Each year as the August harvest began and dad reviewed my field duties as a grain wagon driver, I wondered if the great locust invasion of either the late 1800s or the 1930s would recur under my very eyes. Dad was astute in giving history lessons constantly, and we were reminded every year of hardships that our forefathers had endured. Mom and dad had lived through the Great Depression; in fact, they had married in the very midst of it. The obstacles they overcame and the true grit it took, just to survive, for anyone who lived through those times, was incredible.
I’m sitting on the tractor with the grain wagon as my dad passes by on another row. Circa October 1968. Contributed photo
We were likely not to forget the prior hardships and so, every year as grain spilled into the wagon from the old red “combine hopper,” I watched for those nasty pests and wondered if this was the year we would be invaded. My imagination could not grasp the reality of what mom and dad, or the pioneers of the 1800s, had gone through. And so, every year as the dreaded green, six-legged creatures began shooting out of the old red combine, I was scared to death of them but realized at the same time that this was nothing compared to what had been. Regardless, I always felt like I was “just crawling” with the darn things. How awful it must have been for my forefathers and mothers.
Could history repeat itself? There was an invasion about a hundred years before I worked in the fields for my father. I found a short article, written by Eva Emerson Wold, who along with her husband, Carl, of Brandon, Minn., owned and edited the the Park Region Echo in Alexandria back in the early 1900s. Eva interviewed Mrs. Johanna (Urness) Thorstad, a widow, who was married to the Urness family of which Urness Township in Douglas County was named. Mrs. Thorstad had lived through a grasshopper invasion.
As Mrs. Wold prepared to write her column she said, “When I called upon the two Urness sisters, Anna and Johanna, they greeted me with, ‘We enjoy reading your articles and remember well the Indians, mosquitoes and poor roads. Hasn’t anyone told you about the grasshoppers?’ Apparently Mrs. Thorstad could still hear the pelting and chewing of numerous ‘hoppers’ as they lit on and ate the straw hat she was wearing. It was the end of her hat.”
According to Eva Wold’s article, printed in a 1954 Lake Region Farmer publication, the grasshoppers were really “Rocky Mountain locusts, a western grasshopper. They first invaded the southwestern and southern sections of Minnesota in 1873.” They swarmed into the region, millions of them, and devoured every kind of green vegetation they came upon, leaving the land a desolate waste. The females of these grasshoppers deposited eggs in the ground which hatched the next summer, and there were more invasions, and the menace continued for several years, spreading to 28 counties in Minnesota.
It was in 1876 that they swarmed into Douglas County.
Mrs. Thorstad related the invasion into Douglas County as to a hail storm. She said, “The hoppers looked like hailstones as they flew about in the air; and as they lit on objects, the noise they made resembled the pelting of hail. The air was so full of them the day was darkened, although it was mid-afternoon when they first swarmed in.”
Mrs. Thorstad’s grandfather was near Red Rock Lake, about three miles away, when the storm hit. Mrs. Thorstad related, “They were so pestered by the locusts pelting them on their faces as well as other parts of their bodies, my grandfather’s oxen team refused to be driven home. It was only by leading them that he finally got home.”
Meanwhile, all Andrew Urness was able to save of his grain crops the first year of the invasion was enough for seed. The next year he saved 50 bushels of wheat, which was enough for seed and flour. Mrs. Thorstad reminded Mrs. Wold, while being interviewed for this 1954 article, that, “We used to take wheat to the mill to be ground into flour instead of buying it at the grocery stores as we do now.”
The locust invasion of 1876 was so serious in the state of Minnesota that Gov. Pillsbury set aside a day of fasting and prayer for divine help. In midsummer of that year the first great exodus of those Rocky Mountain locusts took place, followed by lesser invasions later. “They swarmed away in great clouds as they had swarmed in,” said Mrs. Thorstad.
When we come to the Great Depression of the 1930s we can only imagine a similar scene, the one my father would tell me about. The drought, the great big wide cracks in the dirt, the dust, the winds, the darkness, and the black clouds of dirt…the dustbowl years. Mom and dad had lived it. I could hardly fathom the reality of their stories, their life.
The Great Depression. It was during high school and the class assignment to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that gave me a vivid visual lesson. I imagined the carloads of farm families, with all of their belongings, as they were fleeing their homesteads and going west, or anywhere, to become migrant workers or find work. The devastation of the land, the drought, the overuse of the land, the losses, the locusts, was incredible. According to Steinbeck’s book, “We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.” In all, some 400,000 people left the Great Plains, victims of the combined action of severe drought and poor soil conservation practices. The book remains one of my favorites for many reasons, but mostly because I have always been glad my mom and dad had stayed where they were, allowing me to grow up where I was.
Green grasshoppers…I don’t imagine your swarm descending like those black clouds of yesteryear. I may see you in the grain fields of today, but I’m no longer afraid.