The Grasshopper Plague

Grasshopper Plague

The 1930s could be described as a perfect storm of hardship in America. The Great Depression devastated the national economy and job market, and a persistent drought compounded matters in the Midwest, contributing to the Black Blizzards of the Dust Bowl era. The skies from Texas to the Canadian plains were sometimes so dark, cities would light their streetlamps in the daytime. Crops had already failed due to the drought, causing families to relocate, businesses to close up, and populations to sink. When you dared think things couldn’t get any worse, they did. 

On April 14th, 1935 — a day that would come to be known as Black Sunday — over twenty Black Blizzards raced across the plains, blackening the entire heart of the continent with clouds of dust. It was the most severe series of dust storms (dusters) yet, and Associated Press reporter Robert E. Geiger coined the term Dust Bowl that day in an article about the Black Blizzard he witnessed in Oklahoma.

In many places, a grasshopper plague followed  — swarms of locusts in the millions would darken the skies as they approached, only distinguishable from a dust storm by the unique glittering appearance of their translucent silvery wings. Wherever they chose to land, they ate the crops that had survived the drought and left destruction in their wake. Grasshopper plagues had been a problem around the nation for over a decade, and reached a crescendo in the mid-thirties.  Parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming struggled with periodic Black Blizzards and grasshopper plagues for the remainder of the decade and beyond in some cases.  As bad as it was on the northern plains, southern states were hardest hit.

Arthur Rothstein, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration captured the photos on this page in southwestern North Dakota in the summer of 1936. His captions are included below each photo.

Grasshopper Plague

Wheat field spoiled by grasshoppers plague near Beach, North Dakota

1935 Grasshopper Plague

The only feed available for many cattle are the dried and grasshopper-chewed cornstalks. Near Carson, North Dakota

1935 Grasshopper Plague

Trees stripped bare by drought and grasshoppers on farm near Saint Anthony, North Dakota

1935 Grasshopper Plague

Grasshopper-eaten cornstalk. Grant County, North Dakota

1935 Grasshopper Plague

Stripped bare by the drought and grasshoppers. Trees on the farm of Mrs. Emma Knoll. Grant County, North Dakota

1935 Grasshopper Plague

John Frederick of Grant County, North Dakota, expects to get about twenty bushels of wheat off his forty acre field

Grasshopper Plague

Sawing down trees killed by the drought and grasshoppers plague on the farm of Mrs. Emma Knoll in Grant County, North Dakota

1935 Grasshopper Plague

Vernon Evans (with his family) of Lemmon, South Dakota, near Missoula, Montana on Highway 10. Leaving grasshopper-ridden and drought-stricken area for a new start in Oregon or Washington. Expects to arrive at Yakima in time for hop picking. Live in tent. Makes about two hundred miles a day in Model T Ford

1935 Grasshopper Plague

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Grasshopper Plague

Trees killed by drought and grasshoppers frame this farm in Grant County, North Dakota

Photos by Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration, 1936
Original content copyright © Sonic Tremor Media

15 Comments on “The Grasshopper Plague

  1. These photos are heartbreaking and I cannot imagine the distress caused the people who lived through this. However, it has been shown that the Dirty 30s/Dust Bowl decade were human induced events mainly caused by poor agricultural practices. This country lost its most valuable top soil during this time and prompted a government response in the ag. community. (I think this scared the pants off of us, to be frank.)
    We need to be very, very careful how we operate on this planet as we have the capacity to disrupt normal function, at our peril, and this has been proven time and time again.

    The History Channel released a good DVD that deals with this subject specifically; it is called “Black Blizzard.”

    Thanks for posting beautiful photos and a hard reminder.

    • Yes–i remember reading about that. Too many farmers taking down all trees etc for bigger fields. If I remember correctly it was this that brought on the idea of shelter belts which brought the plains agriculture back eventually.

  2. My parents and grandparents were among the families that left the Dakotas (Sioux County) during those hard times. Both families returned to the Otter Tail and Becker County area of Minnesota. Later the younger members ended out here in Washington where many friends and relatives had moved in the 30’s and early 40’s. Selfridge in Sioux County has published a couple Jubilee books which includes a lot of photo’s from that area.

  3. Now I see what Laura Ingalls Wilder meant in her book, “On The Banks Of Plum Creek”! I knew grasshoppers were destructive, but I’ve been lucky never to see the devastation they cause before seeing these photos!

  4. I grew up spending much of my time on my Grandparent’s farm, Howard and Lula Baker, near Edmonds, ND. My grandpa told of how the grasshoppers actually tried to chew on the wooden handles of his pitchforks after they had eaten everything else. How do you survive? What do you sell? They managed to make it through the thirties and saved the farm. They never lost their frugal ways even after better times returned. I think it was psychologically imprinted upon their minds after living through such tough times.

    • Steven, my mother taught at the one room school house north of Bakers. She new Howard and Lula very well, she may have taught your parents. Margie Pitra – Mrs George Kulla was her name, from Kensal. Howard always let us hunt his land, all we had to do was tell them who our mom was! Good people, If I remember, they had a round barn. There’s a photo op for you guys.

      • Rex,

        I’ll have to ask my Mom, Mavis Baker Goodroad. My grandpa Howard bought a house in Jamestown so their kids could attend high school in Jamestown. I think my Mom went to school in Edmunds. The barn, once on the National Register of Historic Places, is gone. It was first damaged by a tornado in the 20’s, then it was destroyed by the 105 mph straight line windstorm back in 2000. My uncles had the remnants torn down last year and it was burned in Nov or Dec.

  5. Does anyone have any info on John Frederick from Grant County?

  6. My Dad had a small farm near Parshall North Dakota during that time and he raised a few milk cows. He told me the story of feeding them thistle, as it was the only thing that would grow during the drought. When it came time to clean the manure out of the barn, it was never in the gutters as the thistle gave the cows so much gas that they would shoot it across the barn onto the back walls. He would laugh when telling the story because while cleaning the walls if you saw one of the cows lift its tail, you’d better get the heck out of the way!

    It was a terrible time and there weren’t many things to laugh about but he always seemed to relish that story and chuckle every time he told it..

  7. My parents had a picture of grasshoppers covering a fence post between the yard and the chicken coop. Seems like people are forgetting the past the way they’re removing tree rows and shelterbelts. Some of them are replacing them with new trees but most are just gone.

  8. My mother was 6 years old on the farm in ND that year and we were just talking about it being one of only the two times she ever saw my Grandpa cry– he lost his entire crop and was so ashamed that he hide the flour sack he had gotten from charity to help feed them.

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  10. Anyone know of a small town in Grant County called Lark? My grandparents settled there. He became a widower with 5 children after his wife was sent to the TB asylum.

  11. Didn’t the Homestead Act require a 10 acre shelter belt to claim 160 acres?
    Farmer’s continue to re-claim land by destroying trees.

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