Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Grasshopper Plague in the 1870s

The sky was black, dark, almost like a coming storm.  But as the clouds moved closer a shrill hum seemed to accompany the storm.  Only when the cloud finally arrived was it apparent: this was no rainfall, no simple burst of water from the sky.  Instead, the heavens dropped an invading horde of grasshoppers, more specifically Rocky Mountain Locusts, upon the farm lands of Minnesota.  Arriving first in 1873, and for the next five years, in a seeming random pattern a plague of locusts returned to devour the crops of farmers throughout the state.

Various descriptions of this five year plague contain consistent themes.  The grasshoppers came, devouring everything in their path.  First chewing and destroying the grain crops, then any green plants that might remain.  In an effort to fight the destruction, some farmers tried covering plants with blankets and other cloth.  The grasshoppers ate the fabric.  Other reports describe the grasshoppers eating leather harnesses of plow horses.  The horde even fed on fence posts and ax handles.  Nothing was safe from the ravenous insects

In the five years of the Minnesota grasshopper plague, the losses were devastating.  An estimated $2,000,000 was lost by farmers.  By 1877, the state was so frustrated by the inability to combat the locusts, Governor John Pillsbury declared a day prayer for April 26, 1877.  In Cold Springs, Stearns County Catholics built the Assumption Chapel as an outward sign of their devotion and prayer so that God might remove this plague.

Reports of the grasshopper plague describe devastation throughout Minnesota.  Anecdotal evidence in Sherburne County reinforces these views.  Jeanette Knapp, living in Orrock Township remembered the locusts destroying the family crop.  “Father noticed how nicely the grain had come up and how strong it looked—that was when he was on his way to church one Sunday morning.  On his return he could see no evidence of his crops.  Even the leaves were eaten off the trees,” she said.  “At times the grasshoppers were so thick you couldn’t see the sun.” 

Sherburne County does not show up in the greater Minnesota literature of the grasshopper plague.  The county avoided significant damage from the locusts until 1876 when the grasshoppers invaded like a marauding horde and did significant damage to the county farms.  In addition, the county was relatively under populated.  The population in mid 1870s was in the neighborhood of 3000 people.   

Yet, the grasshoppers hit Sherburne County and left an indelible mark on the history of the area.

This particular essay may benefit from a list of references.  If you would like to obtain a copy of this essay with the endnotes, fell free to contact me.

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