LYON COUNTY GENEALOGY
THE GRASSHOPPER PLAGUE
July 26, 1873, Review file says: Grasshoppers came down Thursday and Friday last, like snowflakes, and still cover the earth. Wheat is probably nearly out of their reach, but oats and corn will be materially injured.
July 1874. The same local paper says: A constant swarm of grasshoppers has been dying over this town for the past two weeks. Some light on the fields and completely riddle the crops.
Fields of ripening wheat and oats that at sunrise gave promise of a beautiful crop, before sundown were cut to the ground, as if beaten by a threshing flail. Corn fields one day waving in their green and growing glorythe price of their owners and to be their debt paying, family supporting crop, in a weeks timesometimes a daywere cut down and picked to shreds. Where they came from no one could divine, neither could one tell when they would light or rise. In order to fully appreciate the sad situation, one must have lived in this section at the time of the plague. The early settlers were in no condition to battle against such pests, but most all held their ground and made homes of wealth for themselves.
In December 1873, what was known as the Rock Rapids Seed Company was incorporated, under the laws of Iowa, for the express purpose of providing means to supply homesteaders and other settlers in the county with seed grain for 1874. J.K.P. Thompson was its secretary and C.E. VanSickle, president. They asked the loan of seed grain, or its equivalent in cash, and furnished the loaners, farmers notes at ten percent interest until December 1874. Deposits were made at Sioux City in the bank.
In February 1874, a call was made for $400,000 worth of seed grain and $5,00 to ship it in with; also $15,000 to procure feed and flour for the needy settlers. This loan was asked on two and three year payments.
Adj. Gen. N.B. Baker, of Civil war fame, from Iowa, issued an urgent call to all old soldiers from Iowa, to assist their comrades in the northwest, in surviving the ravages of the grasshoppers, and added, the recent fires of Portland, Maine, and Chicago, Illinois, did not compare to the devastation made in the fields of the northwest.
Congress in 1873-74 passed an act by which an extension was granted Homesteaders in Iowa and Minnesota and the territory of Dakota, by which they were not required to "prove up" until the plague cleared. Hence, many left their places for eastern counties and returned later.
July 25, 1874. At 5 p.m., Friday, a shower of grasshoppers descended upon this region, until the ground was literally covered with the devilish insects. The country was covered with them, from Little Rock to Sioux Falls, and north to LuVerne, Minnesota. They remained with us until Sunday at 10 a.m., when suddenly all arose and headed southward. The sky was black with them for many hours, and as they passed south of this place, the thickest of these swarms, assumed the appearance of a black snake, a line of such clouds could be seen extending across the southern sky for several hours. More damage east and south is reported than here, which amounts to above one-third of the grain crop. It is believed they came from the Red River of the North and are making their exodus to the south, as they wait for north winds.
Pioneer and promoter, D.C. Whitehead, in the Review of August 1874, remarked: We have had double the grasshoppers this year that we did last, and longer with us, too, yet we will scarcely feel their effects, for the reason that we have twenty acres of grain this season where we had one last. Of course croakers will damn this country, and men that have failed for lack of pluck, will say the country is a failure on account of these infernal pests; but I dont think so, and my faith in Lyon County is so strong in the merits of this, as an agricultural section, that I will cultivate five hundred acres next year, and if the grasshoppers want fifty acres of my crop I can better afford to give it than I can to ditch low land in Illinois, or shake with the ague in Kansas. I am still a believer in Lyon County.
The Review of June 1, 1877 remarks: The farmers in northwestern Iowa, are working with great energy to destroy the young grasshoppers. The means employed are nets and sheet iron pans; the pans are about six feet long and constructed of the form of a dustpan; coal tar is put into the pan and two men drag it across the fields; bushels of the pests are being destroyed daily, and the farmers feel confident they will be able to save their crops.
In an adjoining county, another device was invented and application for patent made, but the hoppers left the county too soon, and the notion was abandoned. A wooden box sixteen feet long was made, with the back and ends made about two feet deep, the front side as many inches deep; the width of the box being two feet. Within the box was placed a tin box of the same length and breadth and three inches deep, the box was divided into four compartments by strips of tin placed sidewise across the box, within this was placed a small amount of kerosene oil. Hitching a horse to each end of the grasshopper devil, it was drawn over the fields. As it advanced the grasshoppers would jump into it and were almost instantly killed; a rope was sometimes placed a few inches before the machine to make the grasshopper jump more lively. Large quantities were thus stricken from the farmers fields. All the tin shops in the villages and at Cherokee, LeMars and Sheldon worked day and night and even Sundays to make these contrivances. It goes without saying these pioneer things are long since out of useout of date! Many farmers caught as high as twenty bushels in a single day.
In 1888, a local paper of Lyon county took occasion to remark: The county fair this year had a good enough showing to convince the most skeptical that this county in this year of grace 1888, had about as good a crop as any county in Iowa. A look over the exhibits in corn at the corn palace at Sioux City shows us to compare favorably with Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska counties. The faith of the people of Lyon County has not been shaken, since the grasshopper period and the grasshopper is gone forever.
Pioneer George Monlux relates how that in grasshopper days, in Lyon County, the pests were so thick that tall slim forest trees, in two hours time were loaded so with them that their branches touched the earth, not a leaf would be left on the thrifty willow hedges. After stripping the gardens clean they left on an early morning breeze for the north. This was in 1873, in June, and one month later, to a day, they returned from their northern journey. Small grain was nearly ripe and they literally swarmed in the grain fields, but left the prairies alone, so grass was good and hay plenty. They are the wheat stems off below the head and cut the branches of oats until the grain fell earthward. Mr. Monlux began to cut a thirty-acre field and before he had worked two hours, unhitched, for they had finished his harvesting for him! They were so thick that they crawled down the farmers backs and up their pantaloon legs and the bite was almost like the sting of a bee. When they left it was all at once and they were so numerous that the noonday sun was darkened and when they lighted in Cherokee County the track of the Illinois Central Railway was buried by them and a freight train was stopped by reason of the wheels slipping on the greasy rails. They left their eggs on every bare spot of ground and the following spring would be hatched out by the first warm sun. Plowing did not seem to hinder their maturing.
Strange to say, they even found their way into houses and if allowed to be almost bedding and clothes, they would eat and finally ruin the fabrics. They girdled forest trees, ate harness, got into open wells and pumps, so no water could be drawn or used until removed. Farmers had to tie strings about the lower ends of their pantaloon legs and wear handkerchiefs about the necks. In cases teamsters found it impossible to drive horse and ox teams against them, in their flight. But very little could be done to save cropsstrong men stood sullen and powerless and watched the devouring of fine crops, upon which they had depended for a living. Women shed bitter tears at the side of their cherished garden plots, from which they had expected a fall and winter living. They thought of their dear children and of the long, cold winter months. Too much credit cannot be given to those brave heroes and heroines who, year after year, held down their claims during these plague years.
Some relief came from the $75,000 appropriated by the Iowa legislature, but as is so often the case, the really destitute and needy were modest people and the human hog might have been getting ten times their proportion of the grain and other relief sent.
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