In July 1936, Winnipeg Free Press reporters James Gray and Bob Scott were driving through southeastern Saskatchewan when they were forced to the side of the road by a grasshopper blizzard. By the time the swarm had moved on, the car was a “ghastly mess.”
Gray’s attempt to scrape the insect carcasses from the windshield with his razor produced a “gooey smear.” Fortunately, a passing farmer had a wide putty knife that removed the “grasshopper grease” from the windows, and the pair pushed on.
But the smell of the “sticky green coating” on the car, made worse by the heat, was so nauseating that they had to stop in Weyburn to have the vehicle cleaned with coal oil.
The experience of the two reporters was commonplace in Saskatchewan in the 1930s. Everyone had hopper stories — how their numbers darkened the sky, how they ate the clothes on lines, even how the guts from their squished bodies stopped trains.
Some stories were exaggerated. But it was impossible to exaggerate the number of grasshoppers that invaded the province during the Great Depression.
In 1931, it was estimated that 10 million acres were infested with grasshoppers. Nor was the scourge limited to the countryside. On Aug. 11, 1938, a massive cloud of grasshoppers brought life in Regina almost to a standstill.
Saskatchewan farmers fought back with “Criddle Mixture” — a poison bait named for Norman Criddle, an artist and entomologist who lived at Aweme, Manitoba, southeast of Brandon. (The family story is told in the book Criddle-de-diddle-ensis.)
In 1898, Norman and his half-brother tried to deal with a grasshopper outbreak with a homemade sheet iron pan, filled with burning wood, that was drawn by two horses. As the sled-like apparatus passed over the field, grasshoppers would jump to a fiery death in the burner.
The “hopper dozer” worked wonderfully, but the entomologist was not done searching for the best way to exterminate grasshoppers.
One morning, Norman noticed that grasshoppers were attracted to fresh horse manure. This observation led to the development and testing of a new poison bait — a mixture of manure, salt, and Paris Green (an emerald-green arsenic-based compound).
The Criddle Mixture, as it became commonly known, was modified over the years through further experimentation and the need to use cheaper or more accessible ingredients. Bran and sawdust were often substituted for manure, while dry white arsenic and then liquid sodium arsenic served as the poison component. Whatever the recipe, the bait mixture proved highly effective, so much so that it was used for more than three decades before being replaced by other pesticides such as DDT.
Criddle Mixture was employed to combat grasshopper infestations in 1902 and then again in 1919. But its most extensive use was during the Great Depression. In fact, the province set up a Saskatchewan Grasshopper Control Committee that met regularly in Regina to assess the extent and severity of each season’s outbreak and coordinate the control campaign.
Mixing stations were set up in the worst-hit areas in the province, and farmers would pick up their poison bait there. The volume was truly staggering. In 1934, more than 1,000 boxcars of sawdust, 10,555 tons of bran, and 116,203 gallons of liquid sodium arsenic were applied to Saskatchewan fields in the form of Criddle Mixture.
The best way to apply the mixture was by hand. A wagon would go along the edge of the field and the bait would be ladled out from a barrel. Or someone would walk with a bucket of the mixture and use a paddle or spoon to spread it with a flinging motion.
Even though protective clothing was apparently never used in the preparation or distribution of the Criddle Mixture, there were no known human deaths — just some close calls. But those exposed to arsenic, especially in powder form, may have experienced neurological problems.
Cattle were lost. So too, ironically, were birds and other grasshopper predators.
There is also the larger question of why farmers, with the active support of the Saskatchewan government, would knowingly put poison on the land.
But in going to war against the grasshopper, farmers were doing something to save their livelihoods — or what was left of them — when all else seemed to be working against them. The Criddle Mixture offered hope at a time when hope was in short supply.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:Saskatchewan cities did not escape the grasshopper scourge in the 1930s. In this photo from Aug. 11, 1938, a worker brushes hoppers from the walls of the Legislative Building in Regina.
Photo source:UNIVERSITY OF SASKATCHEWAN ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.