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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Grasshopper invasion

Monday, May 7, 2012

The original Loomis soddie and first log house 1873.
In the 1870s, from 1873 to 1877, Nebraska, along with a wide section of middle America, from Canada to Texas was hit, and hit hard, by yearly invasions of the Rocky Mountain Locusts (grasshoppers). Mary Loomis McDonald, an early settler in our area wrote about the scourge of hoppers hitting Red Willow County Nebraska, particularly the year 1874.

The early settlers in Nebraska, the ones who stayed, were forced to overcome great hardships. In those first years it seemed that drought was an annual worry. The year might start out favorably, and grain and garden produce would look lush and beautiful in the spring, only to be stunted, or destroyed in the hot winds of July and August. This was a chance the settlers took willingly, but for years at a time they were mainly sustained by prayers and eternal optimism.

Though the settlers accepted the specter of drought, they were not prepared for the invasions of locusts. Mary wrote that on one day in 1874 the whole family gathered in front of their house, speculating as to the reason that the sky was turning black as night, at noontime. The sun was obscured by a black cloud. Then the air was filled with a distant humming, which came closer and closer. Soon that black cloud settled over the land like a blanket -- a blanket of grasshoppers! The horde of voracious grasshoppers devoured every green thing in sight. Every bit of garden stuff, corn stalks and potato vines, were stripped to the ground. Box-elder trees and the cottonwoods were quickly stripped of their leaves, leaving them as bare as in wintertime.

Extent of grasshopper invasion, 1870s.
The grasshoppers were everywhere. When the men went outside, they had to wear bandanas over their faces to keep the insects out of their mouths and nostrils. They needed to tie the bottoms of their pants legs with twine to keep the hoppers from biting their legs -- the bites which they described as not unlike a bee sting. Horse and ox drawn wagons were useless, as the horses and oxen became disoriented in the swarm and were unable to maintain a straight path. Railroad trains were stranded because the torrents of insects on the tracks made the rails so greasy that engines could not pull. Water wells ceased to flow, and only again began to function when grasshoppers by the bushels were scooped from the well.

Homes of the day, Lean-tos, and Soddies, even Frame Houses, were not tightly built and grasshoppers found a way into the homes, devouring bed linen and clothes, as well as any foodstuffs left uncovered. Mothers had to keep infants covered with a blanket, to keep the insects out of baby's nose, or mouth, or eyes and ears. References to the plagues of the Egyptians, as described in the Old Testament, were common.

For three days the grasshoppers fed on the vegetation, even gnawing on the wooden handles of rakes, then moved on, leaving their eggs, plus desolation and discouragement in their wake. To the Loomis family this was a greater calamity than the dreaded droughts. Actual hunger and famine was staved off by the kindness of homefolks back East.

Farmers were at a loss in their fight against the grasshoppers, though that did not stop them from trying. There were no insect sprays to use against the locusts, of course, and efforts to help by state and federal government agencies were paltry at best. Farmers tried many things to get rid of the grasshoppers. They beat the pests with flails. They dragged heavy ropes through their fields. They plowed and burned their fields. They raised birds and chickens to eat the grasshoppers. They dug ditches and filled those ditches with coal tar and set them on fire, hoping that the smoke might drive them away. They made "grasshopper dozers," which consisted of sheet metal pans, covered with coal tar or molasses. These dozers were dragged through their fields, catching the hoppers in the pans -- sometimes as many as 20 bushels of the pests in one day -- then the grasshoppers were dumped into a ditch of coal tar and set on fire. And yet, there seemed to be very little that anyone could do that would be of any real good.

There is a first-hand account of one, A.L. Child, who commented on a swarm of Rocky Mountain Locusts, which passed over Plattsmouth, Nebraska, in 1875. By timing the rate of movement as the insects swarmed overhead for 5 days, and by telegraphing to surrounding towns, Mr. Child was able to estimate that the swarm was 1,800 miles long and about 110 miles wide. Accordingly, this swarm of trillions of insects, covered a swath of Middle America, equal to the combined areas of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Mary Loomis wrote that it was only because of the skill of her father, as a successful hunter, and her mother's magic in turning her father's game into tasty, nutritious meals (plus the welcome food packages from the folks back in Michigan) that the family was able to survive the winter. That winter, her father did some trapping, and took advantage of the offer by a merchant in Red Willow to buy the pelts of wood rats for 10 cents per dried pelt.

Russell Loomis was a bit embarrassed over trapping wood rat pelts, as he considered that such a task was beneath a man who was considered a great hunter. Still, 10 cents per pelt was cash money, and soon Russell and Mary's brothers were busy trapping "the smallest game father had ever hunted." The wood rat constructs his burrow with mud, twigs, and other accessible debris. "Father would stomp on the pile of twigs and mud, and the boys stood ready to kill the rats as they ran out of the houses. They worked this procedure until they killed and dressed and dried three hundred pelts. The barn was soon decorated with drying rat pelts. Thirty dollars worth of wood rat pelts, plus the sale of other furs and the help of our Michigan grandma helped us through the winter."

Again in 1875 Southwest Nebraska was hit with another massive grasshopper invasion. This time a good many of the settlers decided that they had had enough, and chose to return to the East. Russell Loomis and his family were among those who chose to leave Red Willow County, scraping together funds to "take them back home to Michigan."

Russell and Mary had only been in Michigan a short time when they both fell sick with "The Ague." This seemed like a sign to them that they were better off in the "healthful" climate of Red Willow County. After all, Grasshopper Invasions would not last forever. Six months to the day, after leaving their homestead, Russell Loomis was back to what he realized was now really "their home" in Red Willow County. Russell immediately began the building of a new Log House, a short distance from their original log house. The new one was still built of rough-hewn logs, as was the old one. It was not fancy, but when the family soon followed Russell's return "home," with that eternal optimism, they all agreed that they were happiest now that they were all able to live under the same roof on the homestead in Red Willow County.

Finally, in 1877, the grasshoppers left, as suddenly as they had appeared. Experts pointed to an April snowstorm, which they said had damaged many of the grasshopper eggs. This encouraged farmers in their efforts to rid the pests. Huge numbers of the eggs did hatch. This time, however, by August the hordes of insects just seemed to fly away. There were numerous theories as to why the hoppers left, as there were as to why they came in the first place, not the least of which, was the feeling that it had been Divine Intervention that had caused the locusts to leave. There certainly were plenty of prayers offered for such an outcome. Whatever the reason, the plague was over by 1877. Though there have certainly been grasshoppers in the intervening years, especially in the 1930s, they have never been as severe as the 1870s.

Source Prairie Schooner Days, by Mary Loomis McDonald;

Grasshopper reports of Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By