With plenty of rain in spring and early summer, the growing season of 1874 started out well. But for many it ended in disaster.
As the summer bore on, drought settled in.
Unfortunately for farmers, this drought set up ideal conditions for the Rocky Mountain locust. The dry soil was devoid of fungus, a natural enemy of the locust, making it ideal for incubating the locusts' eggs. Furthermore, with their natural habitat being drier than usual they had to move east to find food. Without warning in July and August, a hoard of Rocky Mountain locusts blew in on the northwest wind from the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.
At first they flew at great altitude resembling a snowstorm. As they descended upon the land with a whir, their great numbers blocked out the sunlight. They spread across the Great Plains from Canada in the north to Mexico in the south.
These locusts were a type of small grasshopper about one-and-one-quarter to one-and-one-half inches long.
Though small, they numbered in the billions and had a voracious appetite; in a span of a few hours they ate crops down to the ground.
When they exhausted the supply of crops, they turned to other materials. Producing a crackling or rasping noise, they devoured tree barks and leaves, paper, wooden tool handles and even wool off the backs of live sheep.
In places they covered the ground several inches deep. They stopped trains in their tracks due to the oil in their crushed bodies making the rails too slippery for the engines and cars to get traction. Raking them up and burning them was unsuccessful because their numbers were too high.
Their visit to a farm lasted two days to a week. These visits were short but devastating. They made the land desolate and appearing it had been destroyed by fire. Freshly planted young crops were especially vulnerable to the locusts.
Newly arrived emigrants in western Kansas were hit the hardest.
Just establishing their farms, they needed grain for the next season's planting and to purchase supplies to get them and their animals through the winter.
The State Kansas provided $73,000 in bonds, which was only a drop in a bucket.
Fortunately, the rest of the U.S. stepped in by sending cash, grain and supplies, which were hauled for free by the railroads.
The locust plague did not end in 1874. It re-emerged the following April as an even worse plague in counties and states further east. This swarm covered a swath 1,800 miles long and at least, 110 miles wide. Bounties of up to a dollar a bushel still couldn't rid the countryside of grasshoppers.
This infestation ended as suddenly as it started with the swarm leaving on the wind back to the northwest. The next two years saw infestations, but they were much less severe than those of 1874 and 1875.
But the damage was done. Many people and their livestock left the central U.S. for more favorable climes.
The locusts still caused problems from time to time, but Rocky Mountain locust mysteriously disappeared. The last sighting of one was in 1902.
Some speculate the plowing of the prairie or a series of wet years disrupted their egg-laying. Farmers reported many were killed by parasites which bored holes and laid eggs in the grasshoppers wings.
In later years, comical postcards were produced depicting oversized grasshoppers.