Family Farm: Plague of Grasshoppers in the 1930s

A Nebraska woman recalls the swarms of grasshoppers that came up out of the south in the 1930s

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Summer months in the 1930s meant hot, dry temperatures. My parents and I lived on a 100-acre family farm in eastern Nebraska.

Clouds of huge, two- and three-inch yellow-striped grass-hoppers were arriving daily as they flew in from the southern states, where they had already consumed available crops. They were settling in on local pastures and fields to feast.

Feed stores quickly stocked up on ingredients for a poison that had to be mixed fresh each morning to be used by farmers. It would stick onto the dewy crops, pasture grass or edges of hay fields when used this way.

At 7 years of age, I was dressed to help, wearing overalls, a long-sleeved shirt and a large-brimmed straw hat securely tied under my chin.

Dad's team of horses, Tom and Jerry, was hitched to our farm wagon and away we drove out to the fields, with the poisoned mixture that smelled like bran and banana oil. On our arrival down a dusty lane, Dad used a shovel to toss the mixture onto the edges of our pasture, the end cornrows and hayfields. This procedure was repeated several times a week.

As the horses slowly pulled the wagon in the designated areas, swarms of grasshoppers would cling onto clothing and spit a liquid like tobacco juice, making me scream.

Car windows had to be kept closed even in the 90- to 100¬degree heat as hoppers attempted to fly into the car as you drove the dusty country roads.

After coming into the house from the awful trip and taking a quick bath, Mama would announce that it was nice weather to make root beer.

Together we collected long-necked glass bottles for that purpose. While the bottles were washed and sterilized, then set to cool, my job began. Standing on a low stool next to the cabinet, I used the long mixing spoon to stir the mixture of water, Hires root beer extract from a square bottle and sugar in our largest canning kettle. A yeast mixture was then added and after thoroughly stirred, it was funneled into the bottles. Each bottle was filled a half-inch from the top with root beer mixture. Dad, using bottle caps from a box marked 12 dozen, carefully placed a cap on each. The capper attached and sealed the caps tightly on several dozen bottles. They were then carried to our summer kitchen and placed on their sides in a shady area. For three days they were rolled and turned to different positions to mix the ingredients. After that they were carried down the 23 steps to our deep cave to chill.

About a week later we sampled the cold fizzing root beer, and any visitors got cold mugs of this delicious drink. Some batches were not drunk up quickly, and the root beer would get powerful. Mom would have me come outdoors, and in order not to waste any, she would have me hold a large clean aluminum bucket at chest level at an angle. When she removed the cap, she could aim that forceful stream of root beer into the bucket. I was often dowsed with the sticky stuff, and I got many a mouthful of root beer that way!

Rita M. Grashorn
Fremont, Nebraska

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.