In June 1873, a year before the Ingallses arrived, a mystifying cloud had darkened the clear sky of southwest Minnesota on “one of the finest days of the year.” Like a demonic visitation, it was flickering red, with silver edges, and appeared to be alive, arriving “at racehorse speed.” Settlers were terrified to realize that it was composed of locusts, swarming grasshoppers that settled a foot thick over farms, breaking trees and shrubs under their weight. They sounded, according to one unnerved observer, like “thousands of scissors cutting and snipping.” A young Minnesota boy was in school with his brother when they heard the locusts coming, around two o’clock in the afternoon. As they started for home, cringing under a hail of falling insects, the boys had to “hold our hands over our faces to keep them from hitting us in our eyes.”
Farmers tried everything to get rid of them, firing guns, building barricades, starting fires, clubbing them off houses. Nothing worked. According to eyewitnesses, a month after they arrived, having eaten everything green, the grasshoppers formed a column and marched off to the east.
During that one month, the locust swarms destroyed more than three million dollars’ worth of crops, including over half a million bushels of wheat. A dozen counties reported damages, including virtually all of Redwood County. Yet though it was a blow to the state’s economy, the lost crops represented only 2 percent of that year’s production. The state wrote it off as a fluke, reveling in a banner year elsewhere.
Charles Ingalls must have heard of the grasshoppers; newspaper columns were full of them. Yet when the Ingallses settled on Plum Creek in 1874, the land was cloaked in spring green. They may have believed, as others did, that the grasshoppers had moved on. In fact, the previous year’s swarm had laid their eggs before departing. While Charles Ingalls plowed his fields, grasshoppers flew and marched in columns again, leaving destitute farmers in their wake with no seed to plant the next season. As with tornadoes, however, devastation was spotty and localized, with locusts touching down like funnel clouds in one place only to leave a neighboring township untouched. Perhaps a fluke of the wind spared Laura’s family their first year.