Grasshoppers & Drought Part 1

Drought and Grasshoppers 1898 – 1903

Excerpts from For Elise

The summer of 2021 with its drought and grasshoppers could be lifted right out of history. My great-grandmother Elise and family were brought to Canada by Englishman, Percy Criddle, her partner of 12 years. He disowned her and their children at the dock in Liverpool and changed their name from Criddle to Vane. From then on, they worked for him and his wife like feudal serfs. Trauma bonded, they faithfully served the Criddles through bitter cold and years of hunger. Their labours made it possible for the Criddles to live the genteel English life on the Canadian prairies. The Vane’s off his farm wages, plus hard work home had kept the wolf at bay for sixteen years. In 1898, when drought and grasshoppers threatened, Harry Vane began researching grasshoppers and ways to fight them. Supported by the Federal Agriculture Minister’s information Harry developed a successful strategy using the poison known as ‘Paris green’. Mr. Criddle, however, manipulated the credit away from Harry to Norman, and it became known as the Criddle mixture.
Note: the page numbers following give the location of excerpts and documentation of the book’s footnotes. For Elise is available in libraries and this web page.

1898, Chapter 24. If They Could but See Around the Corner

Page 373. As another year of drought threatened, Mr. Criddle was so distraught he paid no heed to the headlines, LOCUSTS DESTROY DAKOTA CROPS. The heat and tension took its toll on everyone. When Edwy received an invitation to play football against Stockton, he accepted, explaining to his mother. “They’re a tough team. But we need something else to think about besides the weather.” The fellows practiced, strategized, and put up a noble fight. The excitement carried them through another hot, dry week until at last rain fell and eased the tension.
. . .
A storm burst upon them a few days later. Luckily, St. Albans (name of Criddle home) escaped with only one broken window.

The next morning Mr. Criddle made a westerly tour and reported, “I find things out that way more serious. Have lost a quarter of my best wheat. Happily all my Home Farms are practically uninjured.”
Then to add insult to injury, the temperature dropped so low overnight that frost nipped some vegetables. “It’s a pretty state of affairs – fried, hailed, and frozen all within 60 hours.”
. . .
As harvesting began, Mr. Criddle estimated the crop on South Farm (Elise’s homestead), “Sixty-five acres – very poor – had it been thicker – been more rain – less weeds!”
Elise thought sadly, my homestead . . . my dreams of land and riches for my boys.
When the harvesters moved to Criddle’s fields his optimism surged, “Crop generally in very good shape and the heads are big – ditto the grains. I expect 3700 bushels.”
. . .
Then midway through harvesting the sky opened and the moisture needed in July came down in torrents. St. Albans’ roof leaked like a sieve and pots and pans were scattered about to catch the drips. Unfortunately under cover of darkness, Norman’s floor chose to channel its water directly down to his parents’ bed!!!
. . .
Things finally dried out. The men got back to stacking and discovered a new problem. They couldn’t fork the sheaves onto the rack because of broken twine. Harry complained to his mother, “It’s a confounded nuisance! Have to tie them up by hand. I’m going to write the Department of Agriculture. They should know something.”
Reply in hand, Harry told Mr. Criddle, “It’s not crickets cutting the twine; it’s grasshoppers”.
Harry started corresponding with Dr. James Fletcher, Dominion Entomologist, and Botanist and since Mr. Criddle wasn’t interested, and the others were too busy, he chatted with his mother. “I got a report from California about using poison bait against the hoppers. Dr. Fletcher says he authorized it three years ago in Ontario.

If we have hoppers again next summer, I am going to try some experiments. But first, we have to get this crop threshed.”
Mr. Criddle held to his predicted 3700 bushels until forced to accept the actual tally of 1,560. “The bushelers gave jolly good measure – had the machine thrashed better, there might have been 150 bushels more. There’s a most deuced lot of grain left in the straw.”
. . .
1899, Chapter 25. The Princess and the Generals

Note: The following March, Emily and Edwy had their first child, Thyra.

Page 384. When spring arrived, the young folks worked full out—seeding, gardening, fencing. One afternoon the door opened and there was Harry, face covered in blood. Evelyn helped get him to a chair. “The beastly fence wire broke. An end got his eye.” (Harry was tightening a strand of the barbed wire fence)
Elise, initially shocked, determined the eye itself was not injured, set about cleaning and bandaging his wound. “You can thank God, Harry. It’s not as bad as it looked when I saw you in the doorway. Time will put you right again.”
Harry’s next big push was planting trees around their buildings and the windbreak along the fields. He, with help from Edwy, Norman, and Evelyn, dug hundreds of little maples from the river flat and transplanted them to the open prairie. “This is only the beginning,” He told them. “They’ll need lots of watering to survive.”
Page 385. As Harry watered the transplants, he noticed tiny grasshoppers leaping away from his boots. He tried to raise the alarm, but his warnings weren’t welcome; “Don’t talk about a few measly insects, our real threat is drought.”
The boys finished seeding by the 24th of May and were ready for an outing. Lizzie Mair joined Emily and Baby Thyra for a picnic with the young folks at a little lake up north. They all enjoyed themselves in spite of the mosquitoes.
. . .
Page 387. As the drought continued, things went from bad to worse. The drama of life and death played out on the stage of the Criddle estate. More calves died and the grasshoppers multiplied. Harry worried and read everything he could on the subject of grasshopper control, but his hands were tied. Mr. Criddle did not want him wasting time on insects.
“What damage they are going to cause has already been done. What we need is a good rain.”
Summer passed and the binders were set in motion. Edwy spent Harry’s birthday, August 25 cutting oats: “They’re good,” he reported, “what there are. But, the beastly grasshoppers have thinned them out.”
Then, to make a bad situation worse, the rains came. With harvest on hold, everyone with the exception of Mr. and Mrs. Criddle, Elise, Norman, and Evelyn spent a day chasing butterflies in the Tamarack.
. . .
Page 389. Mr. Criddle’s stint as choir director (Choir to sing at the dedication of new Anglican Church in Treesbank) ended on Mr. Tulk’s birthday, November 5, however the two men were just getting going as the armchair generals for the British forces in South Africa. Since all the boys and teams were busy threshing, the gentlemen walked to Treesbank for the newspaper. “Delighted to see the Boers got a big hiking at Glencoe last Friday – they showed the white feather too.”
The faraway generals in were not in the least affected by their advice, yet every success or failure affected the home front. Too preoccupied to concern himself with slaughtering an animal to feed the threshers, he arranged meals at Lonsbury’s and told Elise, “Will save you a lot of time and effort. I’m sending Bobby to Mr. Lonsbury.”
Elise thought. It will be a relief. But wouldn’t it Mrs. Lonsbury needing Beatrice’s help?
When the crop of 1,786 bushels fell far short of his projections, Mr. Criddle rationalized, “The cattle got into the stacks up north, and the fowls ate a lot of stuff round home.” (Farmers stacked their sheaves until threshing)

Harry shrugged and said sadly to his mother, “I still haven’t got through to him about the hoppers.”

To be continued in Part 2

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