In Maine, a dry summer meant an increase in locusts. In 1822, the conditions set the stage perfectly for the Maine grasshopper plague. The spring was drier than usual. Forest fires had swept across large swaths of the state driving away predators and leaving young green shoots exposed for locusts emerging in the spring and the weather conditions and crops from the prior year had been hospitable for the locusts.
The red-legged locusts were well known to farmers, but no one had seen anything like what was about to happen.
In 1749, 1754 and 1756 Maine had been overrun with locusts. They devoured anything green, including the tops of potato plants. The people were so alarmed, they held days of fasting and prayer to thwart the invasion. But the smaller population had meant less hardship.
In 1826, New Hampshire was inundated with millions of locusts. But an early flood and frost stopped the population from exploding the following spring. Farmer Arnold Thompson reported that during one four-hour window he was able to corral five bushels and three pecks of locusts simply using a sack tied to a pole.
In 1798, Timothy Dwight found the town of Bennington, Vt. fighting off the locusts and he recorded the events:
“Bennington, Vermont, and its neighborhood, have for some time past been infested by grasshoppers of a kind with which I had before been unacquainted. At least, their history, as given by respectable persons, is in a great measure novel. They appear at different periods, in different years; but the time of their continuance seems to be the same. This year (1798) they came four weeks earlier than in 1797, 231d disappeared four weeks sooner. As I had no opportunity of examining them, I cannot describe their form or their size. Their favorite food is clover and maize. Of the latter they devour the part which is called the silk, the immediate means of fecundating the ear, and thus prevent the kernel from coming to perfection. But their voracity extends to almost every vegetable, even to the tobacco plant and the burdock. Nor are they confined to vegetables alone. The garments of laborers, hung up in the field while they are at work, these insects destroy in a. few hours; and with the same voracity they devour the loose particles which the saw leaves upon the surface of pine boards, and which, when separated, are termed saw-dust. The appearance ‘of a board fence, from which the particles had been eaten in this manner, and which I saw, was novel and singular; and seemed the result, not of the operations of the plane, but of attrition. At times, particularly a little before their disappearance, they collect in clouds, rise high in the atmosphere, and take extensive flights, of which neither the cause nor the direction has hitherto been discovered. I was authentically informed that some ‘ persons employed in raising the steeple of the church in Williamstown, were, while standing near the vane, covared by them, and saw, at the same time, vast swarms of them flying far above their heads. It is to be observed, however, that they customarily return and perish on the very ground which they have ravaged.”
In 1822, Dr. Nathaniel Tuckerman True of Bethel, Me. would have been a boy of 10. The Maine grasshopper plague made a great impression on him.
“In June there appeared an immense number of red-legged locusts on the farm where I then resided in the town of Powanal, Cumberland County, Maine. The land was a light sandy soil, in places merging into a sandy loam, which, but a few years before, had supported a dense growth of spruce and hemlock; this had been burned over, leaving the ground covered with a heavy scurf of vegetable matter. It was apparently in this scurf that the locusts had laid their eggs the previous year.
“During the haying season the weather was dry and hot, and these hungry locusts stripped the leaves from the clover and grass, leaving nothing but the naked stems. In consequence, the hay crop was seriously diminished in value. So ravenous had they become that they would attack clover, eating it into shreds. Rake and pitchfork handles, made of white ash, and worn to a glossy smoothness by use, would be found nibbled over by them if left within their reach.
“As soon as the hay was cut and they had eaten every living thing from the ground, they removed to the adjacent crops of grain, completely stripping the leaves; climbing the naked stalks, they would eat off the stems of wheat and rye just below the head, and leave them to drop to the ground. Their next attack was upon the Indian corn and potatoes. They stripped the leaves and ate out the silk from the corn, so that it was rare to harvest a full ear.
“While these insects were more than usually abundant in the town generally, it was in the field I have described that they appeared in the greatest intensity. After they had stripped everything from the field they began to emigrate in countless numbers. They crossed the highway and attacked the vegetable garden. I remember the curious appearance of a large flourishing bed of red onions, whose tops they first literally ate up, and, not content with that, devoured the interior of the bulbs, leaving the dry external covering in place. The leaves were stripped from the apple-trees. They entered the house in swarms, reminding one of the locusts of Egypt, and as we walked they would rise in countless numbers and fly away in clouds.
“During the latter part of August and the first of September, when the air was still dry, and for several days in succession a high wind prevailed from the northwest, the locusts frequently rose in the air to an immense height. By looking up at the sky in the middle of a clear day, as nearly as possible in the direction of the sun, one may descry a locust at a great height. These insects could thus be seen in swarms, appearing like so many thistle-blows as they expanded their wings and were borne along toward the sea before the wind; myriads of them were drowned in Casco Bay, and I remember hearing that they frequently dropped on the decks of coasting vessels. Cart-loads of dead bodies remained in the fields, forming in spots a tolerable coating of manure.
“I do not remember ever to have witnessed the flight of these grasshoppers to any extent, except during the year mentioned, and the preceding one. Nor do I ever recollect a time when the wind blew so steadily for days in succession, from the northwest, generally rising soon after mid-day, and going down with the sun. Although they would rise in clouds as one approached them, it was only an occasional one that would rise higher, and fly off before the wind, and then only when the wind was blowing freshly. They did not fly with their heads directly before the wind, but seemed to rise in the air, set their wings in motion, and suffer themselves to be borne along by the current.”
The results of the plague were devastating. Livestock was reluctant to eat what little hay was available because it was so tainted with dead locusts. Food was scarce. Apples were largely spared, and peas. But it meant a hungry and worry-filled winter for many families. The astounding memoy of locusts so voracious they would eat clothing and tool handles stayed with the farmers for years.
The calamity gave rise to the practice of raising poultry specifically for the purpose of setting them loose on the locusts emerging in the spring. The locust plague also added to the reputation of one thrifty and prosperous farmer in Penobscot County whose motto was to always be prepared for the worst.
Francis Hill had come to Bucksport, Me. from Worcester, Mass. with his family as a child. He had a tenacious, pioneering spirit. When neighbors packed up and returned south in the face of hard winters, Hill would buy their farms from them. Hill was selectman, deputy sheriff and bank director. But at his core he was a farmer. He and his wife between them managed a herd of dairy cows. In 1880, at age 90, he shucked 300 bushels of corn. And he was ready for any storm that came his way.
Upon his death, his barn contained several cords of wood that he had cut and stored 25 years earlier, ready in case he experienced an illness that would prevent him from preparing enough firewood for a winter. His barn also contained a band of hay cut decades earlier, should he have a poor season. When he died, his neighbors recalled that hay served him and his neighbors well during the “grasshopper year.”
Thanks to: Travels in New England and New York, by Timothy Dwight; History of Penobscot County, Maine, by Williams, Chase and Co. and Agriculture of Maine: Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture.