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The Plague

Grosshoppers have taken up residence on Jim Schaap's back acre.
James C. Schaap
Grosshoppers have taken up residence on Jim Schaap's back acre.

Margaret F. Kelley came to Fremont, NE, in May of 1870 and settled on a farm on Maple Creek. Four years later, she and the family were visited by grasshoppers. "I had never formed an idea of anything so disastrous," she wrote in her memoir. That's just another way of saying that, to her, the grasshopper plague was beyond unimaginable.

She would never forget the stink of crushed hoppers near the Union Pacific, she says. The engine was smeared with them, the tracks so heavy laden that the railroad called off departure lest the iron horse slip/slide right off the tracks. One lady, Ms. Kelley says, came into her parlor one fine day to find her lace curtains entirely consumed. Onions and potatoes they'd eat right out of the ground.

An estimated 12.5 trillion Rocky Mountain locusts descended on the rural Midwest from July 20 to July 30, 1874, a particularly bad year. They devoured virtually everything in a swath measuring almost 200,000 square miles.

Thomas Berry, who homesteaded just north of Granville, Iowa, claimed "The grasshoppers transformed the prairie into a barren world.... Glossy brown hoppers shone everywhere in the sunlight," he wrote, "often piling up in their greed for any tender vegetation that might be found. He claimed he'd "passed prairie shacks with the doors nailed shut; heard pitiful tales from settlers' families; saw hungry children, lean cattle, and a few cases of despair."

For people of faith, Protestant and Catholic, despair is not a beanbag. Despair meant having given up on God. Jelle Pelmulder, among the first of the Dutch Reformed to homestead in and around Orange City, looked up into the sky and, like Job, begged God almighty for deliverance:

Can you see my tears, Lord?
Will you hear my voice?
I lift my soul to you on high:
Must all of what we have be lost?

O Lord God, bring your mercy
to task here-and-now so that our thanks
may once more soar unto your throne.
Deliver us so we can praise your name.

In May of 1876, yet another swarm of hoppers threatened Jefferson, South Dakota. At St. Peter's Church, Father Pierre Boucher (the parish was largely French-Canadian), announced at mass that a processional was to take place.

That's right--a real, old country processional, and it wasn't just the French-Canadians either. Father Boucher invited the community's Protestants to march along, in solidarity, the whole community praying.

Father Boucher led, carrying a big cross. They started south of town, then walked six miles north. Then, Father Boucher created the form of cross on the land by bringing them all on a path that went east to west. The march against the hoppers lasted all day. Some who marched and prayed had no shoes.

Today, cruise down Main in Jefferson sometime. You can't miss the replica “grasshopper cross” right there in front of St. Peter's, one of three marking the trail of the faithful that day long ago.

Listen, we've got an acre out back of our place just north of Alton, and this year, for the first time, we've got a couple hundred thousand guests we feel no desire to entertain. They didn't ask, they just showed up--how and why remains a mystery.

I create a living clicking wake when I walk out into the grass, a swarm of rackety-clacketing grasshoppers sweeping out in front of me, a flying hoop skirt of little buggers taking flight, fearful of what I might do--as if I could, as if I knew. They eat like pigs, even take a hack at the cantaloupe.

I'm told men and women who farm around Jefferson claim the old processional cutting a cross through the land ended with two-foot piles of dead hoppers. They swear that's a true story.

So if you're on Hwy 60, cruising toward the Twin Cities and you cast a glance west just past the second Alton exit, if you spot a man in a straw-hat hoisting a cross through a storm of grasshoppers, just tell yourself you're not in the Twilight Zone. It's just an old guy trying like mad to clobber the hoppers and hold back despair.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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