Grasshopper plague struck 1913 Elida

Editor’s note: Elida celebrates its centennial this Saturday and Sunday as a part of its coverage of the event, the PNT is revisiting historical happening in the community.

The sandhills west of Elida are a long way from Egypt, but in 1913 homesteaders there felt like they had stepped into a biblical plague.
Newspaper accounts from May and June of that year reported swarms of grasshoppers in a strip several miles wide had descended on the area and were eating everything in sight. Settlers reported grasshoppers ate crops, gardens and grass all the way to the ground, and even stripped the bark off of cedar fence posts.

The accounts said that in the fall of 1912 ranchers had noticed large numbers of winged grasshoppers had settled in the area. The visitors didn’t raise much concern that fall, but when the new crop of nymph hoppers arrived in the spring, it created a panic that sent some packing to go in search of new land.

“The grasshopper plague has come to our country and they are here by the billions just south and west of town,” wrote Elida postmaster Henry Rankin in a telegram to the Secretary of Agriculture. “We want you to send someone here at once to endeavor to eradicate them before they destroy the whole agricultural crops. Act as soon as possible for the grasshoppers are multiplying rapidly and moving northward.”

An agent with the Department of Agriculture detailed in a report about the infestation published in 1915 said maize, kaffir corn and millet were devastated by the grasshoppers. One Elida farmer told the agent he watched as the swarm passed through a five-acre patch of millet on his farm, which he said was eaten to the ground in 30 minutes.

By the middle of May things were not any better. The railroad was having trouble getting its trains across the section of track between Kenna and Elida because of the insects. Reportedly at night the hoppers would congregate on the rails that were warmed by the day’s sun, and wouldn’t move until it warmed late in the morning. The squished hoppers on the rails caused the drive wheels of the steam locomotives to slip and would bring the train to a halt.

Newspaper accounts reported railroad workers were placed on the engines’ cowcatchers with brooms to try and sweep the bugs from the rails as the train passed. Even so, getting the train through was a slow process. One report said it could take as long as an hour to cover a mile of track.

“They were so thick they covered the ground and roads,” early-day Elida resident Eula Swagerty said in one newspaper account. “They settled on barbed wire fences, and wherever they reached a road or fence, they followed it.”

Swagerty recalled she and her children waded through the grasshoppers like they waded in snow during the winter.

After the range was stripped bare, cattle were forced to travel 11 to 13 miles from their water sources to find grazing, returning to water in 24- to 56-hour intervals.

Finally sometime in June reports indicated rain along with wildlife feasting on the hoppers began to ease the situation.

Business began to return to Elida’s four drugstores and five saloons and other businesses after anxiety over the situation had nearly brought commerce to a halt.