshopper infestations parallel each other and in 1873 every month except April was deficient in rainfall.

That summer, adult 'hoppers appeared in large numbers but no excessive damage was done. Eggs were laid and 1874 was the year of the great devastation. The following spring, wheat and other early crops were destroyed but later moisture and humidity thinned the horde and some corn and later foodstuffs were raised.

Public response to the catastrophe was strongly tinged with guilt feelings. The Lord had visited that plague on Egypt for the sin of holding Israel in bondage. To the God-fearing this was a clear message that their plague too was a punishment, and religious sects were quick to point out wickedness and corruption.

In June, 1875, Gov. Henry Hardin of Missouri proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer. Little more than a week later rains fell and winds blew and the pests began to disappear, causing irreverent remarks that 'the governor prayed the grasshoppers clear out of Missouri and into Iowa.'

On the practical side Governor Hardin followed with another proclamation asking for federal aid and for gifts of clothing and seeds for planting from parts of the country not afflicted.

The Legislature declared grasshoppers to be public enemies and offered bounties for insects and their eggs. The editor of the Paris (Mo.) Mercury noted that 'it is now illegal to be a grasshopper.'

Governor Olson of Kansas also asked for gifts of clothing and small grains, authorized the issuance of $73,000 in relief bonds and also authorized counties to issue bonds to finance local relief.

A Nebraska law required all able-bodied males between 16 and 20 to contribute labor to help eradicate grasshoppers.

The federal government did contribute small amounts of aid to the various states and citizens from more fortunate sections of the country responded generously.

Dr. Charles V. Riley, entomologist of Missouri, was not one who subscribed to the belief that the infestation was a scourge sent down from on high to chasten the people.

It was, he said 'a downright insult to the hard-working, industrious and suffering farmers of western country who certainly deserved no more to be visited by Divine wrath than the people in other parts of the state or country.'

Meanwhile, back in the fields, farmers were attempting against long odds to stem the tides of invaders. They dug ditches for the insects to fall in and set fires in them. Deep discing and harrowing was done to break up egg clusters. Paris Green, an arsenic compound, was the only insecticide then and could not be used on food crops but poisoned bran mash was widely spread.

Some rigged up 'hopperdozers,' attaching a long box between two wheels with a large pan of oil in the box and a broad canvas stretched across behind. As this was pulled across the field grasshoppers would jump or fly against the canvas and fall into the oil.

Those were fat years for turkeys, quail, toads, frogs, skunks and hogs, which thrive on grasshoppers or their eggs.

It is probable that many families, driven by hunger, ate grasshoppers and some promotion was given the idea. Didn't John the Baptist subsist on locusts and wild honey and Shakespeare speak of food 'luscious as locusts'? They were listed in the Scriptures as a 'clean food' for Hebrews. In China, the Mediterranean countries and the Philippines they were diet staples. Some American Indian tribes ate them.

Dr. Riley was eloquent in his efforts to get Missourians to try them. He described how he had one day eaten no other food except 'hoppers. He had made a broth by boiling them. With salt and pepper 'it can scarcely be distinguished from beef broth,' but, he added, 'a little butter helps.'

Ever the cheerer-upper, Dr. Riley also observed that after the swarms passed, the soil was fertilized by their bodies and excrements which perhaps included the 'tobacco juice' encountered by generations of small boys who try to play with grasshoppers.

Periodic grasshopper infestations have always occurred in the western states though never with this severity. It is known there was a massive one in 1820 and the dust-bowl years of the 1930s were grasshopper years. There have been other minor ones in various parts of the country. Some archaeologists have suggested that unexplained, sudden movements of prehistoric American tribes may have been caused by locusts which destroyed food sources.

Some dry year the locusts will come again. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in fact, recently reported infestation of more than a million acres in one county of New Mexico and warned of a possible plague this summer. Will today's sophisticated agricultural methods be able to cope?

Agronomists mention sevin, malathion and diazonone as insecticides not harmful to man or the environment which, spread at the proper time, would be effective in destroying young 'hoppers, while the broad expanses of cultivation on modern farms would provide far less cover in which eggs could mature and hatch than the half-wilderness farmlands of a century ago.

Chances are none of us will be called upon to barbecue grasshoppers on the back yard grill.

Frances S. Bush is a Kansas City free-lance writer.