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A Plague of Grasshoppers

Grasshoppers turned up in the Dakotas long before the misery of the Great Depression. On this date in 1919, Professor Waldron of the North Dakota Agricultural College noted that the insects were moving out of the fields following the harvest. They were congregating at the edges of the roads where they could still find some greenery. It meant they would be laying eggs along the roadsides across the state. Professor Waldron urged farmers to rake the soil to the middle of the roads. An ordinary road grader could be used for the task. Grasshopper eggs in the middle of the road would be crushed under the wheels of wagons and farm equipment. Destroying the eggs was the best way to avoid a future plague.

1919 was not the last time grasshoppers were a problem in North Dakota, and it was not the worst. The decade of the 1930s is known for the Great Depression, but there was plenty of misery to go around. North Dakotans also associate the 1930s with dust, drought, and grasshoppers. The insects filled the skies. There are stories of clouds of grasshoppers that blocked out the sun. Entomologists say this is believable. Some species of grasshoppers have been found flying as high as 9,000 feet. In their enormous numbers they could, indeed, darken the sun.

They crunched under foot and ate anything that didn’t move. They wiped out acres of crops. They ate paint off buildings and varnish off the handles of farm tools. Some farmers considered themselves lucky to harvest a mere two bushels of wheat per acre.

Favorable weather conditions supported the grasshopper outbreak. Populations of several types had grown slowly from 1928 to 1930. Then their numbers exploded in 1931 and 32. They devastated fields of alfalfa, corn, wheat, and even the shelter belt trees. Ironically, the grasshoppers were finally brought under control by the drought. It was even too dry for them.

The insects that plagued the Great Plains have been immortalized in literature. In her books about growing up on the Plains, Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered a “glittering cloud” of insects that devastated her father’s crops. In his 1924 book “Giants in the Earth,” writer O.E. Rolvaag described ominous clouds of “raging little demons.” To those trying to survive in North Dakota, grasshoppers seemed to be a Biblical plague right out of the Old Testament.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Sources:

Hope Pioneer. “Grasshoppers Along Roadside.” 4 September 1919. Hope ND. Page 1.

Capitol Journal. “Dakota Life: The Grasshopper and the Plow.” https://www.capjournal.com/news/dakota-life-the-grasshopper-and-the-plow/article_574b15f6-52b3-11e5-ad75-a72babcfae88.html  Accessed 28 July 2018.

Ghosts of North Dakota. “The Grasshopper Plague.” http://www.ghostsofnorthdakota.com/2014/03/16/the-grasshopper-plague/  Accessed 28 July 2018.

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