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  Winter 2008 Issue Excerpts

Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Winter 2008 issue.
Call us toll-free at 1-800-833-6747 to become a member or to order just this issue.

Grasshoppered: America's Response to the 1874 Rocky Mountain Locust Invasion -- Alexandra M. Wagner


What the locust swarm has left
The great locusts have eaten;
what the great locusts have left
the young locusts have eaten;
what the young locusts have left
other locusts have eaten.

During a severe drought in the summer of 1874, a plague of Rocky Mountain locusts (popularly called grasshoppers) denuded the fields and crushed the spirits of thousands of settlers in the Great Plains and Midwest. Reports of the infestation and destruction circulated throughout the nation and produced a widespread relief effort. Despite conflicting accounts of the damage the invasion caused, the event prompted new discussions on the merits of charity and whether states and the federal government should provide disaster assistance to American farmers.

The grasshoppers traveled in a "perfect swarm." From July 20 to July 30, 1874, an estimated 12.5 trillion insects flew over an area encompassing 198,000 square miles between Minnesota and the Rio Grande and feasted on the crops of unsuspecting farmers. In the hardest hit areas, the red-legged creatures devoured entire fields of wheat, corn, potatoes, turnips, tobacco, and fruit. The hoppers also gnawed curtains and clothing hung up to dry or still being worn by farmers, who frantically tried to bat the hungry swarms away from their crops. Attracted to the salt from perspiration, the oversized insects chewed on the wooden handles of rakes, hoes, and pitchforks, and on the leather of saddles and harness. Locusts apparently liked onions; farmers reported smelling a faint odor of the vegetable as the unwelcome visitors neared.

Newspaper stories, along with the letters and diaries of western farmers, reported that the locusts blackened the sky and their jaws crackled like a deadly fire as they ate fields bare. According to Nebraska historian Addison E. Sheldon, who witnessed the invasion, the insects filled the air in every direction:

In a clear, hot July day a haze came over the sun. The haze deepened into a gray cloud. Suddenly the cloud resolved itself into billions of gray grasshoppers sweeping down upon the earth. The vibration of their wings filled the ear with a roaring sound like a rushing storm. As far as the eye could reach in every direction the air was filled with them. Where they alighted, they covered the ground like a heavy crawling carpet.

The entire essay and additional photos appear in the Winter 2008 issue.


A 1914 Cartoon Calendar: Drawings by Guy R. Spencer -- Patricia C. Gaster


"Have you seen Spencer's cartoon today?" was a commonly asked question throughout the Midwest during Guy R. Spencer's phenomenal forty-year career (1899-1939) as an artist and editorial cartoonist with the Omaha World-Herald. He left Nebraskans a pungent pictorial record of many topics--political, civic, humanitarian, and social. His cartoons were widely reprinted, and his personality sketches of state legislators, the first of which appeared in 1903, have earned a solid niche for their creator in Nebraska history. Spencer's whimsical drawings depicting the state's changing seasons and holiday celebrations found in "A 1914 Cartoon Calendar," reproduced here, are among his best.

Spencer was born September 1, 1878, in Jasper County, Missouri, and grew up in Falls City, Nebraska. After graduation from high school there in 1896, he enrolled in a three-month course at an Omaha penmanship school, which also taught art. He then tried to land a job with the Omaha World-Herald, where he could use his drawing skills. He was at first unsuccessful, although he did piecework for the paper. In June 1899, Gilbert M. Hitchcock, publisher of the World-Herald, offered him a regular job at a starting salary of ten dollars a week. Spencer stayed with the paper until his retirement in 1939.

At first, Spencer worked primarily as an artist, not a cartoonist. His first cartoon appeared on August 14, 1898. A caustic comment on the Spanish-American War, it depicted a Spaniard dressed as a pirate, saying, "Another Spanish victory. We made the Yankee pigs dictate the terms of peace." His second cartoon hit railroad influence in the Republican Party. Spencer's lifelong adherence to the Democrats and his hatred of trusts and monopolies, particularly railroads, were apparent even at this early date.

The entire essay and additional photos appear in the Winter 2008 issue.


The Empire Builders: An African American Odyssey in Nebraska and Wyoming -- Todd Guenther


In September 1908, covered wagons carrying several African American families crested a ridge on the Nebraska-Wyoming border about thirty miles northwest of Scottsbluff. The weary emigrants regarded the valley of Spoon Hill Creek before them as their promised land. Gazing across the valley, they envisioned an empire of prosperous homesteads nurturing scores of black families for generations to come.

Long before their time, John Quincy Adams expressed his belief in the nation's manifest destiny with the words, "Westward the star of empire takes its way." Though Adams and the preceding generation of founding fathers envisioned the continent being settled by white pioneers of northern European origin, people of color shared the dream. They, too, sought better lives on the western frontiers. The story of this group is a saga of persistence and courage that spanned generations.

The name they would choose for their new community? Empire.

The Spoon Hill settlers had just concluded a quarter-century as successful Nebraska farmers. Tens of thousands of ex-slaves from the Deep South, called Exodusters, claimed Nebraska and Kansas homesteads during the late 1870s and 1880s. By the turn of the twentieth century, poverty forced most to abandon their agrarian dreams and move to Omaha, Kansas City or other urban places in search of wage labor. The Spoon Hill settlers were not part of the Exoduster movement and differed from the majority of Exodusters in their origins, the timing and route of their flight from the South, their success as homesteaders, and their decision to relocate from their Custer County farms not to a city but to a still more rural and isolated location.

In the best mythic tradition of covered wagon emigrants, they sought new and better homes farther West. These experienced prairie sodbusters were not fooled by the anachronistic, Jeffersonian myth of the garden that inspired nineteenth century pioneers. They knew rain didn't follow the plow, and that grasshoppers and other problems would plague them, yet they mistakenly believed, that they could find brighter futures nearer the setting sun. Thus, this wagon train formed the advance party of a larger migration that would create a whole new community on the Nebraska-Wyoming border.

Reports of better economic and social opportunities in Wyoming and diverse factors in Nebraska spurred their departure to the allegedly more liberal "Equality State." They were unaware that Wyoming's vaunted reputation was built on a foundation of racism. William Bright, the South Pass City legislator and Virginia native who was largely responsible for the revolutionary 1869 woman suffrage law explained his stance thus: since black men had been enfranchised, supposedly superior white women ought to be able to cast ballots as well, in order that they would not be ranked below former slaves in the social hierarchy. Throughout their stay on Spoon Hill Creek, the black pioneers' economic and environmental woes would be compounded by covert--and sometimes brutally overt--racism.

The entire essay and additional photos appear in the Winter 2008 issue


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