A Kansas family sweeping grasshoppers into a pile and burning them. (Image from the May-June, 1975 issue of Iron Men Album.)
In the December 25, 1873 issue of the Yankton Press and Dakotian (still published in Yankton, SD), appeared the following letter from a disillusioned farmer: “The basest fraud on earth is agriculture. She has made me a 1,000 promises and has broken every one of them…the fact is, agriculture would demoralize a saint…I fight pigs, chickens, the moles, the birds, the bugs, the worms, everything in which there is a breath of life. ..I fight heat, the frost, the rain, the hail. In short, I fight the universe, and get whipped in every battle.”
During the mid-1870s, most of the farmers in the plains states could relate to the letter writer. It started in 1873 with a severe drought which caused the Rocky Mountain locust, which most folks called a grasshopper, to head east looking for food.
One Kansas woman, who was a child at the time and stood with her family at a window watching, later recalled how, when the great cloud of hoppers hit it was like a hailstorm hitting the house and how a pair of overalls hanging on a clothesline disappeared as they were devoured by the hungry insects.
The Junction City (Kansas) Union wrote on August 1, 1874, “Misfortunes never come singly, and a ‘dry spell’ brings with it any number of disasters and inconveniences. A drouth nourishes chinch bugs, sunstrokes, grass-hoppers and profanity. The grasshoppers seem determined to eat up what the drouth has left. The greatest ravages we have heard of have been between Wakefield and Clay Center. Passengers who came in on Thursday evening represent the country along the road as swarming with them. Bodies of them passed over this city on Monday, but so far fields in this immediate vicinity have generally escaped their ravages.” A few days later the same paper announced: “The hoppers have ‘arriv.’”
A Missouri man who watched the bugs cross a 100 foot wide river wrote how the grasshopper armies would move up to the river edge and jump in,”one upon the other, until they pontooned the stream.” Once the lead elements reached the opposite shore they climbed out, closely followed by others, “until they passed over the (river) in a sheet six or seven inches thick, causing a roaring voice.”
The voracious insects left in their wake “stripped peach trees with bare seeds left hanging on the branches, sheep shorn of their wool, (and) water unfit to drink.” As the weather cooled in the fall, the hoppers searched out railroad tracks for warmth and covered the ribbons of iron so thickly that upon being run over by passing trains the oily residue from their crushed bodies actually caused train wheels to lose traction and trains were halted, especially on grades.
The 1873 infestation was bad but bearable, however the unwelcome visitors had laid millions (billions?) of eggs and when these hatched the next spring even worse devastation resulted. Steps were taken to fight the infestation; the governor of Missouri proclaimed a day of prayer and fasting, while other states eschewed divine intervention and offered bounties for grasshoppers or their eggs, or required all able-bodied males to contribute a certain number of hours each week to eradicating the pests.
Individual farmers also fought back, although their efforts were far from successful. Flocks of chickens, ducks and turkeys increased, while hogs and many insect eating wild birds and animals grew fat on the bugs. Fields were burned or plowed under; crews of men were organized to move through fields beating the hoppers with flails, and families swept fields with brooms, piling up the insects and burning them. Ditches were dug through fields, filled with coal tar and set aflame, in the forlorn hope the smoke would drive away the pests; it didn’t. Large pans containing an inch or two of coal oil were dragged through the fields hoping the hoppers thus disturbed would leap up, fall into the pan, and be killed. Bran made with poisonous Paris Green was spread about, but who knows what the unintended consequences of this were.
Inventors sprang into action as always; six or eight patents for mechanical grasshopper eradicators were issued. Most of these had a reel of some kind that swept the insects into a bin so arranged that they had a difficult time escaping. Once in the bin they were killed by rollers, beaters, boiling water, coal oil, or steam.
At its height the invasion covered large parts of Dakota Territory, Colorado, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota. Many new settlers in these areas, counting on a good harvest to provide food for the winter as well as seed for the following year’s crop, were wiped out, as were many more well established farmers.
One of the ironies is that people went hungry amid a huge supply of protein, the hated hoppers themselves. A few people advocated eating the insects, and some hungry folks probably did, but American’s aversion to insects prevented the majority from taking advantage of this free food supply.
A break in the drought and late snowstorms that killed many grasshopper eggs in the spring of 1877 caused the Rocky Mountain locusts to fade away almost as fast as they had come, giving weary farmers a much needed respite. Grasshoppers have returned a few times since, particularly during the dust bowl days of the 1930s, but never quite as bad as during the mid- 1870s.