Rocky Mountain locust

Rocky Mountain locusts, pictured here, were the scourge of Minnesota during the 1870s. One famous sighting in 1875 in Western Missouri estimated a swarm at 198,000 square miles in size, greater than the area of California.

It was June 1873, a time of year and season that was likely similar to today. One could imagine that it was a pleasant day, warm with plenty of soft sunshine. The kind of day where a warm breeze gently rolled atop the tall prairie grass and made it dance in harmony like waves on the ocean.

On the frontier, June not only meant a time of pleasant weather, but a time of optimism. Gardens and farm fields that had been planted earlier were starting to sprout upward and climb toward the sky. Their success would have a great impact on the year to come, and they were monitored carefully.

By afternoon, it appeared as though a change in weather was coming. Those who recall the day would lament on what looked to be a storm cloud on the horizon. Some described it akin to what looked like a snowstorm.

Indeed, a storm was coming, yet it was not one of the meteorological brand. Rather, the storm on that day was a colossal swarm of locusts so large and thick it was seen with biblical proportions. It was the start of the great grasshopper plague of 1873.

They were called Rocky Mountain locusts, a species of grasshoppers now extinct. They were green, large and devoured every piece of vegetation they could find. Witnesses recalled that after a swarm swept through, they left a patch of land that resembled late autumn rather than summer. All across central and southwestern Minnesota, the swarms destroyed vegetation. Trees became bare and fields yielded no crops.

There seemed to be no stopping them. The first swarm in 1873 left larva everywhere it went that hatched the following spring, creating more swarms across the prairie. It seemed as though no method, not even prayer, would rid the region of the locusts.

One man, John E. Beach, whose grandfather owned land near Buffalo Creek, recalled, “Grandfather’s land lay with Lake Addie to the east and Buffalo Creek to the northwest. These were partial barriers to the locally hatched hoppers. Enlisting half of the neighbors who were fully exposed on the open prairie, they plowed barriers across the southwest flank and by using tar, burned old hay and straw spread in long windrows, adding eternal vigilance. They saved enough crops to make flour for the families involved … using every resource and ingenuity, the folks were able to stick it out, but scars could never be erased from memory.”

Those who were unable to devise methods to relieve themselves from the locusts chose other means to rid themselves of the grasshoppers. McLeod County resident Carlos Avery remarked, “When the grasshoppers came, the exodus was almost as marked as the Indian Outbreak of 1862. Our family was one to leave the farm to the hoppers and move east until the scourge was over.”

It wasn’t until 1877 that the grasshoppers finally left. That spring, a late snowstorm passed through much of the state and killed most of the freshly hatched larva. It was followed by good rains, which put a damper on grasshopper hatching and pleasant weather that allowed the crops to grow fast.

Later that summer, a drought hit and a new swarm of grasshoppers emerged as years before. This time, however, the swarms did something unexplainable. They took wing and left the area. By the end of summer 1877, few of the locusts could be seen. It marked the end of the great Minnesota grasshopper plague.

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. Do you have a historical anecdote to share? Haines can be reached at 320-587-2109 or by email at director@mcleodhistory.org.

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