Thursday, March 02, 2017
Small Wonders--The Hopper Plague
This story begins in a cemetery a couple of hours west, a graveyard just outside a town that has, these days, far more ghosts than spirit. I admit I was looking for the man's grave, so it came as no surprise when I found it. In fact, I was happy to locate it because I didn't think I would. There are more dead in that cemetery than alive in town.
But before that story, something has to be said about grasshoppers. During the summer of 1873, gadzillions of them took swarmed up in a four-state swath, as if out of nowhere. Dr. Gleysteen, Alton, Iowa's first medical doctor, claims he'd decided to catch some winks in his garden one summer's afternoon, as he was wont to do. When he was called in for supper, he found himself in a nightmare: "The grasshoppers had settled on my body three or four layers thick."
Whether or not they devoured appendages, he politely doesn't say. But the garden was laid waste: "After dinner, there was not a vestige of green left."
The Sioux City Journal interviewed a Niobrara farmer who was still stunned by what he saw: "He heard a strange noise behind him, which sounded like an approaching hail storm, and upon looking around he was horrified in seeing a dense cloud of grasshoppers within a few rods of him." Scared the bejeebees right out of him, the Journal writer says. "Even his old desire to be cremated after death forsook him completely, for he was sure he would be buried a mile deep under the swarm of flying locusts."
It's not everyday you get to use the word denude, but today it works. When you consider the numbers-- 12.5 trillion Rocky Mountain locusts-- it's not difficult to imagine the devastation their appetites consumed. They loved onions so much that farmers claimed you could smell the hoardes a'comin' before they settled in. Asparagas to zinnias, corn to tobacco, they ate it all, then feasted on fruit for desert. Right here in Siouxland, hoppers denuded the earth.
They sucked the salty from sweaty pitchforks and hammer handles, devoured saddle horns, ate the wash hung out to draw, burped once or twice, and went after what little was there on people's backsides.
When they devoured a field, their munching sounded like a prairie fire. This is not a Paul Bunyan yarn. Grasshopper gangs stopped trains. Seriously.
Farm families tried everything--drown 'em, burn 'em, smoke 'em away. Nothing worked. In 1874, ag historians claim hoppers munched 50 million worth of crops, 75 percent "of that year's total farm product value."
When chickens feasted on 'em they became inedible. Turkeys likewise. Hungry farmers with desolated fields might have eaten them; they came like manna. A little honey could have turned all those pioneers into John the Baptists. The destruction was biblical in proportions. Some thought the swarming cloud of locusts yet another round of Ten Plagues. Some claimed it was the end of the world.
Their immense presence created another exodus. Thousands of families had no choice but to go back east. Even though many had just arrived, many left, laid waste by the locust plague.
Now it's time to return to a country cemetery out west in South Dakota, the grave of a pastor of an Orange City church, a man named Dominie Stadt, whose grave sin was writing home. The good Reverend Stadt, who was reportedly not dynamite from the pulpit, described those denuding hoppers to folks back in Michigan, described them in all their horrors, described it so well that those letters got their own ink both in Michigan and in the Netherlands.
Here's the rub. A man named Henry Hospers, the godfather of the Dutch colony in Orange City caught wind of the Reverend's wagging tongue. In 1873, Hospers was into real estate and banking--into building community, and for sure not losing it. Among the Dutch in Sioux County, Henry Hospers didn't just wield clout: he was clout. Poor Pastor Stadt, a better writer than preacher, let out news Hospers wanted kept secret.
Wasn't much of a fight. It didn't take long for Pastor Stadt to recognize greater opportunities out west in Dakota Territory. Once Hospers warned him to stop leaking, Stadt determined it took the next wagon train west.
And that's why the Reverend John Stadt is buried in the open fields of Douglas County, South Dakota.
And why, today, at Tulip Time, if you drive up Albany Avenue, Orange City, on your right, just east of downtown, you'll see a sign announcing this fine, big house, right there in the center of things, once belonged to the honorable Henry Hospers.
If you drive by his place, promise me you won't forget to remember that denuding plague of hungry locusts.