Harmon’s Histories: Even howitzers could not repel Montana’s epic grasshopper invasions

It’s a name given to an alcoholic drink, a British two-seater biplane, a town in Arizona and even a glacier in the Beartooth Mountains.

Why in the world we would do so, is a bit of a mystery since “grasshopper” has such a loathsome reputation throughout history.

It is a damnable critter, marked by sad headlines through the early days of Montana Territory.

“Yesterday and the day before a perfect cloud of grasshoppers passed over our city,” wrote the Missoula Gazette in the summer of 1873. “Skirmishing parties from the main army dropped down into the flower gardens and green spots in town, and in some cases utterly destroyed everything in the shape of vegetation.

“It was almost amusing to observe the ladies in their gardens, armed with towels, broomsticks, mop handles, and everything available to drive the invaders from their gardens.”

Two years later, it was even worse. East of the Missouri, in Bird Creek, “Mr. Austin’s grain crop was destroyed (and) Mr. Shemmick (lost) his entire crop of oats and potatoes,” according to the Benton Record.

A letter from Virginia City, published in the New Northwest newspaper in Deer Lodge in the summer of 1875, described the pests “harvesting the crops very thoroughly in this county.”

The Bozeman Avant Currier wrote they “were coming from the southeast, and are invading the country in force.”

The Helena Weekly Herald reported, “The great army of grasshoppers is now visiting this section, the advance guard having arrived about 10 o’clock yesterday morning, and the rear came up today.”

Their reporter said he “rode down into Crow Creek valley … and the air was so densely filled with them that it was with difficulty that I could drive. (T)he farmers say if the grasshoppers remain three or four days longer the grain crop will be entirely destroyed.”

With devastation of biblical proportions through much of the late 1800s, it’s not entirely unexpected that newspapers across the region would employ a pinch of exaggeration and humor in their reporting.

The Anaconda Standard carried an item from Bellevue, Idaho on its front page in August, 1890. “With the unusually heavy rain came also a rain of toads. No estimate of the bushels of toads to the acre can be relied upon (but) in 24 hours (the toads) have swept the plaguey hoppers from the face of the earth.”

The Helena Herald told the tale of a local rancher by the name of Sam Schwab, who acquired a mountain howitzer to drive off the pests. With a few shots, he scattered “millions of grasshoppers,” and headed home, satisfied.

But the flying herbivores weren’t giving up. They dived down, took over the gun and, as Schwab made a hasty retreat toward town, “were seen striking two pieces of flint together to get a fire.”

The publisher of the Bozeman Avant Courier, at the height of one summer infestation, reported a swarm of hoppers had invaded his newspaper office, landed on “the page devoted to agriculture, and commenced to devour the same, with but one exception.

“This was a big fat hopper, who was sitting on his haunches and reading ‘Yes, Farming Pays.’ While doing so, he scratched his left ear in an abstracted manner, and his looks plainly said, he wasn’t quite so sure about it.”

In November, 1877 the Weekly Herald of Helena devoted a section of its front page to poem summing up the particularly bad season just ended. It was titled “The Ten Little Grasshoppers.”

Over the decades and centuries, every possible means has been tried to rid the planet of grasshoppers and locusts.

Barriers, baits and sprays have been used as well as chickens and sage hens. Farmers have tilled up hopper eggs, exposing them to the sun. They’ve tried to drown them and burn them. In the 1920s county extension agents promoted “residue molasses” as a means of killing off the insects.

These days, we’ve turned to chemicals like carbaryl, permethrin and malathion.

Personally, I’m a Sam Schwab fan. If he hadn’t retreated to Helena – I think his howitzer might have won the day.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.