The old settlers doubtless all remember the mosquitoes of the early seventies. They have been getting gradually and beautifully less year by year, especially in the older towns, and a generation or two hence it will be difficult for people to comprehend what the first settlers were obliged to endure from these bloodthirsty little villains. There are thousands of them to be found in the country now, but thirty-five years ago we had them by the million. The difference in these figures will fairly represent the ratio of difference, between the mosquitoes in 1870 and in 1905 especially in the villages and some of the older townships.
A great many of the early settlers came from countries where there were but few if any of these insects, and were totally unprepared for their onslaughts, and as most of them were obliged to sleep in their wagons, or in the open air for several weeks, with now and then a tent, their sufferings were intense. Some of them were wise and fortunate enough to bring mosquito netting, and were thus enabled to escape to a large extent, especially at night. But many came without any, and the only way in which they could escape their endless persecutions at night was to build a smudge and sleep in the smoke all night, which was almost as bad as to be tormented by the mosquitoes.
My surveying party in 1870 suffered intensely. We had only one tent and that was used for a kitchen, dining room, storehouse and sleeping room. There was no way in which we could dose it up, and as we had no mosquito netting we were reduced to the expedient of sleeping all night long, night after night, in a cloud of smoke, and as the warm weather continued through, the month of September, our sufferings were long drawn out. My experience in the early part of 1871 was the same, but later in the season we hit upon a scheme that worked to a charm, and since that time I have never been annoyed by mosquitoes at night when sleeping in a tent. We banked up our sleeping tent by shoveling sods and soil around the bottom of the tent, so that none could get in underneath, and after entering the tent, we would sew the front flaps together with a darning needle and coarse twine by taking a few long stitches and then placing a sod at the bottom to hold the front down. We now had our tent in shape so that no mosquitoes could enter. There would of course be a lot of them left inside and to dispose of them we would light a candle and kill every last one of them in a few minutes. They would invariably alight on the walls of the tents, and by holding the candle under them one at a time, we soon cleared the tent; zip, zip, they would fall dead to the ground. It was pretty tough on the little rascals, but they were trying their best to torture us to death, and most anything was honorable in that kind of warfare. They were as bad on the prairie as they were in the timber, but were generally the worst in the brush or where the timber and prairie came together. They were worse in a wet than in a dry season, and were worse in a warm season than in a cold one, and when it was both wet and hot life was a weary burden. On the prairie and in the openings they were worse in the evening and early part of the night than at any other period of time, but in the heavy timber they were not as bad at night as in the day time.
They were just as bad on the dry breezy prairies of Dakota as they were in Minnesota, but the worst places of all on this earth, I think, were in the Red River and Missouri River bottoms the next summer after a spring overflow. I have worked all day long when I would be covered with them so thick that I could not tell the color of my clothes, and in the summer of 1878 the plastered walls in some of the hotels in Bismarck would be black with them for days and nights together.
The farther north you go, the worse the mosquitoes, and if you wish to see them in all their glory at the present time, take a trip up to the Lake of the Woods in the summer. The deer and moose and some of the domestic animals are obliged to spend a good part of the time in the lakes and rivers in the summer to save themselves from mosquitoes and flies.
R. M. Probsfield says:
People these days have no idea what a, plague mosquitoes were then. In 1868 the Red river overflowed, and the trail to Pembina was lined with the skeletons of horses and oxen, which had succumbed to the loss of blood and the torture from their constant bites.
One day that summer Billy Piper came down and stayed with me over night and next morning he found his horse dead from exhaustion and loss of blood from mosquito bites, and I had to lend him another to go on with. But civilization, assisted by the cattle and horses, has worked wonders in ridding our county of these pests.
The big horse-flies that formerly made animal life a burden, have also nearly disappeared from a large portion of Becker County.
Many years ago, before the prairies in the northwestern townships of Becker County were plowed up, they were occasionally visited by widespread and destructive prairie fires.
This was especially the ease with Walworth, Atlanta and Cuba, and the two townships east of Walworth and Atlanta on the White Earth Indian Reservation. The prairie towns lying farther east and south, were partially protected by the numerous lakes and ponds within their borders; but notwithstanding this partial protection they were sometimes overrun by fierce prairie fires that were driven in by the northwesterly winds from the Red River valley.
Such a fire swept down through Hamden and the western part of Richwood about the 25th day of October, 1870, when I was there surveying, and we only saved ourselves from a severe scorching by back-firing, which was done by setting the grass on fire where we stood and rushing in onto the burnt ground behind the fire.
In October, 1871, we had our entire camp outfit burned up in Audubon Township by one of these fires. That was a remarkably dry season, and the fire obtained a foothold in some of the dried out marshes, particularly on Sections 10 and 11 of Audubon, and it smoked and steamed up through the snow in many places until after New Years, when it was a foot and a half deep.
Many an old settler of Becker County could relate to you sorrowing tales of loss and suffering occasioned by these fires. It was only by eternal vigilance in back-firing aud plowing around their homes and stacks of hay and grain, that anything was saved as a general rule.
I have encountered numerous prairie fires in my lifetime, but as a general thing paid but little attention to them. When there was but little wind and the grass not very heavy nor very dry, a prairie fire was a tame affair. We usually walked through them and stood around such fires with but little thought; but when the grass is heavy and thoroughly dry and the wind blowing a gale, a prairie fire is one of the most terrible demons of destruction that can be pictured by the most vivid imagination.
To give you an adequate conception from my own experience of what a red hot, rampant prairie fire will do when at its worst, I will be obliged to go outside of Becker County for fitting illustrations.
On the 10th day of October, 1878, 1 was engaged in surveying and platting railroad lands in Dakota Territory west of the Sheyenne River, and a few miles south from where the village of Cooperstown now stands. On that day a fierce, raging prairie fire swept over the country where we were operating; jumped across the Sheyenne River, a stream nearly as large as the Otter Tail and was never checked in its career of destruction until it reached the Red River. The two men in our camp were more or less scorched, one of them quite severely. Our camp was pitched on the leeward side of a large pond and that was all that saved it from total destruction.
I was at the time about three miles from camp and alone. I had burned the grass off a narrow strip of ground as a place to retreat to in case of necessity, being of the opinion from the smoke that the prairie was on fire. The wind was blowing at the rate of more than thirty miles an hour at the time. I then started out on my work, facing the wind. I had gone two hundred rods, when as if by magic the fiery demon came bounding over the crest of a hill scarce half a mile away. The flames were leaping high in the air, and extended to the right and to the left in one solid wall of fire as far as the eye could reach. I tried to back-fire, but the wind was blowing so hard I could not light the grass. Then commenced a race for dear life. I ran like a deer with the wind at my back helping me along, but the fire was gaining at every second. When about half way to my burnt patch, I was nearly exhausted, but one glance over my shoulder at the raging flames was sufficient and on I went. The fire was at my heels when I entered my burnt strip. It was not more than a rod wide, but it broke the force of the flames and saved me from serious and probably from fatal injury, but my coat and hat and boots, the legs of which were outside the legs of my pants, were nearly ruined. Some idea of the speed of this fire can be had from the fact that from the front to the rear of the fire was fifteen rods.
The flames were forty or fifty feet in length from the ground upward, and every few seconds they would assume a position almost perpendicular, then the force of the wind would shoot them ahead and with a single leap, and in an instant of time, the crest of these waves of fire would strike the ground several rods in advance. There was little or no smoke, only a seething, roaring, plunging sea of fire. After the fire had passed, a jack-rabbit was hobbling around at random over the prairie, having been caught and badly burned and blinded by the fire.
The next year while I was running the township lines in Lamoure County, a similar fire passed through the country at night, but we saved our camp and ourselves by spading around our camp. A day or two afterwards we ran down and caught several antelope that had been caught in the fire and so badly crippled that they were easily overtaken by us.
Alexander Henry in his journal referring to a disastrous fire in the Red River valley says:
November 24th, 1804: The prairies are on fire in every direction.
November 25th, 1804: The plains are all burned over and blind buffalo are seen wandering in every direction. The poor beasts have all the hair singed off; even the skin in many places is shriveled up and terribly burned aud their eyes swollen aud closed fast.
It is really pitiful to see them staggering about, sometimes running afoul of a large stone, at other times tumbling down hill and falling into the creeks not yet frozen over. In one spot we found a whole herd lying dead. The fire having passed only yesterday they are still fresh and some of them exceedingly fat. At sunset we arrived at the Indian camp, having seen an incredible number of dead and dying, blind, lame, singed and roasted buffalo.
Soon after the Fourth of July, 1871, grasshoppers in large numbers began to appear in the western part of Becker County. This was the first year that any crops had been sown of any importance, but the season was very dry, consequently the small acreage of crops was light and the grasshoppers destroyed a large percentage of the grain that escaped the drought. The grasshoppers that year were confined to the towns of Richwood, Audubon, Lake Park, Cormorant, and the western part of Detroit. They did not stay long, but deposited a good many eggs. in the spring of 1872, they hatched out in large numbers, wherever any plowing had been done, more particularly on new breaking and along the sides of the roads. The damage to grain hat year was more than one half, but was confined to the prairie region west of the belt of timber extending down through Richwood, Detroit and Lake Eunice. This belt of timber served as a wall of defense, over and beyond which they evidently did not care to go.
The larger prairies, east of this belt of timber, such as the Detroit prairie and the Frazee prairie had escaped and the small clearings suffered but little damage, but the losses in Richwood, Hamden, Cuba, Audubon, Lake Park and Cormorant were sorely felt. The damage that year was caused mostly by the young hoppers, as I believe they nearly all left as soon as they were able to fly. In 1873, the acreage of land sown to grain was considerably increased. Swarms of hoppers came in from the west in June and July. They did considerable damage and deposited eggs in large quantities in the western part of the county, but the small prairies and clearings in the timbered region of the county escaped.
The year 1874 was among the worst of the several years of plague. Nearly everything in the shape of grain and vegetables along the western border of the timber belt was destroyed. Out on the prairies in Richwood, Hamden, Cuba, Lake Park, Audubon and Cormorant the damage amounted to two-thirds of the entire crop. On the small prairies and clearings in Lake Eunice, Detroit, flake View and Burlington the damage amounted to 24 per cent. The small grain was cut off as if mowed down with a scythe. The silk on the ears of the corn was gnawed to the cob, so the corn could not mature. The "hoppers" chewed away at growing tobacco until they became dizzy from the effects of the narcotic, and would lay in small heaps around the roots of the growing plants in a state of stupefaction. They would eat off the tops of onions and with tears in their eyes devour the very onions themselves. About the only plant they shunned was the tomato, but they did not hesitate to attack the ripe fruit. The damage to crops now began to be severely felt by the settlers, particularly in the western part of the county. In the western towns there was not grain enough raised for home consumption. A part of the potato crop escaped and most of the settlers owned small herds of cattle and the hay crop as a general thing was not badly damaged. In the winter of 1874-5, many families lived largely on potatoes and milk. The ponds and marshes throughout the county were at that time abundantly stocked with muskrats, and they proved the salvation of the western towns. Rat skins that winter brought better prices than they ever have before or since, and a large part of the population of Richwood, Hamden, Cuba, Lake Park, Audubon, Lake Eunice and Cormorant turned trappers. As high as thirty cents a skin was paid that winter. It was estimated that $1,000 was paid out for rat skins at Detroit, Lake Park and Audubon during that winter and spring. I knew Norwegians who earned between $200 and $300 a piece during the season. The market price for rat skins was quoted in the county papers weekly, the same as the price of wheat.
Large quantities of grasshoppers' eggs were deposited in the fields and along the highways wherever the ground was bare. Everybody was apprehensive of a more extensive visitation of the pests the coming year than ever before. Public meetings were held to devise measures of safety, and an agreement was entered into by the people in the western towns that all prairie fires should be strictly prohibited until some day to be agreed upon later on, which I think was on the 5th of June, and then the whole prairie should be fired simultaneously. The whole population was to turn out to assist in spreading the fire and protecting their houses and stock from the flames. It was thought by that date the young ''hoppers” would be well distributed about among the old grass and it was believed that they would be almost absolutely destroyed. The program was carried out, but the spring of 1875 was cold and backward, and the day set for the burning was rather unfavorable, but a great many hoppers were destroyed. The season too was not very favorable for hoppers, who delight in dry, hot weather, and large numbers of them died or flew away, so that a fair portion of the crop was saved that year in this section of country, but in some of the states farther south the losses were tremendous. At the suggestion of Governor Pillsbury, a conference of governors of six or seven different states was called to meet at Omaha, Nebraska, on the 25th of October of that year, to devise measures by which their numbers might be diminished.
In 1876 they were numerous, in spots. We had a long, dry spell of hot weather in July, with a southwest wind, which brought clouds of them in as it was supposed from Kansas and Texas, but they visited the county more in streaks than was usual. Some fields of grain were totally destroyed. The d'Engelbroner farm in Cuba was particularly unfortunate. That company had wheat sown that year on Sections 5 and 19 in Cuba, 33 in Atlanta, and 13 and 23 just over the line in Clay County. The grasshoppers were their final undoing. They had suffered severe losses during the three previous years, and this year the loss was complete.
On the 5th day of July, 1876, 1 was camped with a surveying party near the Northern Pacific Railroad, between Buffalo and Tower City in Dakota Territory. We set up our tent just before noon and spread our blankets out on the grass to air, and were eating our dinner in the tent, when one of the men remarked that it was snowing. We all rushed outside and there the hoppers were coming down in millions. They had nearly ruined our blankets and it began to grow dark, the sun being completely hid. At this time we heard a train of cars coming from the west. They were coming up a heavy grade and their speed began to grow less and less, until they reached a point opposite our camp when they came to a dead stop. They had been stalled by the grasshoppers. Passengers on the train told us of the Custer massacre, which was news to us.
The people throughout the country had become alarmed and discouraged. Many of them kept a close watch of the winds arid the sky, the same as they have done in later years during a season of protracted drought. A practiced eye could tell when hoppers were flying high, by looking directly at the sun or close to it. Everybody was suspicious of a westerly wind, as it was liable to bring fresh hordes of the pests. An easterly wind was always hailed with delight. Their movements were always from the west to the east and they never came back.
This species of grasshopper had three pairs of legs and two pairs of wings. Being double winged they were able to ascend to a very high altitude, and remain in the air for a long period at a time. They, however, generally depended on the wind to propel them along. Aside from the havoc they created with growing crops, they were exceedingly destructive to farming implements and clothing. They would in a few short hours badly damage the handles of scythes and hand rakes and pitchforks. A coat or vest left on the fence in the morning would be ruined before noon. In traveling over the prairies or along the highways facing the wind, you were in constant danger of being hit in the face and eyes. They appeared to have a peculiar knack of landing on your naked eye with their six sharp, rough feet, all in a bunch, and giving you a stinging blow that would shock your whole system. Many and many a time when running lines over the prairies against a strong wind with my eyes fixed on some small distant object, and hardly daring to wink for fear of losing sight of it, some big hopper would come sailing through the air with the combined speed of the wind and two pairs of wings and hit me in the naked eye with a degree of accuracy and force that was both stunning and exasperating. They generally deposited their eggs in bare spots of ground or in plowed fields, but more especially in new breaking and on the borders of the highways, always preferring a hard surface. The eggs were deposited about an inch in depth and I have found more than a dozen nests in a foot square of ground with from 30 to 40 eggs in a nest. Plowing the ground after they were deposited usually destroyed the eggs.
In the meantime the scourge had spread over nearly the whole breadth of the land, reaching from Lake Winnipeg on the north to the Gulf of Mexico on the south, including Manitoba, Dakota, Nebraska, Texas and the western half of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas. Immense quantities of eggs were deposited during the summer of 1876 throughout this entire territory. The spring of 1877 opened with many gloomy forebodings. The hoppers were hatching in swarms along the whole line. The grasshopper scourge had given Becker County, as well as the entire frontier, a backset and caused great suffering among the settlers. The pests had destroyed a large share of their crops from 1871 up to 1877. The pioneers had fought against them by means of traps of every conceivable pattern, but all in vain. The state had furnished tar and sheet iron for catching grasshoppers, and these were dealt out by the county commissioners in liberal quantities and charged to the several towns. The state also loaned money to the settlers with which to buy seed grain. In many places this year they destroyed the young grass as fast as it grew. In July, 1 found farmers who lived in Stearns County cutting hay in the old cut-over pineries away east of the Mississippi River in Morrison County, all the grass in their meadows at home having been destroyed. Young wheat and oats and corn was destroyed as fast as it grew. Some localities in Becker County escaped with slight damage. The loss in some of the states farther south was enormous. While communities were almost panic stricken. Prayers for deliverance from the scourge were offered on every Sabbath day in the churches. Days of fasting and prayer were appointed by the governors of some of the states.
Our own Governor Pillsbury appointed one early in July, which was very generally observed by the religiously inclined people throughout the grasshopper stricken portion of the state. Before the middle of the month the pests were more numerous and were spread over a greater extent of country than ever before. For a day or two they appeared to come in clouds from the sky. They came pouring in from the direction of the great plains and the Rocky Mountain regions. They had never been seen in such multitudes, but there was a certain peculiarity about their motions that was new and strange. Their actions were similar to those of a family of tame bees when beginning to swarm. There was a hurried movement to the east of almost endless numbers. As a general thing they would alight on the prairies and fields at night, and in the morning they would be on wing, much earlier than was their usual custom, doing but little damage. The movement was observed and reported all along the frontier.
Finally on one of he last days of July, 1877, just before the beginning of harvest, the rear of this vast army of winged destroyers passed to the east, and disappeared from view, and as far as Becker County and that generation was concerned, never to return. From that day there have been no grasshoppers of that distinctive species to be found in the county worth mentioning. People could hardly believe their senses. They had disappeared from the whole breadth of the land in a single day. Where they went to no one could tell. Soon after that time a shower of them came down in Lake Champlain and the northern part of Vermont. A part of the coast of North Carolina was said to have been strewn with dead grasshoppers several feet in thickness for miles and miles. Aside from these two instances nothing was ever heard from them as far as I was able to ascertain.
With the exception of a few local instances, like that at Perham, in 1886, there have been no grasshoppers of any importance in the country since their departure in 1877.