I recently found a photo - taken in 1933 in North Dakota - that triggered memories of grasshoppers and all the problems they brought farmers in Texas. The picture was taken the year I was born, but I can recall years later as a boy when we suffered from an overabundance of the leaping, ever-hungry, leaf-devouring insects.
Everything green - including crops, gardens and grasses - was damaged by plagues of grasshoppers that periodically appeared. They also liked to eat the bark off cedar posts, vehicle seat covers and even chewed holes in the laundry as it hung on the clothesline.
Fencerows seemed to be the grasshoppers' favorite home and breeding ground, so farmers devised many creative ways to combat the destructive critters where they lived. For example, wheat bran was cheap and easily mixed with poison. The mixture was small enough that poultry and livestock couldn't ingest enough poison to be affected.
The concoction was mixed in barrels with big paddles, then distributed by hand, on horseback or by a spreader pulled behind a truck or tractor. Known as 'grasshopper bait,' farmers flung the bran into weeds alongside the fields to kill the hoppers before they munched the delicate crops nearby. Mother always spread a band of hopper poison around her garden each summer.
Mechanical bait spreaders were mostly home-built, or constructed from old Model T rear ends turned upright to spin a disc that flung the bait. Add a barrel hopper for the poison and a tongue to pull the spreader, and a farmer was in the grasshopper-killing business. Our old spreader sat in the family junkyard for years until we donated it to the war effort to be converted into ammunition.
Speaking of fencerows, many Western wheat belt farmers will remember those years when tumble-weeds were so prolific that they piled up against fences and bar ditches.
Certain weather patterns always seemed to trigger exceptional tumble-weed growth, and there were inevitably farmers in each community who allowed their land to produce those unwanted, rolling travelers. The first stout north wind of the fall sent each tumbleweed on a long journey south, then a south wind would tumble them back northward - a seemingly endless cycle.
Legends, folklore and songs abound about 'tumbling tumbleweeds.' The Sons of the Pioneer made a good living singing about cool water and tumble-weeds. One song tells the tale of a lonesome settler lady who wrote poems and love letters, then attached them to tumbleweeds rolling by her remote Kansas dugout, hoping that some lonely bachelor would read them. Others told of lonely farm girls who tied colorful ribbons to rolling tumbleweeds, then daydreamed about handsome cowboys finding the offerings and coming back to court them.
The flat terrain of the Great Plains was transformed into ridges and dunes as tumbleweeds lodged in the barbed wire fences and around farm equipment parked in the fields, which then caught the blowing sands of the Dust Bowl. I never found a tumbleweed affixed with colorful ribbons. Instead, I remember the hot, hard work of taking a pitchfork in hand and digging the tangled masses of tumbleweeds from fencerows for burning.
There are a few things like ravenous grasshoppers and tiresome tumble-weeds that we could've done without. Yet, I guess even the good Lord had to 'piddle around' a little at times.
- Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Everything green - including crops, gardens and grasses -was damaged by plagues of grasshoppers that periodically appeared. They also liked to eat the bark off cedar posts, vehicle seat covers and even chewed holes in the laundry as it hung on the clothesline.