Settlers on the Great Plains needed all the resiliency they could muster in the summer of 1874. Even as drought made prospects for the harvest uncertain, a financial panic was causing food prices to plummet. While serious, these troubles were not an immediate threat to survival; homesteaders could raise enough to feed themselves and hope for better luck the following year. Then the grasshoppers came.
Grasshoppers, also known as locusts, had been descending on the Plains sporadically ever since cultivation began, and presumably long before. By devastating crops in scattered areas, they had made themselves a nuisance, albeit a severe one. The 1874 infestation, however, was no nuisance but a plague of biblical proportions.
Descriptions of grasshopper attacks from the 187Os have a chilling sameness. The insects typically descended without warning in a ravenous horde out of a bright summer sky. As they got nearer, their faint buzzing built up to a terrifying cyclonelike roar. (One German farmer, hearing a swarm approach, fell to his knees and shouted, “Der jüngste Tag! [Judgment Day!]”) In the space of a few minutes, they blocked out the sun, noticeably lowering the temperature. Grasshopper swarms resembled snowstorms, with insects seeming to fall out of the sky as far upward as the eye could see. When they began to feed, the crunching of millions upon millions of tiny jaws sounded like a prairie fire. A crawling layer several inches thick carpeted the ground and covered every growing thing. When the hoppers moved on, the area they left behind looked as if it had been burned to the ground.
Grasshoppers liked grain and garden produce best, but they would eat any sort of vegetation, from grass to weeds to buried roots and bulbs to the bark, leaves, and branches of trees, which they sometimes broke off by their sheer weight. Nor did they stop with living plants; straw hats, the bindings on shocks of grain, and tobacco all were devoured, as were wooden items (tool handles, window frames, fence planks, even paper) and fabrics (clothing, curtains, bedclothes, mosquito netting, canvas). Leather, too, was considered tasty: harnesses, the sweatband of a hat, a wallet (along with the currency inside it), old boots. One settler saw a swarm eating wool off the back of a live sheep. And when everything else had been consumed, the grasshoppers ate each other.
Except in rare cases, once a swarm descended, there was little anyone could do except watch. Farmers in Wright County, Iowa, having prepared in advance for the pests’ arrival, had some success with burning straw around the edges of their wheat fields to drive them off with the smoke. The method was occasionally copied elsewhere, especially in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakota Territory, where the grasshopper problem was greatest. When the invaders hit O’Brien County, Iowa, Thomas Barry rushed home to see his wife calmly cutting down the clothesline. She suggested swinging it in the air to keep a small area clear, which he “figured…a useless procedure” but went along with in the time-honored fashion of husbands everywhere. Barry and his wife “tied together all the rope we could find and, each taking an end, we swung it back and forth most of the day.” To his surprise, “We saved enough wheat for seed.”
Other settlers were less fortunate, as whole tiers of counties were denuded, even as neighboring ones escaped with little damage. For the next two years invading clouds of grasshoppers were an annual event. Farmers with the resources to stay put diversified into crops like flax and rye that were less attractive to grasshoppers, adjusted their planting times to avoid peak season, and shifted to stock raising. After 1877 infestations tended to be less frequent and less severe. But the problem remained serious well into the twentieth century, with the last big outbreak coming in 1939. Following World War II, insecticides such as chlordane and DDT finally made dense clouds of voracious grasshoppers a thing of the past.