The Joys and Sorrows of a Sioux County Summer
Sioux County, Iowa
Sioux County residents share with their neighboring counties in northwest Iowa memories of the grasshoppers (Rocky Mountain Locusts) that threatened, more than the resistance of previous human occupants did, the European settlement of the county in the 1870s. A history of 19th-century Hull records that in 1873 the grasshoppers ate at least ¼ of the crops. The next year was no better. “July 19, 1874, a Sunday, became a dark day and a dark beginning for the week. During the morning worship service the sky became black with the grasshoppers again. The wind brought in ‘millions’ of locusts from Minnesota, eating a 40-60 mile strip. By Thursday, they all flew south but the crops were stripped.” The grasshoppers returned in force for three more years. A Hospers centennial history speaks of the grasshoppers as the most trying and enduring of discouragements and hardships met by early settlers. A history of the Ireton Methodist Church agrees. “These were days [in the 1870s] of strenuous hardships, and grasshoppers made living almost a hopeless struggle.”
Charles Dyke’s description of an influx of locusts brings together the joys of a promising Sioux County summer and the sorrows that can descend quickly. “On a Sunday when the wheat and oats were just beginning to ripen and the corn stood in its glory with kingly plumes and many colored silks, there was a happy gathering at our home. The weather was not too warm and there was not a cloud in the sky. Several of our brothers and sisters who worked for others were home, and there were also a couple of neighbors, with their children. At about three in the afternoon when the tea cups were on the table and everyone was in a festal mood, the sunlight dimmed and shimmered somewhat as if a cloud had passed over the sun, and it immediately drew the attention of everyone present. Going out and looking around, we saw the strange spectacle as of a cloud arising in the west, or as of a March snow flurry on a luxuriant green landscape. The fluffy and gauzy flakes came as if slowly wafted on by the west wind and the rays of the afternoon sun shining through the thickly swirling flakes caused the strange shimmering light. We soon discovered that the flakes were grasshoppers and, as we all knew the ordinary grasshoppers which were always in the prairie, we at first were not unduly alarmed, and we younger ones had much fun about the snowstorm in July. …When they came near they settled with a soft pat on the bare places…We soon also noticed that they were not of the ordinary yellow and green prairie variety but much smaller and of a brown color. …As to the import of their coming they did not leave us long in doubt.”
The flourishing of wheat, oats, and corn, the gathering in of family and neighbors, and the tea cups on the table together convey a promise that severe summer weather can quickly turn to disappointment. Tornadoes and others effects of spring and summer storms have reappeared through Sioux County’s history, if not with the thorough effect of the 1870s grasshoppers.
The Sioux County Sheriff’s Office reminded residents in March 2018 of Severe Weather Awareness Week and the annual tornado drill, and urged them again to sign up for warnings via siouxcountysheriff.com. Though not foolproof, the warning system is a safeguard not enjoyed by earlier county residents. The spring of 1895 brought two destructive tornadoes. The first, in April, came on the heels of the previous accidental death of a teacher. The tornado arose as the funeral unfolded, and in the end, left two children dead. The following month a tornado went through Hawarden. It arose in a hot, sultry May and saddened residents in its destruction of two schools including two teachers and a pupil. Nine died altogether. The May 3, 1895 tornado took five victims at Sioux Center. Services for the five were held at the Reformed Church that overflowed with “sympathizing friends.” In 1898 a tornado struck near Hospers again prompting the school board to build a storm cave 30×10 feet near the school with a capacity of 120 persons. Storm caves and cellars saved many people but not all and certainly not livestock and structures. A June 5, 1914 tornado also arose on a hot, humid windy day. After destroying the Allen ranch, it moved on to other farms and a schoolhouse. In Sanborn three people were killed as the cyclone moved through the business district. A 1930s tornado took the top off of St. Joseph’s grade school and hit parts of Granville. A 1964 tornado followed a path across several northwest Iowa counties. Another in 1976 damaged farms.
Many county churches include in their histories buildings damaged by or lost to tornadoes. The Presbyterian Church in Hospers was lifted from its foundation by a cyclone on June 24, 1882. The Christian Reformed Church, destroyed by fire in 1921, was rebuilt then destroyed by a tornado in 1944. Rebuilt again, the steeple was struck by lightning and caught fire in 1965, but the church was saved from complete destruction.
Sioux County native daughter Anna Marie Gardner remembers both the threat and promise of northwest Iowa summers. As she recalls one storm that sent her family of nine to the cave, she explains, “Wind and hail might so seriously damage the corn, alfalfa and oat crops that nothing but stalks could be harvested. Fierce winds might flatten the ripe oats and barley, or uproot the corn plants. If that happened, no grain could be sold, which meant we might have only enough money from the year’s hard work to buy seed grain to plant for the next season. Golfball-sized hailstones might break windows and bruise the maturing corn ears. Lightning might set the house or other buildings on fire. We children sensed the anguish in Mom’s voice as we hurried to do her bidding.” And yet, she also explains, “hot Iowa summers provided a good garden. Together with slaughtered pigs, milk, cream and butter, the garden fed our family plus cornpickers, corn shellers, oats and barley harvesters, and the year-round hired man, plus anyone else who happened to be on the yard at mealtime.”
The pleasure and promise of rebuilding and replanting has been challenged by heavy rain, hot humid air, hail, and tornados. Warning systems, and other mothers’ voices, though there be, the twenty-first century has brought summer severe weather with it too. May 17, 2017, when two tornadoes touched down in the county, was one such recent bout of summer weather. May 27, 2018 saw a record 100 degrees in Orange City and throughout the county.