09-24-2020 Grasshoppers

A grasshopper feeds on the tall grass near the path at Malcom Wallop Park Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.

The 1930s were difficult for the people of Sheridan County. Those were the miserable years of prolonged drought and economic depression. Piled on top of those miseries were the bugs — grasshoppers and Mormon crickets. Periodically these pesky critters arrived in great hordes and rendered grief and destruction.

The critters provided fodder for countless stories. The late Victor Garber, longtime rancher in Big Horn, had several. When Victor and his brother, Orr, were dispatched to the Big Horn cemetery to dig a grave in which to bury their uncle, Paul Garber, it was during a grasshopper infestation and the temperature was high.

As Victor and his brother shoveled dirt, they heated up. After a time, they removed their shirts and threw them up out of the hole. When they got even hotter, they removed their undershirts and threw them up on the ground as well. When they finally crawled out of the hole and retrieved their clothes, they discovered the grasshoppers had eaten their undershirts. Nothing but the seams remained. The shirts, however, were untouched. Victor can only surmise the grasshoppers must have been after the salt in the sweaty undershirts.

As a young lad, Victor fought grasshoppers on the family property in Big Horn with a flock of about 500 to 600 turkeys for two consecutive years. His job was to ride his Shetland pony and herd the turkeys around the family property to gobble up the grasshoppers — a fowl vacuum cleaner if you will.

The voracious grasshoppers were not picky about their diets. They ate almost anything. Once Victor left a shovel stuck in the bank of a ditch and returned to find the wooden handle reduced to a rough knobby stick by the hungry hoppers. Nothing was safe from them.

Victor also had a messy encounter with Mormon crickets. Once, in another part of the county, as he drove his truck down a country road, the road suddenly turned dark and squirmy. It seemed to move. A swarm of Mormon crickets blanketed the road for about 60 feet ahead. Victor revved up the truck and tried to plow through the teeming brown mass, but the crunching of the thousands of little two-inch long, tobacco-colored tubular bodies made the road so slick that headway was impossible.

Beneath the slithering truck, the spinning tires reduced the beetles to brown slush. Victor’s only recourse was to chain up his truck and crunch his way to the other side. He still has a vivid memory of removing the gooey chains from the truck. It was, to say the least, unpleasant.

The numbers of Mormon crickets during infestations were staggering. Alex Kaufman wrote long ago the crickets arrived by the millions in 1936 and 1937. To combat the hordes in the Piney Creek area, tractor fuel was dripped onto the surface of the water in an irrigation ditch, which caused a film on the water. The crickets, who breathed through their breasts, were suffocated by the film. As the dead crickets floated to the end of the ditch, they were scooped out and dumped on piles that reached 10 to 12 feet high.

Dealing with Mormon crickets was a war-like exercise. This was amply illustrated by an article in The Sheridan Press on May 28, 1938: “A crawling brown horde of Mormon crickets moved today toward the Sheridan city limits from the rangelands in the northeast as a crew of insect fighters pressed into service a power poison spreader and manned installation of a fence barrier to repel the threatened invasion.”

Grasshoppers are still with us. They reappear about every seven or eight years, but we have more effective ways of dealing with them than in the 1930s. Mormon crickets are still around too, but not in such massive numbers. Quite a few years ago some were discovered in the Wyarno area and southeast of Clearmont. The Sheridan County Weed and Pest folks eradicated them.

It seems doubtful we will ever be invaded again by the overwhelming numbers of grasshoppers and Mormon crickets that ate their way across Sheridan County in the 1930s. 

But never say never when you’re dealing with bugs and nature. Right?

Tom Ringley is the author of four local history books, an emeritus member of the Sheridan WYO Rodeo Board and a serving county commissioner.

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