Locusts a reminder we have it pretty good

Brookings County Now & Then

Don Berg, professor emeritus of geography and history at South Dakota State University, recently gave an interesting talk about the 1930s and its ubiquitous grasshoppers. He was among speakers at the 26th annual West River History Conference in Rapid City.

His dissertation caught my eye because I faintly recall the pillage and plunder of those winged hordes. I remember because they spit what looked like tobacco juice in your hand if you tried to pick one up, which every kid in those days tried to do at least once.

Those locusts couldn’t have arrived at a worse time in the state’s history. There were also droughts, dust storms, and the economic depression. 

It was the most cataclysmic of times in South Dakota’s history. In his report to the conference attendees, Professor Berg included interesting facts and figures of that decade’s calamities.

Bank closures in the state resulted in a loss of $39 million, which Berg points out in today’s dollars would have been about $734 million. Money was scarce as hen’s teeth. My dad in the mid-1930s made $4 for a 10-hour shift at the elevator in Wessington Springs.  

My allowance was a dime a week, of which a nickel was invested in a movie and a nickel saved for an after-movie ice cream cone.  

Those were years of hot summers and bitterly cold winters. I remember that even during the day our house was usually dim and dark for a reason.

My mother hung damp sheets over the windows to catch the dust as it filtered in through the cracks. She also thought it made the house seem cooler.  

In the winter, she hung dry blankets or throw rugs over the windows to keep out the drafts.

The house lights were turned on when the dust storms blotted out the sun and whenever great hordes of grasshoppers flew by.

When they landed, wherever they landed, they were ravenous and omnivorous in their food habits.

They ate crops, gardens and trees, and they gnawed on tools like hoes, pitchforks and shovel handles for the salt left there by sweating hands. Grasshoppers ravaged wagon tongues for the salt left by sweating horses rubbing against the wood. 

They ate binding twine on sheaves of grain and then they ate the grain. The ate horse harnesses and devoured cloths drying on outdoor lines. 

Berg mentioned one farmer who recalled that if you sat your water jug out in the field, grasshoppers would gather around the cork and eat it off the bottle. 

Hoppers clogged car, tractor and truck radiators. They contaminated cisterns and caused fires in chimneys, Berg noted.

I was about 5 when we drove over the Missouri River bridge at Chamberlain. It was covered with billions of grasshoppers that paused there as they were flying across the river.

The bridge roadway was slick and shiny with hopper carcasses crushed by car tires. Every part of the bridge was covered with hoppers eating the paint away. 

The bridge seemed to be actually moving as they crawled and flitted about on the steel beams. 

The 1930s were tough times.

Today, we complain about the weather. We sweat the little things. We fret and fume about the slightest inconvenience. 

We all need to take down the damp sheets and brighten up our days. 

We actually have it pretty darn good.

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