Friday, July 6, 2012

"Nebraska-Aid" and the Grasshopper Plagues of the 1870s

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 6, 2012.


On a cold February night in 1875, the townspeople of Exeter held a great charity show at the town hall. “The expenses are very light, as many of our citizens have generously given their services and aid free, and it only needs a generous patronage to make this a financial success,” read the handbill. The recipients of this local largess were to be the ‘sufferers in Nebraska’. If the crisis in Nebraska in 1875 isn’t ringing any bells, don’t be dismayed. There’s only a small subset of Americans (outside of Nebraska, anyway) who might know about the terrible grasshopper plagues that struck the region in the 1870s.

In July and August of 1874, as the crops were just about ready to harvest, farmers looked up in horror as huge clouds of glittering grasshoppers descended on the land and ate every piece of vegetation – sometimes including the handles of shovels and plows. Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Little House on the Prairie fame, was 7 years old when her parent’s farm in Minnesota was destroyed utterly by the Rocky Mountain Locust. In a particularly unsettling chapter of On the Banks of Plum Creek, Wilder described the day her family was gazing at the magnificent wheat crop – the crop that would pay for their house and solve all their financial woes – until a silvery cloud blocked out the sunlight and began raining something unexpected. “The cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hailstorm.”

Rocky Mountain locusts cursed the American plains throughout the 1870s. They bred in larger numbers than any other species of locust. During the dry years of the late nineteenth century, they were carried eastward by the low level jet stream. At the end of their journey, they would lay billions of eggs in the dry ground ensuring that there would be more of them the next season. Farmers were at a loss to fight them. Wilder’s family tried creating smoke screens, but the pests were too numerous. Life during the invasion was a horror story. “The grasshoppers were eating. You could not hear one grasshopper eat, unless you listened very carefully while you held him and fed him grass. Millions and millions of grasshoppers were eating now. You could hear the millions of jaws biting and chewing.” Children could not run barefoot on the crunching slimy bodies of grasshoppers crushed underfoot. They got into clothing, drinking water and the milk pail. They had to be skimmed out of food. And all the while, there were the terrible sounds of grasshoppers eating every living thing. All the food and livelihood of the people who had worked so hard was gone.

Nights were no better than days. “In bed,” Wilder wrote, “Laura and Mary could still hear the whirring and snipping and chewing. Laura felt claws crawling on her. There were no grasshoppers in bed, but she could not brush the feeling off her arms and cheeks. In the dark she saw grasshopper’ bulging eyes and felt their claws crawling until she went to sleep.” And once the grasshoppers laid their eggs or flew to another region, the people began to starve.

The scope of the disaster began to hit Exeter during the following winter. As early as November, the Exeter News-Letter ran a quick piece about the habits of the grasshopper referring to Professor Humiston of Minnesota, who most likely was relying on eyewitness accounts. By December, widespread famine was reported. Bookstore owner, George Lane, began collecting funds to send to the stricken areas. “There is no doubt,” the News-Letter reported, “that thousands in each of these states will perish unless sustained for some months by charity and the demand is so great, and will continue so long, that all parts of the country ought to do something.”

The charity show that followed, on February 17th, was hailed as a great success. With a low admission of 35 cents for adults and 20 cents for children, it was no great sacrifice for most townspeople to attend. The Town Hall was filled and the News-Letter later reported, “its only fault being its great length, owing to too frequent encores.” Musical acts and short skits were performed by local talent (including, unfortunately, ‘Songs of Slaveland’ by the Hampton Falls Colored Students – most likely a group in comical blackface).

Grasshopper plagues in the American west were confined to this short period in history. Within 30 years, the Rocky Mountain Locust was extinct – the last known sighting of one was in 1902. Without the help of insecticides, farmers, ever optimistically, continued to plow the land each spring. Professor Humiston had pondered the best way to eradicate the pests, “perhaps the best mode of treatment is back setting, or ploughing the field and thus turning the surface soil, with its store of eggs, several inches under. This prevents hatching, and though not a complete remedy, is very useful.” It turned out that Humiston was right.

No comments: