SUNBONNET DAYS - CHAPTER XVI - A GRASSHOPPER CONQUEST
One event of early days in Brown County stands out above others in my memory with such vividness that I can recall it as perfectly as though it happened only this morning. It was in 1874 that this catastrophe befell; and although it was so long ago, I can recall it almost to the hour.
It was late in the afternoon of August 9. I had been with my neighbor, Mrs. Shadrach Hatfield, to visit her married daughter, Mrs. Hannah Dixon. Since Mrs. Dixon did not live far from her mother's house, we walked; and on our return home, as we were nearing the Hatfield house, we passed a field of corn, the stalks of which stood proudly erect, their leaves rustling in the gentle breeze, and their heavy ears, now in the milk stage, promising to overflow the cribs by Thanksgiving Day.
Suddenly to the west we saw what seemed to be a glistening white cloud, reflecting the sun's rays like a billowy thunderhead, only it came faster than a thunderhead. Taking short leave of Mrs. Hatfield, I hurried for my own home three quarters of a mile away. Soon I realized that I could not reach home before the storm struck, and I was worried about my baby [Frederick who was then 14 months old] whom I was carrying in my arms. Racing toward me the cloud obscured the sun. Then it took on a sinister brownish tinge, unlike any other cloud I had ever seen. Although the air about me was almost calm, there came a roar out of the cloud like the voice of a tempest. I had not quite reached home when it suddenly descended to the earth, blotting out fields and trees. It fell about me, in the grass and on the trees - not a storm, but a plague such as ravaged Mosaic Egypt. Descending like enormous snowflakes, millions of grasshoppers lit all around, and as they lit they commenced eating everything green. Nothing like this had ever happened in my experience or in the experience of my husband. Upon arriving home, I tried to chase the grasshoppers out of my garden. But it was hopeless to try anything. They hopped to another place and as they lit they ate voraciously and continuously everything in my garden except tomatoes. They stripped the cabbages to the core and even ate the radishes out of the ground.
I had a quantity of sweetcorn drying in the sun for winter's use. This was covered with netting to keep off the flies. Undaunted by the netting, the grasshoppers ate right through it and would have devoured the corn had I not taken it into the house.
Christian and our son Henry tried to save the field corn by cutting it and shocking it in the field. The effort was useless, for the grasshoppers went into the shocks and ate the corn, blades, ears, and all. In a few hours our prospects for a bountiful crop were gone, and in a few days the earth was a black desert with only the naked stems of weeds and the stripped canes of corn to show where luxuriant vegetation had been. Trees stood under the August sun as naked as in the winter. Aside from the tomatoes the only green thing anywhere was a patch of tobacco that one of our neighbors grew, and which the grasshoppers scorned to touch.
The hideous ravagers even ate some kinds of fabrics. A few days after their arrival, when nearly all green things had disappeared, I went to a funeral, wearing a black silk shawl. On my way home I felt something crawling over my back and on investigating found that a grasshopper was feasting on my shawl and had already eaten a hole in the back.
Fortunately, we had put up our hay and it was too dry for grasshoppers. Our wheat was already harvested and in the bin. Our potatoes were too deep underground to be touched. Also we had pumpkins, the shells of which were too tough for grasshoppers to cut through.
We took stock of our possessions, and decided that we could keep our horses and cattle alive on hay and wheat, but there was not enough for the pigs, of which we had two brood sows and ten shoats, the heaviest weighing about forty pounds. We slaughtered the shoats and smoked or salted down the meat. Then we set ourselves to live through a hungry winter. For a time we had hopes that the grass would grow again in the fall, thus providing some pasturage, but as a spear of grass attempted to rise above ground, there stood a grasshopper with open jaws. Leaving enough grasshoppers behind to consume anything that might chance to grow again, the main part of the invasion flew eastward, devouring as they passed along. They kept flying and eating until they reached the Missouri River, which they seemed to mistake for a field of grain, for according to a story told at the time, they lit upon it and were drowned. Few crossed the river and Missouri was saved from the fate which overwhelmed Kansas.
The grasshoppers remaining with us laid eggs, billions of them, each about the size of a kernel of rice. Before frost there appeared a minute red parasite fastening itself on the adult grasshoppers and killing them, but the eggs remained unharmed.
Our food was an abundance of pork, bread, potatoes, pumpkins, the little sweet corn I had saved, and a few tomatoes. Without a suitable diet for cows and chickens our milk supply dwindled and our hens quit laying. Upon the first arrival of the grasshoppers, the hens had gorged themselves on the fat insects, but the fowls soon became surfeited and would not touch them. After that we had to share our wheat and potatoes with the chickens, who illy repaid us with only a few eggs.
We also fed our horses and cattle with what wheat and potatoes we could spare from our own supply. The horses became fond of potatoes and ate all we gave them, but as the winter progressed, our supplies became shorter, and so we counted the days until spring, and divided the food into portions sufficient to last.
I learned to cook wheat and potatoes in every way possible. My neighbors and I made coffee from roasted wheat which tasted not unlike our modern postum. We exchanged recipes of our attempts in cookery. Our children came to like shorts and were especially fond of wheat kernels boiled whole like rice.
When spring returned, Christian bought some seed corn at one dollar a bushel, planting it in high hopes for a the new year. Grass grew green again on the prairies and the foliage returned to the trees. In my garden I was counting the days until peas and beans would produce once more, when I began to notice that the grasshopper eggs were swelling as rice will swell when boiled. Late in May, out of the eggs hopped tiny grasshoppers, which ate the garden and the sprouting corn and the blades of grass. In a desperate effort to save the crops, the Kansas legislature passed grasshopper laws. One of them, which was as effective as any farm legislation I have ever known, had to do with the name of Grasshopper River, which flowed across the prairie three miles southwest of our farm. It had once been a beaver stream and had been named Sautrelle River by the French trappers and traders who frequented it before the Louisiana Purchase. "Sautrelle" being a French word meaning grasshopper, Lewis and Clark translated the name into English and so entered it on their charts in 1804. The legislature now changed the name of the Grasshopper to Delaware, and the town of Grasshopper Falls became by a similar act Valley Falls. This ought to have ended the grasshopper plague, only it did not.
The legislature also permitted itself to be taken in by an inventor with sheet iron pans for sale. The pans were eighteen feet long, four feet wide and three or four inches deep. The inventor explained to the legislature that if the pans were filled with coal oil, and then were dragged broadside across the fields, the grasshoppers would hop into the oil, and after the pan was full they could be burned. After listening to this likely story, the legislature passed a law empowering townships to buy grasshopper pans. Our township bought a large number of the pans and lent them to the farmers. We were among those who dragged the pans across our fields, but as the pan was dragged, as many insects hopped to safety as hopped into the pans.
The newly hatched hoppers had only a short vest in the place of wings, and at first they could not fly; but by the time they had stripped the ground bare of food, their wings sprouted so that they flew to the trees and cleared them to the bark.
Our potatoes were gone; we had only a small supply of wheat; our cattle and hens, which had begun to produce milk and eggs with the return of vegetation, again failed us. Our animals, having eaten the hay in the winter, were without food. So weak became the horses that they could hardly draw the plows. The cows stood pitifully lowing, unable to give milk to their bawling calves. In disgust the starving chickens regarded their enemies, which ate their grass but were themselves unfit to eat. Christian plowed ditches around the fields, and into these the children helped to drive the grasshoppers in the hope that those without wings could not hop out and could there be burned. It was as successful as the grasshopper pans, but not more so. We were conquered.
But with starvation leering at us, help came from the source least thought of. When the grasshoppers had destroyed the last vestige of green from the top of the tallest tree, when the June sun beat upon a shadeless earth, when we reached the point where it seemed as though there was nothing left to do but kill our chickens and cattle and salt down the meat, we found that the grasshoppers themselves were feeling as hopeless as we. Carefully they inspected the tree branches; up and down the shorn corn rows they marched in solemn procession, looking for new corn blades. In vain they surveyed every inch of the garden and the prairie for vegetables or for grass. My black silk shawl I kept locked in the closet where they could not penetrate; and so, in disgust with Kansas, suddenly as they had come, they rose on their innumerable whirring wings and disappeared as a shiny, billowy cloud, into the western sky.
Some thought they would return again, but they never did. Although it was past corn-planting time, we bought more seed corn at one dollar a bushel, planted it, and because of an unusually favorable season, the short summer remaining produced an abundant harvest. The grass grew, the leaves came back on the trees, and prosperity returned.