Grasshopper Years

Eighteen hundred seventy-three was a disastrous year for those who settled in Lyon County. It was the first time that history records a grasshopper infestation. It came during the crop season and the visitation destroyed most of the grain crop. When the harvest was over and it was evident how serious the situation was, committees were formed to go east to solicit funds to help carry the settlers through the winter and even more important, to enable them to buy seed for the coming year. At the same time other able-bodied men were being urged to go to Mankato, there to take winter work cutting timber along the Des Moines River. The pay wasn't high, but it would enable the men to buy food for their families and maybe some seed to plant another crop.

In spite of prairie fires, of a crop that was reined by the grasshoppers, there was still a spirit of neighborliness in the area, and a desire for social contacts. That Christmas a fine party was held at Beloit. The Review reported that there were no Christmas trees, but that the little ones did not forget to prepare for Santa Claus-and of course, Santa Claus had time to make his rounds. At Helgerson's new hall in Beloit, the people of the area gathered for a festive occasion-a Christmas ball-and there were a large number present. Nearly 100 remained until after 12 o'clock. The rooms (in the new hall) were 32 by 80 feet in size. The lower floor was for dancing while the upper floor was for the refreshment tables. "The dancing hall was remarked by many to be the best or as good as any they had ever seen. It was large enough to accommodate 16 couples. A few who had gone "up the river" were beastly drunk, but no liquor was allowed at the party.


In the first issue of the Review for 1874 it was reported that there was trouble in Lincoln County, Dakota Territory, because of the decision to issue bonds to join with Lyon County, in the construction of a bridge across the Sioux River at Beloit. The move was said to be causing "great excitement".

The financial plight of Lyon County was emphasized early in January of 1874, when Auditor Geotz announced that the county was $80,955.46 in debt.

On January 10, 1874 the first sheriff's sale (at least the first reported sale) was ordered. J. Irving Brooks was the plaintiff in the action and defendants were Thomas P. May, Nelson H. May, F.W. May, William B. May and D.C. Whitehead. Offered for sale was an "Aetha machine without reaper attachment, a horse mower and other machinery, and the interest of the defendants in some hay along the Little Rock River." The sheriff, Moses Nixon, said he would sell as much of the property as necessary to pay a judgment of $94.34.

The question of swamp land certificates came up before the supervisors again in mid-January and the board decided that in the future those who held swamp land certificates could not claim the land on that alone, but would have to pay $1.25 per acre, and the board would then give a deed to the land

Echoes of the grasshopper devastation were found in the advice that a seed grant of $8,000 had been set up for Lyon County for the year-probably because of their larger population. Osceola County was granted $20,000 and Sioux County was granted $18,000. The grants were made by the state legislature.

Education was always one of the first things new settlers sought, and in February the county superintendent of schools reported that there were three township districts (in Lyon County), 12 districts and three independent districts. There were 26 upgraded schools operating eight months of the year, with 12 male teachers at $34.75 per month and 14 female teachers being paid $33.95 a month. The report said that there were 388 children between the ages of five and 21 in the county. The average tuition for the past years was $3.32. The superintendent said the 19 frame schoolhouses in the county were worth $19,500.

In an advertisement in the May 23rd issue of the Review the LeMars to Luverne stage route said its stages leave LeMars every Thursday morning and reach Luverne every Friday, passing through Rock Rapids, where connections could be made for the Sioux Falls stage. The stages were said to "carry small freight and prompt attention was given to errands."

By June the results of the past year's grasshopper infestation were even more marked. Settlers were not able to return to their homesteads. The congress passed legislation permitting them to leave their lands, without losing their rights. "Such rights, following the 1873 invasion to be extended one year and if the grasshoppers appear again in 1874, the rights to leave the land shall be extended until 1875." The settlers were to be able to leave their lands and be absent from their lands, but they were to be able to perfect their titles as though no such absence had taken place.

The June 27, 1874 issue of the Review said that a buffalo bull had been killed 12 miles south of Canton. The bull was reported to have weighed 1800 pounds. Herds of deer were also reported in the area. This was probably the last buffalo to be killed in the tri-state area…the end of the great herds which at one time roamed the section and which provided game for the red man, his food and his clothing.

The coming of "more and more civilization" to the area was reported from week to week. In July a Mr. Freeman came from Jackson with a stock of drugs and medicine and he announced he would soon offer the service of taking pictures, as well as selling drugs.

On Saturday, June 24, 1874 the cornerstone for the new courthouse was laid. Stirring speeches were given by the Messrs. Hyde, Whitehead and Eccelston.

Then late in July-the great fear of the settlers was realized, the grasshoppers returned. "At about 5 o'clock a week ago yesterday, a shower of grasshoppers descended upon this region of the country until the ground was literally covered with the insects. They covered an area from the Little Rock to Sioux Falls, as far north as Luverne. They remained with us until Sunday, about 10 a.m. when it appeared that all of the hoppers in the infested area rose with one accord and flew southward. The sky was black with them for several hours. Strange as it may seem, they did little damage in this area."

The county debt and the grasshopper infestations had a bad affect on county warrants and they were selling at 50 cents on the dollar. Speculators were offering to buy the warrants-and in the October 31 issue of the Review J.K.P. Thompson was advertising for $1,000 worth of warrants. It was also reported that tax money was starting to come in and it was hoped that the warrants would soon be worth face value.


The last of the year of 1874 a call was issued for a meeting of citizens on January 5, 1875 to consider the propriety of assisting with money or otherwise, the first railroad to build a line through the county and having it operating, from the lines of the Sioux City and St. Paul railroad and running to Sioux Falls. A two-year limit was suggested for the offer.

April saw a rapid melt and the Rock River came up very fast, to a point three or four feet over high water mark. The Rock River Bridge was washed out and taken three miles down stream, where it was deposited. The bridge was all of iron except for the planks.

In May, Anna M. Penman, teacher of the Rock Rapids School, said there were 40 students enrolled in the school and that the average daily attendance was 27. She listed those who attended every day: May Shade, Addie Penman, Henry Penman, Charlie Bradley, Emmet Read, Bertie Bradley, Oscar Shade and Robbie Moon.

Community pride was evident in the Review as it reported that in two years Rock Rapids had grown from a few small buildings, some of them no more than half completed to over 50 substantial buildings. "Started this month was the building of a new high school to be two stories high, 30x50 feet in size, and built after the most modern and approved style of architecture."


The crops were better in 1875. There was much building and more families were arriving. The winter came-and passed. It was moderate, and high hopes were held for 1876. The courts were kept busy. Many of the suits had to do with county warrants and bonds issued for the construction of schools and there was always squabbling over the titles to lands. Beloit had a doctor. Mr. E.E. Carpenter was the leading citizen of Beloit and he went to Washington to push for construction of a railroad up the valley-and while there got a commitment from the government for a twice-a-week mail service from Beloit to Rock Rapids. The new service was to start July 1.

March 21, the Review told its readers that F.M. Thompson and his amiable wife had arrived from Clayton County and that Mr. Thompson would sell agricultural implements.

There was much criticism from the citizens about the cattle which roamed the village and ate up the gardens. A.J. Wagner inserted an advertisement for cattle to be put in "the herd". These herds of cattle were pastured out on the prairies during the summer months. There was a charge of $2 per month for beef cattle put in the herd and $3 per month for milk cows-but they had to be milked and brought to the corral by 7:30 each morning.

More progress was reported in April of 1876 when the Berkholtz Brothers staked out ground for their new mill and announced that a millwright would arrive shortly to build the first mill for Rock Rapids.

In August Dr. W.G. Smith came from Savannah, N.Y., to visit with his son, C.H. Smith. He liked the country very much and told the editor of the Review that he was going back to New York, sell his property and buy property in Northwest Iowa. That same week it was announced that Rock Rapids had its first resident doctor. He was Dr. W.W. Norris who had, it was announced, 13 years experience.

The niceties of life were not neglected in the new community. F.M. Thompson received the first piano to be brought in to the county. It was said, "this fine instrument is much better than an organ or other parlor music instrument."

The community was upset in November, by the murder of its favorite stage coach driver. J.W. Van Kirk, who drove the stage from Sibley to Sioux Falls, was foully murdered by Alonza Corson. It seems they had a night of drinking in Sioux Falls, and there had been friction. In the morning the men shook hands, and Van Kirk went out to hitch his team for the drive to Sibley. He was standing between the horses when Corson came out of the saloon with a double barrel shotgun which he took from behind the bar, walked up behind the stage driver, and shot him-the full charge entering his throat and killing him outright. Van Kirk was a highly popular man, the paper reported, "citizens said the mail would be on time" if Van Kirk was handling the ribbons.

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