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The grasshopper wars of Huerfano County

by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — Speaking of grasshoppers . . .
Carol Dunn’s column, “Despite This We Stay” last week hit the nail on the head about the nasty critters – you just can’t kill ‘em without drastic measures.
Some of Huerfano County’s earliest pioneers remembered, no doubt with some displeasure, what they called “the grasshopper years” of the mid to late 1880s. Devastation to crops and pasturelands was quite memorable to them.
But, alas, dry and grasshoppers go together like hoof and mouth. The drier the weather, the more the ‘hoppers thrive, until the poor vegetation is wiped off the earth.
The 1930s in southeastern Colorado were, of course, the time of the infamous Dust Bowl. The early ‘30s were marked by drought of unprecedented severity in widespread areas, including Huerfano County and the rest of southeastern Colorado, and by 1936 government programs were kicking in to relieve the poor farmers who had lost crop after crop and were stretching to pay the bankers the loans in arrears and the county the back taxes left unpaid. In May 1937 some of the Huerfano farmers received $654 for the previous year’s failures, IF they had joined in the soil erosion programs. 1936 had witnessed flash floods that destroyed river and creek banks, tore out dams, ditches and reservoirs and created all new arroyos. The soil erosion project was to repair these damages and to prevent future ones.
1937 looked promising at first. It was expected that some 100,000 acres in the county would be planted to crops, and, at the same time, County Agent Phil Miles had ordered no less than 1,000 tons of what was called grasshopper bait (bait being a more polite word than poison). By the first of June, Works Progress Administration (WPA) crews were mixing and spreading the bait, but by the third week of the month it was realized the drought was taking a toll and livestock were shipped out. At the end of the month, “hordes” of grasshoppers dropped onto the streets of Walsenburg, devouring gardens, lawns and coating the streets and sidewalks. Merchants were forced to sweep the piles of ‘hoppers from their doorsteps every few hours.
The poison project must have worked well because the state told Agent Miles to close his office and discontinue the program. Officials must have assumed the problem was over. He did not obey, because just a few days later, two “hordes”, one after the other, “blotted out the sun over Walsenburg’ one afternoon and “blanketed the ground east of Highway 85”, basically, today’s I-25. There the grasshoppers stripped crops and every other living plant. Miles figured the creatures were already laying eggs and that 1938 would be even worse. So he set out 60 more WPA men to mixing and spreading poison until mid-September. By then, more than 15,700 farmers in eastern Colorado had scattered 17 million tons of poison. Word was that livestock must be sold and shipped out or they would starve due to the drought and grasshoppers. The WPA men were spreading 50 tons of poison a day just in Huerfano County.
Knowing a plague was coming, Miles began the spraying program early the next year, and range conditions looked excellent with plenty of moisture and one of the best hay crops in 10 years. The sugar beets and alfalfa were lush. But, in July, an agricultural report showed that a third of the wheat crop had been destroyed by wind and hail, 15% by drought and 10% by grasshoppers. The next day after the report was released, heavy rains fell and while they caused a great deal of damage to the land and crops, it was thought they might also have killed millions of ‘hoppers. And, in fact, a record breaking wheat crop was harvested in August. Miles was considered a hero for spending $38,000 on poison while the thankful farmers pocketed $300,000. Also, the livestock were thriving, and the sale of some 13,000 head of cattle brought in another $400,000.
Alas, the grasshoppers survived. In 1939, Miles was having 1,000 pounds of bait spread daily, and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) boys were called in to assist. Between May 18 and 30th, 9,000 tons of bait had been spread. By late June, after 30 days without any moisture, 5,500 pounds were being put out daily. Due to grasshoppers and drought, the wheat crop was at 50% of normal, and other crops were the smallest since 1934. Twenty tons of bait were spread in 1940 and the vastness of the area treated, they thought, would eradicate all the grasshoppers and lots of prairie dogs as well. The crops fared well despite yet another summer of drought.
The 1940s saw fewer ‘hoppers, but then, they also saw fewer crops and farmers as World War II drew the men to battlefields instead of cornfields. By 1949, drought was back and so were the ‘hoppers. The only moisture came in violent storms that caused flashfloods and washouts, with even a Greyhound bus being washed off Highway 85-87 near the Huerfano River. Phil Miles had weathered the years and the ‘hoppers as county agent since 1933, and in 1952 he said that sections of Huerfano County had the worst hordes since the ‘30s.
Modern times brought modern techniques, and now Miles announced a new grasshopper spraying program. On July 6, 1953, “up to a dozen” DC-3s began aerial spraying and 8,900 acres had been covered in what was called Operation Grasshopper. By the end of the program on July 23, 372,175 acres had been sprayed and the kill percentage was 98.3.
Huerfano County was included in the designated drought area from 1952 through 1956, but the “annual grasshopper war” of 1954 was the last major battle. In 1957, snow and rain began replenishing the land. On the other hand, army worms, webworms and tent caterpillars had raised their ugly heads, and aerial spraying continued in different parts of the county.
The grasshoppers may have given up in 1956, but so did Agent Phil Miles, who retired July 31 after 23 years on the job in Huerfano County.