It’s one of the things the late Henry Hewlett couldn’t forget about growing up in the Great Depression in the town of Canning, South Dakota – not just dust and drought, but grasshoppers.
Grasshoppers filled the air like winged weather and clattered like living hailstones against every surface. It made for the kind of incident from the first half of the 1930s that Hewlett remembered vividly when he visited with the Capital Journal at the start of 2015.
“It’s kind of uphill for the train coming up into Canning. There were so many grasshoppers on the track that the engine spun out and couldn’t pull the train,” he recalled. “So they unhooked two cars and come in and got them ahead of the engine. They would crush the grasshoppers ahead of the engine so it could pull the train.”
The grasshoppers would eat anything – not only the gardens, but also the varnish off the handles of the garden tools.
“If you’d leave a shovel or fork sticking up in the yard, next morning the handle would be rough. They’d eat all of it. Man, they were bad,” Hewlett said. “We used to use them for bait to try to catch fish.”
But the young anglers didn’t stand a chance, as Hewlett recalled. The surface of the water was already covered with grasshoppers, so the fish wouldn’t bite.
“They were yellow – some of them pretty-good sized. There was a couple different varieties, I think. But there was billions of them. What you’d spray would kill off a lot of them, but it was so dry that they multiplied.”
The entomologists’ view
Entomologists agree that conditions were ideal for grasshoppers – at least in the early years of that dry decade. Retired U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist Bruce Helbig of Pierre said Dr. Robert E. Pfadt, an authority on grasshoppers in the western United States, found that particularly true in the Dakotas.
“The book, ‘Western Grasshoppers’ by Dr. Pfadt references how favorable weather conditions in both eastern North Dakota and eastern South Dakota combined to produce one of the worst outbreaks of the twostriped grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus), and the differential grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) in agricultural history,” Helbig told the Capital Journal in an email. “Dr. Pfadt states: ‘Populations increased slowly for three years, 1928 to 1930. Both species reached phenomenal numbers in 1931 and 1932. They devastated fields of alfalfa, small grains, corn, vegetables, and a variety of fruit and shelterbelt trees.’”
It was that devastation that a photographer, probably working for state government, captured in a hasty, out-of-focus photo of Gov. W.E. Green and staff inspecting grasshopper damage in Tripp County on Aug. 15, 1931.
Later, in a series of photos taken Aug. 1, 1933 – “near Pierre” is how the location is described in the South Dakota State Historical Society archive – a photographer again documents a pile of dead grasshoppers and the wasted land. All four of those photos are credited to Miller Studio of Pierre, owned at that time by Richard Miller. But Pierre resident Marshall Miller, the son of Richard Miller, said the images are not as sharp as his father’s work would have been and he explained that the Miller Studio also printed photos and did photo finishing – probably, in this case, for someone trying to document the damage done to South Dakota.
However, the ancient skirmishing between the grasshopper and the farmer is about to take a different turn in the Dakotas in the 1930s. It turned out there is a common enemy.
Helbig notes that Pfadt’s account goes on to say: “In 1933 and 1934 a severe drought not only ruined crops and other vegetation but also terminated the grasshopper outbreak.”
That’s what Helbig finds noteworthy about some years in the 1930s: It was too dry even for grasshoppers.
Clouds before the sun
There still were grasshoppers as the decade progressed, and they didn’t just march on the ground like infantry. Hewlett remembered them flitting overhead like a glittering cloud that came between him and the sun.
Helbig said Hewlett’s memory of grasshoppers darkening the sun is believable, and said he has heard similar stories from a man who grew up at Herreid. That Herreid native told Helbig that as a young man during the 1930s, he remembered the sun being covered by grasshoppers.
Helbig added in an email to the Capital Journal, “It is entirely possible, especially for a species such as the migratory grasshopper, Melanoplus sanguinipes.”
There are pilots’ accounts of encountering this species at 2,000 to 9,000 feet above the ground, Helbig said.
“Thus they could easily engulf the sun,” he added.
In fact a USDA publication about the migratory grasshopper takes some of its observations about the insect from those years in the Dakotas, noting that in 1938, one swarm averaged 66 miles per day for four days, flying from Highmore, South Dakota, to Beach, North Dakota. In that same year, a swarm traveled from northeastern South Dakota to the southwestern corner of Saskatchewan, or 575 miles.
Tools of the campaign
Henry Hewlett – who was born in 1928 and who died in March 2015 at age 87 – got his chance to join the campaign against the grasshoppers when he was a young adult.
“They had a big grasshopper project in Onida. I worked on it in 1944,” he said. “We spread grasshopper bait all over Sully and Potter counties. Hell of a good job – I got $11 a day.”
Donald Berg, Professor Emeritus of geography at South Dakota State University, said poison bait was a common tool in the fight.
“The general formula for most hopper applications was a mechanical mixture of mill run feed or bran, sawdust, molasses, sodium arsenate (or a similar arsenic compound like arsenic trioxide) which was the active agent, and sufficient water to make a wet, crumbly mixture. Massive amounts of grasshopper poison were prepared at special mixing centers or stations, usually at county seats, and the material was distributed through state agencies down to the township level, and then to individual farms,” Berg wrote in one of his studies about the Dust Bowl.
Preparing the mixture could be hazardous to human health if not done properly, it could be hazardous in the field and it has the potential to still be hazardous today – there were disposal sites after the grasshopper campaigns ended where arsenic bait was buried. That poses a risk to groundwater, and some of the firsthand knowledge of where those bait disposal sites were has been lost over time, Berg said.
The amount of poisoned bait used in a grasshopper-ravaged area could be sizable.
Berg said that in June 1931 – immediately before the governor’s visit to that same center of the grasshopper infestation – three railroad cars of poisoned bait were distributed to Tripp County.
It was a terrible season. On Aug. 10, 1931, an article in Time magazine reported that Rev. Joseph Barre led 1,200 believers at Jefferson, South Dakota, to pray in the fields for divine aid; that poultry were dying in places from eating grasshopper bait; and that a Pierre, South Dakota, farmer, “hearing that turkeys would devour the insects, turned his flock out into the fields. The birds returned with their feathers eaten off.”
Demons in the Earth
Yet remarkably, for anyone who lived through those hellish visitations of the 1930s, those years were not the worst for grasshoppers. Worse things happened in the 1860s and 1870s. And the legacy of those days lives on today – in government policies, in techniques, and even in the term that someone such as Henry Hewlett used to refer to those grasshoppers he met as a boy in South Dakota – “locusts.”
But those grasshoppers of the 1930s weren’t locusts.
The one true locust of North America was the insect that devastated South Dakota and other parts of the Midwest and Plains in the 1860s and 1870s – the Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus. It is now extinct. It was last observed in 1902 in southern Canada.
It’s also that insect, the Rocky Mountain locust, that is celebrated in the region’s literature. When Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about “the glittering cloud” that devastates her father’s wheat and then leaves countless eggs in the ground in “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” entomologists say that is the writer’s authentic memory of the Rocky Mountain locust.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography, “Pioneer Girl” – published recently to great acclaim by the South Dakota Historical Society Press – preserves more of the same memories, including Laura’s account of the grasshoppers beginning to walk west and then to fly west when they finally quit the country. Back to their ancestral home, Pa Ingalls observes in the Little House books, and he’s right – that’s where the Rocky Mountain locust had traditionally had some of its favorite habitat, in mountain valleys in the West.
The writer O.E. Rolvaag’s “Giants in the Earth” similarly describes “a weltering turmoil of raging little demons” spilling from an ominous cloud. That also is a true-to-life account of the Rocky Mountain locust as told to Rolvaag by Norwegian immigrants who lived through it.
Rolvaag’s carefully chosen language also reflects the time – there really were theological arguments made that the insects were demonic. One Minnesotan called them “green imps of Satan.” There were also those who believed the plague of locusts, biblical in its intensity, must be the chastisement of the Lord for sin.
Stranger than fiction
But even the most imaginative of fiction writers probably couldn’t grasp the reality of what they were seeing.
A term in history, “Albert’s swarm,” still refers to a calculation that physician Albert Child made after watching a swarm of Rocky Mountain locusts move through southern Nebraska in 1875. By taking into his calculations the speed at which the swarm moved through and the time it required, he figured the swarm occupied 198,000 square miles.
The Rocky Mountain locust had been observed ever since whites began to live in the region. Agricultural historian Harold E. Briggs, in a 1934 article about grasshoppers in the Dakotas, notes that they were reported in 1819-1820 in the Red River Valley; and again in 1855 at military forts in the region; and then regularly after 1859 when the Indian lands between the Big Sioux River and the Missouri were opened to settlement.
It was a wild ride for Plains settlers: 1862 was bountiful; 1863 was a drought; 1864 brought the kind of thing G.C. Moody reported about the cornfield on his farm near Yankton: “The grasshoppers invaded the field like a living river pouring upon it. They literally covered the corn. The stream stretched away to the south and west as far as one could see in either direction and the flutter of their wings created a roaring noise that was almost deafening. Not a ten-thousandth part of the stream lighted in my field, but covered the country for miles and miles. They devoured the tender leaves and newly formed ears of corn and never ceased their feast until the stalks were as bare as tent poles.”
Cause and effect
In 1865 the insects left Dakota before damage could be done, Briggs writes; in 1866 a grasshopper raid destroyed the crops; from 1867 to 1873 the grasshoppers were not a serious problem. For the five years after 1873, the grasshoppers – chiefly the Rocky Mountain locust – were awful. Entomologist Jeffrey Lockwood, who has studied the Rocky Mountain locust, notes that the U.S. Entomological Commission estimated damage from the 1874-1877 outbreaks cost American farmers west of the Mississippi $200 million in damages – about $116 billion in today’s terms.
They arrived in swarms from the northwest. One column of insects in 1874 stretched 225 miles, from Moorhead, Minnesota, to Mankato.
In Dakota Territory, the raids led to controversial legislation to provide seed grain and assistance for needy farmers, passed over the objection of the territorial governor and never put into practice.
Other appeals had broader support – the territorial governor proclaimed Friday, May 4, 1877, be observed throughout the territory as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer. And Dakota Territory complied; banks and businesses shut their doors.
Some counties paid 50 cents a bushel for dead insects, burning them in bonfires at night. Farmers harrowed the areas where grasshoppers were known to lay their eggs, and they spread poison baits.
In fact, says University of Wyoming entomologist Alexandre Latchininsky, the first experiments with poisoned grasshopper baits were performed in North America in the 1870s. In a June 2006 paper in a pest management publication, Latchininsky wrote, “Poisoned baits, especially the famous “Criddle mixture” with dry horse manure as the main component, were applied on a very large scale to control the now extinct Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus). This bait was widely used for grasshopper control after the locust’s demise at the turn of the century.”
Some 3,000 tons of poisoned grasshopper bait were used in Kansas alone in just one year, 1917, to respond to an outbreak.
Lockwood – who traced the history of the Rocky Mountain locust in a book called, “Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier” – argues that part of the legacy of the Rocky Mountain locust is that for the first time, the United States deliberately, methodically used science as a tool to address a national problem, starting with a U.S. Entomological Commission. It was a 20th century solution to a 19th century problem, and some of its strategies still are in use today.
Leitmotif of the Great Plains
But it probably isn’t science that wins the war against the Rocky Mountain locust. No one knows for sure why it vanished after 1902, but the theory Lockwood puts forward in his book is that it was that age-old adversary, the plow – or anyway, the full suite of agricultural implements needed to work the land – and an uncanny preference by homesteaders to locate farmsteads in the very places beloved to locusts.
“The most spectacular ‘success’ in the history of entomology – the only complete elimination of an agricultural pest species – was the result of unplanned, uncoordinated, and unintentional human activity,” Lockwood writes. “The agriculturalists who arrived in the river valleys of the West managed to drive their most severe competitor to extinction in a matter of a few years, leaving North America the only inhabited continent without a locust species.”
Lockwood suggests that was possible because in the “recession times” between outbreaks, the Rocky Mountain locust likely needed a relatively small area – perhaps as little as 3 or as much as 3,000 square miles – as a sort of natural refuge or sanctuary. But it is exactly there that humans settled.
Lockwood marvels in another passage that “a small contingent of settlers equipped with horse-drawn plows and simple implements effectively eliminated the locust across the continent by transforming the fertile river valleys of the Rockies.”
As Lockwood sees it, that’s not a great victory, for the Rocky Mountain locust swarms “were the leitmotif of the Great Plains, as powerful a life force as the great herds of bison” and “a creature that had shaped the folktales, culture, and history of the West.”
Lockwood suggests the Rocky Mountain locust, with its regular outbreaks, may have been a “keystone species” that affected ecosystems on a scale similar to the bison, for example. Its vanishing could have denied a food source to birds and other organisms; its disappearance could even have created “explosive opportunities” for other grasshoppers – “perhaps this is why the grasshopper outbreaks of the 20th century were so severe.”