"A nightmare unimaginable, rarely mentioned in history books, that caused such damage that huge areas in several states were to be abandoned, often with the aid of troops. A sudden unexplained migration of frontier population to the coastline. The year was 1875 and it soon was to be called the “Year of the Grasshopper“.
November 08, 1911
Just 2 miles East of Warrensburg, MO the Grasshoppers were so thick on the tracks that shovels and crews wereemployed to help clear the tracks, otherwise the rails were too slick for the trains.
Los Angeles Herald, Volume 4, Number 57, 1 June 1875
Who Recalls Locust Feast?
From "The Bulletin" Johnson County Historical Society, Inc., Sep, 1979 (Vol. XV, No. 2)
If you think this year's onslaught of grasshoppers has been bad, think back to what it was like in 1875 when young boys were gathering buckets of locusts for a very unusual –but true—banquet.
The subject of Warrensburg's "grasshopper feast" came up again earlier this year with a reprint of a 1909 reminiscence by "The Country Cousin" in the Warrensburg Star Journal, January 31.
The unnamed writer was a member of the city council, and he told of a dinner at the normal school that had him feel as though the 'hoppers were yet stalking through his stomach.
The fall of 1875 [sic] brought swarms of Rocky Mountain or "Indian" grasshoppers (so named because of their copper color and bright red legs) to Western Missouri. The locusts laid eggs in the sandy, loose soil, and the following year, then hatched out in plague proportions
"Country Cousin" reported that they moved forward "like an avalanche," up from the bottoms [sic] around Post Oak. There were so many of the 'hoppers that trains were being stalled because of wheels slipping on the rails. A Warrensburg banker, A.W. Ridings, offered a reward and paid fifty cents for every bushel of grasshoppers brought to his bank at Holden and East Pine Streets. So many were brought in, however, he was forced to retract the offer.
The feast? That was the idea of Charles V. Riley, the first state entomologist in Missouri and later an entomologist with the U.S. Department of agriculture. Riley claimed that the grasshoppers could be safely eaten. Accounts differ, but "Country Cousin" said that all of the teachers in the normal school attended the banquet, with the cooking being supervised by a German clerk named Weidermeyer, who was also an excellent chef.
"First came grasshopper soup, then grasshopper pancakes served with butter and syrup; the scrambled eggs well mixed with grasshoppers; then followed pudding, spiked with the festive hopper, and finally came a pie around the edge of which the red legged grasshoppers were set around in a circle looking outward, very artistically arranged," he recalled.
Riley's account of the banquet was included in a report to the governor. In addition, details were in a paper he read before the American Association of the Advancement of Science.
Louses & Locusts In just nine years as Missouri's state entomologist, Charles Valentine Riley taught the world to value bugs by Anne McEowen
Lockwood’s “Locust” describes the import of Riley’s solution: “Within months of releasing these voracious predators, Riley knew he had achieved what has been called ‘the greatest entomological success of all time.’ This was the world’s first case of classical biological control (the suppression of an exotic pest by introducing a natural enemy from its homeland), and the method has become one of the most effective and widely used pest management strategies in modern agriculture.”
Riley’s office was the destination for much mail and packages, many of which contained bugs. Missourians and others sought Riley’s expertise to identify bugs and determine if they were harmful. Perhaps in response to the condition of the bugs he received, and truly a reflection of Riley’s practical sense of humor, his letterhead included a paragraph titled: “Directions for Sending Insects,” which included the statement “Botanists like their specimens pressed as flat as a pancake, but entomologists do not.”The French botanist Jules-Emile Planchon visited Riley in 1871 and discovered the Missouri scientist maintained a collection of living insects to observe. His description of Riley’s office is contained in Campbell’s book. “The state entomologist’s office, housed in an immense building in St. Louis, was equipped with all the latest apparatus . . . The laboratory was lined with glass cages confining a miniature menagerie which allowed [Riley] to observe hour by hour the phases of evolution of the entire insect world.”
In 1866, two years before coming to Missouri, Riley published a notice in The Prairie Farmer of a “grape-leaf gall louse.” He noted a similarity to this louse and the insects reportedly plaguing French vineyards. Although the small insect did not kill Missouri vines, it was deadly to the French vines and threatened the existence of the famous French wines and the entire economy of rural France.
During the next several years, Riley worked with his French counterpart Planchon, exchanging specimens and data on the grape-leaf gall louse, an aphid also known as “phylloxera.” Riley warned of the possible spread of the insect by transplanting infected root stocks from one vineyard to another.
The French government recognized the need to stop the bug from destroying all the vines in France and offered a 30,000-franc prize for a practical remedy. In doing so, the government unwittingly encouraged overnight “experts” with highly touted, but ineffective, liquid and gaseous remedies. Desperate in their fight against the bug, French vintners spent all on these useless concoctions. Campbell notes the directness of Riley’s response to the effectiveness of the potions available, “Charles Riley got straight to the point: ‘All insecticides are useless.’”
In 1872, Riley published a list of American vines resistant to phylloxera. Isidor Bush, owner of introduction by Planchon, and Missouri roots were shipped to France by the boxcar load.
That same year, Gov. Silas Woodson proposed the abolition of Missouri’s Office of Entomology. While the salvation of Riley’s job may be attributed to an outcry from the State Horticultural Society, or the many letters written to the governor or the columns that appeared in newspapers, it may be more to the credit of the invasion of the Rocky Mountain locust into the western counties of Missouri.For his role in addressing the phylloxera infestation, the French government awarded Riley a medal in 1874. Ironically, the resulting flood of Missouri vines into the French vineyards, while a boon to the state’s agricultural economy, initiated a new disaster for French vintners as the Missouri vine roots carried more phylloxera. By 1875, the louse had invaded nearly all of France’s wine region. Vintners there had begun widespread grafting of their vines onto Missouri root stock, whereby it has been said that Missouri’s vines saved the wine of the world.
Although an individual locust was little more than an inch in length, swarms of locusts caused devastation of biblical proportion. The adult locusts traveled from the northwest, eating everything green in their path and laying their eggs by the millions in fields. The hatchlings would eat through any new growth before molting and swarming eastward causing further destruction.
Following the ravages of the Civil War, the federal government made land grants to farmers and homesteaders in Missouri and other states. Just nine years after the war, these neophyte farmers found themselves battling an enemy more powerful and invasive than any that had marched during the war.
Farmers who braved the attacking locust swarms in defense of their fields wound up not only losing their crops but also having their shirts literally eaten off their backs. Hundreds were completely impoverished, and they and their livestock faced starvation. The land in the affected counties was left so barren that it was reported that except for the warmth of the weather, one might have assumed they were observing Missouri in winter.
Riley set to work studying the locust. He collected specimens of locusts from five states, the Indian Territory and Canada, concluding that the swarm was the same migratory species. His seventh annual report to the state legislature, published early in 1875, mapped the extent of the locust swarms from southern Canada to Texas, from the Colorado Rockies to Missouri.
“The calamity was national in its character, and the suffering in the ravaged districts would have been great, and death and famine the consequence, had it not been for the sympathy of the whole country and the energetic measures taken to relieve the afflicted people,” he wrote, describing “a sympathy begetting a generosity which proved equal to the occasion, as it did in the case of the great Chicago fire, and which will ever redound to the glory of our free Republic and of our Union.”Praising the outpouring of support that allowed beleaguered farmers to survive the locust infestation, Riley wrote with characteristic Victorian flourish.
Riley’s report contains in almost reverent detail, by description and drawing, each phase of the locust’s life and reproductive stages. He also provided useful information such as the fact that the locusts would not lay their eggs in newly plowed land, nor in wet ground. Riley advised farmers to dig wide trenches around their fields as the locusts did not like to cross streams they could not jump.
Riley’s report included a review of biblical and historical locust plagues of Egypt, Africa, Asia and southern Europe as well as prior locust swarms reported in North America. He observed that on this continent, the swarms were typically contained in the West and only spread east with greater numbers and resulting damage during dry or drought seasons, as they experienced in 1874. Riley predicted in a report delivered to the governor and the Department of Agriculture that the locusts would leave Missouri and take flight back westward in early June.
In May 1875, perhaps in response to the public’s cry for government assistance or perhaps in a keen political move, Gov. Charles Hardin turned to a higher power for relief.
“Whereas, owing to the failure and losses of our crops much suffering has been endured by many . . . and if not abated will eventuate in sore distress and famine; Wherefore be it known that the 3rd day of June proximo is hereby appointed and set apart as a day of fasting and prayer that Almighty God may be invoked to remove from our midst those impending calamities . . . ” the governor proclaimed.
Riley’s prompt response to the governor’s declaration, published in the St. Louis Globe on May 19, voiced his frustration at the government’s lack of action. “Without discussing the question as to the efficacy of prayer in affecting the physical world, no one will for a moment doubt that the supplications of the people will more surely be granted if accompanied by well-directed, energetic work,” he wrote. Riley proposed a statewide monetary collection to aid people in the affected area, and further that a premium be paid for each bushel of young locusts destroyed.
Recognizing that horses and chickens ate the dead locusts and came to no harm, and having read that American Indians collected the locusts to roast and eat them, Riley proposed “entomophagy” — or, simply put, eating the bugs — as a way to reduce the number of locusts while simultaneously feeding the starving populace.
“At the Eads House in Warrensburg, Riley made his point by serving a memorable four-course meal,” recalls “Forgotten Missourians Who Made History,” a 1996 anthology of short biographies by Pebble Publishing. “The menu, which consisted of locust soup, baked locusts, locust cakes, locusts with honey and just plain locusts, apparently pleased his guests.”
Whether in response to divine intervention or just natural forces, shortly after June 3, 1875, in fulfillment of Riley’s prophecy, the locust swarms left Missouri, never to return.
In late 1876, Riley was appointed head of the newly formed U.S. Entomological Commission, which was charged with reporting ways to prevent and guard against recurring locust invasions. In 1878, the swarms of Rocky Mountain locust — a species now extinct — receded and Riley accepted the position as head entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Riley resigned from his work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1894 and became the insect curator of the U.S. National Museum. He died in September 1895 from head injuries sustained during a bicycle ride.
Collections from Charles Valentine Riley’s life, including his drawings and prolific writings, can be found in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Special Collections, in the Smithsonian Institution and at the University of Missouri-Columbia where Riley lectured for several years. His nine annual reports to the Missouri legislature are available for review in the reference library of the State Historical Society in Columbia.
McEowen is a freelance writer from Jefferson City and the wife of Rural Missouri Managing Editor Bob McEowen.