Mills County, Iowa

1881 Mills County History
The Rocky Mountain Locust

(Caloptenus spietus)

The first mention of the locust is in the Bible, and occurs in chapter X., the book of Exodus, but is confined to a mere mention of their appearance in Egypt as an affliction upon Pharaoh and his people for their treatment of the Israelites. The earliest account of the ravages of locusts, descriptive of the terrible calamities they have caused to mankind, appears in the book of Joel, chapter 1. Omitting the figurative parts, the prophets description is graphic and accurate:

“A day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains; a great people and a strong; there hath not been ever the like, neither shall be any more after it, even to the years of many generations. A fire devoureth before them and behind them a flame burneth; the land is as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness; yea, and nothing shall escape them. The appearance of them is as the appearance of horses; and as horse-men, so shall they run. Like the noise of chariots on the tops of mountains shall they leap, like the noise of a flame of fire that devoureth the stubble, as a strong people set in battle array. Before their face the people shall be much pained; all faces shall gather blackness. They shall run like mighty men; they shall climb the wall like men of war; and they shall march every one on his ways, and they shall not break their ranks. * * * They shall run to and fro in the city; they shall run upon the wall; they shall climb upon the houses; they shall enter at the windows like a thief.” Whether this he over-drawn none better know than those who resided in Mills county in those years when the locusts were most destructive. The incessant buzz and noise which their flight produces, the unavoidable destruction which is everywhere going on, fill the beholder with both awe and wonder. Southey, in his Thalaba, pictures most graphically the noise their approach occasions:

  Onward they come, a dark, continuous cloud
Of congregated myriads numberless,
The rushing of whose wings was as the sound
Of a broad river, headlong in its course
Plunged from a mountain summit or the roar
Of a wild ocean in the autumn storm,
Shattering its billows on a shore of rocks!"

The first account after the statement of Joel, which, judging from the account there given, was the first visitation known to the semi-civilized Jews, is that of Ororius, who says that in the year 3800 certain regions in North Africa were visited by monstrous swarms: the wind blew them into the sea, and the bodies washed ashore “stank more than the corpses of a hundred thousand men.” St. Augustine later mentions a locust plague which occurred in the Kingdom of Masinissa, and resulting in a famine and pestilence, caused the death of about 800,000 men. According to Mouffet, in 1478 the region about Venice was subjected to an invasion and a resulting famine caused the death of 30,000 people.

The locusts of the New World present many features in common with those of the Old World. They breed in the same enormous multitudes, enter upon the same migrations, and for the same reasons, are subjected to essentially the same climatic conditions, and manifest the same destructiveness.

The authentic records of the Rocky Mountain locust date back to 1818 and 1819. In Neill’s History of Minnesota it is stated that in those years the locusts “in vast hordes” appeared in Minnesota “eating everything in their course, in some cases the ground being covered three or four inches.” While, doubtless, the state of Iowa was invaded simultaneously with Minnesota, the visitation was probably not so general, and possibly entirely confined to the northwestern counties.

There is no tradition of a general invasion of the state which dates back further than the year 1833. The authority for a locust invasion in that year is the following, quoted in the United States Entomological Commissioners’ Report: “In regard to the grasshopper raid of 1833, there was no white settlement here then, but there is a part of a tribe of Indians living near the center of this state and they used to hunt through here, and in some of their visits here in 1866 their chief, Johnny Green, who was a very old man, told the people here that thirty—three years before that the grasshoppers came so thick that the grass was all eaten off, and there was no grass for their ponies, and the ground looked black, as if there had been a prairie fire. He also said there had been no more grasshoppers till 1866, when he was speaking. This chief was a very intelligent man, and was about one—half white; but the Indians are very liable to exaggerate; I have forgotten the name of the tribe of Indians, but think they were the Winnebagoes or Pottawattamies.”

Other locust years in Iowa were 1850, 1856, 1857, 1864-65, 1865, 1866, 1867, 1868, 1870-72, 1873, 1874, 1875, 1876, 1877.

The most destructive year in Mills county was 1867. The young unfledged locusts made sad ravages in that year upon the growing crops. Again in 1875 was enormous damage done, not by locusts, hatched in the county, as in the previous destructive invasion, but by great swarms coming from the south. In this county in that year the damage is reported as fully twenty-five per cent.

The visitations of the locust to this county, or the state will not be frequent. Nor can it ever become a permanent resident here. The labors of the entomological commission previously referred to, have developed the following general conclusions: The comparatively sudden change from the attenuated and dry atmosphere of the elevated plains and plateaus which constitute the permanent region to the more humid and low prairie region of the Mississippi valley proper, is injurious to that species, though its consequences are not manifest with the invading insects, except, perhaps, in limiting their eastward progress.

The first generation, however, hatched in the low, alluvial country, is more or less unhealthy, and the insects do not breed here, but quit the country and get back, as far as they are able, to more congenial breeding grounds. If the weather be particularly wet and cold they perish in immense numbers, and there is even reason to believe that even the bulk of those which attain maturity are intestate and perish without procreating, because the large majority of those which drop on the return to Northwest contain no eggs. In the sub-permanent region, or as we go west and northwest, the species propagates, and becomes localized more and more until we reach the country where it is always found, Nothing is more certain than that the species is not autochthonous in Texas; West Arkansas, Indian Territory, West Missouri, Kansas, Western Iowa, Nebraska, nor even Minnesota; and whenever it over-runs any of those states, it sooner or later abandons them. We may perhaps find, in addition to the comparatively sudden changes from an attenuated and dry to a more dense and humid atmosphere, another tangible barrier to the insects permanent multiplication in the more fertile country to the southeast, in the lengthened summer season. As with annual plants, so with insects (1ike the locust) which produce but one generation annually and whose active existence is bounded by the spring and autumn frosts, the duration of active life is proportioned to the length of the growing season.

Aside from the causes here enumerated by the commission, may be mentioned the presence of a greater number of invertebrate enemies in the shape of beetles and mites, both of which attack and slay incredible numbers of locusts. During their visitation to Iowa in 1875-76 there were also found within them many larvae of a kind of fly, the egg having been laid within the body of the locust by adults of the fly indicated. Innumerable thousands were thus found diseased and dying.

The injury to the agricultural interests of this county has been done; and now bids fair to come the dawn of immunity from this scourge. Thousands of dollars have been lost to its agricultural interests, but the experience gained from past disaster will enable the farmer of the future, should it ever become necessary, to successfully battle even greater hosts. May the following unique description never again be recorded of this beautiful “garden of Iowa :“ “The farmer plows and plants. He cu1tivates in hope, watching his growing grain, in graceful, wave-like motion wafted to and fro by the warm summer winds. The green begins to golden; the harvest is at hand. Joy lightens his labor as the fruit of toil is about to be realized.

The day breaks with a smiling sun that sends his ripening rays through laden orchards and promising fields. Kine and stock of every sort are sleek with plenty, and all the earth seems glad. The day grows. Suddenly the sun’s face is darkened, and clouds obscure the sky. The joy of the morn gives way to ominous fear. The day closes, and ravenous locust swarms have fallen upon the land. The morrow comes, and, ah! what a change it’ brings! The fertile land of promise and plenty has become a desolate waste, and old Sol, even at his brightest, shines sadly through an atmosphere alive with myriads glittering insects.”—Riley.

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