Grasshoppers were among the worst enemies of the early settlers of Nebraska. They were not the common green or yellow kind which you see jumping in the fields to-day, nor yet the red, yellow and black winged "dusty roaders" which boys chase down the lane. These were the Rocky Mountain grasshoppers, with slender bodies, light gray wings and enormous appetites. Their home was on the high plains and among the hills at the foot of the great mountains of the West. Here they lived and raised their families. In dry years there were more children and less food at home. Then they assembled and flew away in great swarms to the east and south. They traveled hundreds of miles. Sometimes in clear, warm moonlight they flew all night. More often they settled down late in the afternoon to rest and feed, and pursued their journey on the morrow.
It was a sad day for the settlers where the grasshoppers lighted. Eight times between 1857 and 1875 some parts of our state were visited by them, but the great grasshopper raid came on July 20th, 21st and 22d, 1874. Suddenly, along the entire frontier of Nebraska, Kansas, Dakota and Minnesota, the air was filled with grasshoppers. There were billions of them in the great clouds which darkened the sun. The vibration of their wings filled the ear with a roaring sound like a rushing storm, followed by a deep hush as they dropped to the earth and began to devour the crops.
The Grasshopper Days.
(From photograph collection of A. E. Sheldon.)
All the corn was eaten in a single day. Where green fields stood at sunrise nothing remained at night but stumps of stalks swarming with hungry hoppers struggling for the last bite. They stripped the garden patches bare. They gnawed great holes in carpets and rugs put out to save favorite plants. The buds and bark of fruit trees were consumed. They followed potatoes and onions into the earth. When they had finished the gardens and green crops they attacked the wheat and oats in the shock and the wild grass in the unplowed fields. Only two green crops escaped them, broomcorn and sorghum cane. They did not seem to have a sweet eyetooth. Everywhere the earth was covered with a gray mass of struggling, biting grasshoppers. Turkeys and chickens feasted on them. Dogs and pigs learned to eat them. It was hard to drive a team across a field because the swarm of grasshoppers flew up in front and struck the horses in the face with such force.
We thought when they were filled they would fly away. Not at all. They liked us so well they concluded to leave their children with us. The mother grasshoppers began to pierce the earth with holes and fill the holes with eggs. Each one laid about one hundred eggs. Then they died and the ground was covered with their dead bodies.
Most of the people on the frontier were very poor. It was "hard times" even before the grasshoppers came. There was a great panic in the land. Many settlers had nothing to live on during the winter but their sod corn and garden. These were gone. It looked like starvation. The future held no hope, for the very soil was filled with eggs which would hatch a hundred times as many grasshoppers the next spring. Those were the darkest days for the Nebraska pioneers. Some sold or gave away their claims and went east. Their covered wagons used to pass with this painted on the canvas:
GOING BACK EAST TO LIVE WITH WIFE'S FOLKS."
During the fall and winter those men brave enough to stay took their teams and worked wherever they could get a job in the older settlements. Some hunted game and lived as the Indians did on dried buffalo meat, trading the robes for other supplies. Relief funds were raised farther east and food, seed and clothing distributed to those not too proud to apply for them. Thus the dark winter of l874-75 was lived through.
In the spring the settlers sowed their small grain and millions of young grasshoppers hatched to eat it. These little fellows could not fly. They could only hop short hops. So the settlers made ditches and drove them in. Windrows of straw were laid across the fields. The young grasshoppers crawled into the straw to get warm and the settlers set it on fire. Bushels of them were caught in wide shallow pans with kerosene in the bottom which were set low and drawn across the fields. Nature helped the settlers. It was a cold rainy spring which froze the young brood. Little parasites bored holes in the eggs and in the little fellows. The birds, then as now the farmer's best friends, came from the south and joined in the good work of fighting grasshoppers.
For the next two or three years there were some grasshoppers and the fear of more along the frontier. Then the Rocky Mountain grasshoppers disappeared from the settlements. They have never been seen in such vast numbers since and the hard times they brought on the land will probably never again return. Those who left their claims have wished many times that they had stayed by their farms, which seemed so worthless in those early years. Those who held on to their land through hardship and suffering, with hearts strong and faith firm in the future of Nebraska, have lived to see their later years made glad by generous crops and happy homes where children asking for stories of the long ago are told the story of the dark days when the grasshoppers came.