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Texas | Columns | "It's All Trew"

Grasshoppers' attacks on region no sci-fi tale

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
The Great Plains, including the 26 counties of the Texas Panhandle, have endured tornadoes, floods, droughts, hailstorms and dust storms at different times, according to history.
But the one disaster that took all and left nothing behind was the grasshopper plague. Thankfully, the areas afflicted were somewhat scattered. The book "Old Time Kansas" by David Dary contains a chapter titled "When Grasshoppers Ruled The Day," telling of the panic, frustration and suffering of early day homesteaders caused by a black cloud of grasshoppers descending on their lands.

The earliest recorded report of grasshopper invasion on the Great Plains appeared in 1820 when French trappers said much of what is today's Kansas and Missouri had been cleaned of plants by black clouds of grasshoppers.
In 1854, "grasshoppers came down like a cloud of snow," destroying all grass and crops. The next invasion was in 1860 and was reported "to be destroying anything left after the prolonged drought."

This seemed to be a double dose of tragedy. During the 1860s when hopper damage was epic, the Kansas Legislature humorously studied a bill that "paid a bounty for grasshopper scalps still containing the ears."

After a few years of rest and respite, the grasshoppers struck again in 1874, stripping or devouring every sprig of grass and leaf. The experts said the rest periods between the plagues were merely hoppers laying more eggs to populate the plagues. Some of the more desperate churches preached the grasshopper plagues were the price people paid for whatever sins they had committed.

For some unknown reason, the hoppers left Kansas alone from about 1893 to 1911. Yet in 1913, the grasshoppers were so large they held up a train by piling onto the tracks, making the rails so slick the wheels lost traction. Poultry thought the large hoppers were hawks and fled to the chicken houses and refused to come out. Stories floated around about livestock owners fighting the grasshoppers off the grass to aid cattle in grazing.

In 1919, the agricultural colleges stepped in and developed hopper poison by mixing wheat bran, syrup, lemons and arsenic. In some areas of light hopper population, the poison worked. In areas of high population, there were simply more hoppers than poison.

I can remember about 10 seasons with more than our share of grasshoppers. In about 1939 and 1940, Dad built a grasshopper poison spreading machine out of a Model T differential and a metal fuel barrel. We mixed poison bait in galvanized wash tubs using a recipe and arsenic obtained from the Ochiltree County agent.

The poison was spread around the edges of the wheat fields next to the rows of weeds growing next to fences. When we saw millions of eggs lying in the weeds, we removed the barbed-wire fences and burned the weeds. Interestingly, this removal of old fences gave birth to the electric fences used today but also seemed to help with holding down the hopper population.

Here at the ranch, we feed birds and wild turkeys in our yards. When a half-grown hatch of young turkeys approach, a grasshopper would be a fool to hop or fly.

Delbert Trew - "It's All Trew"
May 10, 2011 column
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