The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862

Part 6 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)

It is almost impossible to picture the misery and poverty which befell the early settlers through the voracity of the grasshoppers. Victuals were exhausted, the money brought in by new settlers was sunk into improvements and see for their fields; clothing was worn out and tattered, cattle died from scarcity of food and blood-poisoning caused by bites of the grasshoppers. Storekeepers had made extensive sales on credit and finally found themselves without credit. As an instance of the devastating work of the insects let me relate what happened to us on two different occasions.

One of the Brothers was busy plowing on a very warm day. Overcome by the heat he took off his coat and hung it upon the fence. When he was about to return home for dinner the coat was missing. I was working near by. He came to me and told me his coat had been stolen. We searched about the place where the coat had been placed and were astonished to find nothing save the buttons and some shreds of clothe and even these were beset by the omnivorous little beasts. A few days later we encountered a similar experience.

Want stared in the face of the much afflicted settlers.  More than one half of them would have migrated from Minnesota had they possessed the means.

One winter day Father Clement and myself strolled off into the woods to look up a family which we had missed at church services for several Sundays.  Finally we struck a clearing, where a man was cutting wood.  Some of his children had noticed us coming and hurried into the house.  The man at work wore no shoes, but rags wrapped around his feet, which were frost-bitten.  His wife was but scantily clothed with apparel made from rags and a potato sack, while the children had about as little clothing as the clothing of the aborigines.  They crept into their beds when we entered the house.  They nourished themselves with herbs dug out from beneath the snow.  Such food also made up my meals when I visited the impoverished districts.  When I arrived at my lodging place after a hard day's work and did not find the husband at home, I would inquire for him.  "He has gone out looking for something and has not yet returned."  This was sufficient for me.  I knew what would constitute supper and meals for the following day (roots, herbs, rinds of various trees and leaves boiled and eaten without condiment of any kind).  In spite of all I was sufficiently strengthened by such sparse diet as to be able to sing a High Mass next day in some small room which served as a chapel.

May 1857 came on.  All means hitherto employed against the invader were futile; then, as there were now four priests in Stearns County, Father Cornelius Wittmann, Clement Staub, Alexius Roetzer, and myself, we resolved to propose to our congregations to vow an annual procession on the feast of St. Ulric, July 4th and St. Magnus, Sept 6th; as these two saints were venerated in southern Germany as the special patrons of those afflicted as our people were.  Full of faith and confidence our small congregations at St. Cloud, St. Augusta, St. Joseph, St. James and Richmond entered upon our proposals and we made the vow.  And behold, God heard us who were weak and helpless against such small insects. In the early days of June the young brood was ready for work; a brisk northwest wind set in and carried a whole cloud of the little fiends with it to other climes. Some weeks later we read in the papers that a multitude of grasshoppers had settled in Buffalo, New York and that great numbers had fallen into Lake Erie.  One week later a southwest breeze carried the rest from out territory and we learnt that they subsequently afflicted the northeastern parts of Dakota and our neighbor Canada.  We were saved!

There is a certain class of men, prone to style themselves enlightened, who see fit to ridicule the superstition of the Catholics because they saw the wonderful hand of God in this deliverance, which they claim was accomplished in quite a natural way.  However, let me ask: How did it happen that these grasshoppers of the previous year were sufficiently developed for the work of destruction only as late as August, and that the second brood were able to take wing immediately after we had made our vow, in the early part of June? There they found little to feast upon; as there was scarcely a blade of grass and the plain bore the appearance of having been scorched by a fire.  When the hoppers were on the wing you might look toward the sun for hours without being dazzled, such was the countless host that moved to other parts.  After their departure a refreshing rain fell:  potatoes and grain sprouted anew.  We had a meager harvest, little was produced beyond the seed for the coming year.  The only plants spared in this general havoc were peas.  This I noticed in 1856 and accordingly purchased a bushel of seed for $6 in 1857.  The yield from this was 36 bushels and they were much welcome.  The votive processions were made as impressive as possible.  It was arranged that the congregations of St. Cloud and St. Augusta should proceed on the road to St. Joseph until they reached the crossing of the Sauk River, at which point they were to be met by the people of St. Joseph, St. James and Richmond.  At the point of meeting solemn thanksgiving services were held under the canopy of the skies.  At this first celebration Father Alexius officiated and Father Clement preached the sermon.  There was no bridge over the Sauk River at the time.  To facilitate crossing a line of wagons was placed in the shallow bed of the stream and the processions filed across securely.  On the entire route the people diligently recited the rosary and other prayers.  This was on July 4th. For St. Magnus day, September 6th, St. James was designated as the place of meeting.  In subsequent years, I am informed the practice of observing these processions was partly abandoned, but a return of the ancient enemy revived the former fervor.

The grasshoppers had gone, poverty and desolation marked their abode.  Some measures must be resorted to for the relief of the stricken.  Several men, bearing commendatory letters, were sent out on a collecting tour.  They were successful in Iowa, particularly near New Vienna, in Wisconsin and Illinois.  They received donations of grain, clothing and money.  This whole harvest of charity was aboard a river steamer and joyfully the beggars hied homewards.  The money they collected was not sufficient to cover the freight expenses of the grain; they paid over to the captain what they had and on arriving in St. Paul, went about the city to raise funds.  In the meantime the captain had ordered the old clothing and some grain carried ashore, and with the rest departed for other points. The poor collectors returned to the levee to pay the freight but the captain and cargo were out of sight.  So these disappointed men returned with the curtailed proceeds of their mission and reaped abundant abuse when they reached their homes.

A rather remarkable instance of the divine interposition when faith, hope and charity govern the actions of a man, must not be forgotten.  At St. James an old man dwelled with several of his children on his farm.  Spring of 1857 came; the young brood of grasshoppers crept to the surface, but the old man ordered his sons to sow the wheat and oats.  The boys said: "Father, this is in vain; the hoppers will not let anything grow.  Let us save this seed."  But the old man insisted: "No.  Boys, we will do our part and plant as usual.  But let me tell you this: if God gives us a harvest, we shall give one third to God and the church, the second third shall be the part of the poor, while for ourselves we will reserve the balance. Now if the good God wishes to accept our gift He will permit this grain to grow." And so it happened. It seemed as though the hoppers could not find this farm. The yield was about one half of a usual harvest, while farmers in the vicinity had no crops whatever. Agreeable to his promise he delivered to me two thirds of the entire yield for distribution. How I was edified and touched by the faith of this man. Nor did he make display of his charity, all was done on the quiet.

The grasshoppers left us in 1857. Still fourteen months of misery was the general lot unto the time of the next harvest. Father Clement, although a powerful man, succumbed under the pressure of this calamity. He was seized by typhoid as physicians call it, but it was probably the result of endurance and starvation. For several weeks he was completely unconscious of his surroundings, wanted to leave, etc. Light, but nutritious diet was prescribed for him, but we had no bread in the house, moreover no means to obtain it. The hens enjoyed the grasshopper banquet and perished in great numbers. The physicians prescribed chicken soup and eggs. I canvassed the farms of the vicinity and finally succeeded in finding, at St. James, one old hen and one egg. For the hen I paid one dollar, for the egg 25 cents, and after this I had no more materials for chicken soup. I was pained at not being able to set before my sick confrere any more of this salubrious diet and was reproached for suffering him to starve. God helped me in the emergency and my patient recovered.

At length spring, 1858, drew near and seed was purchased on credit, for we had bright prospects. Our trials were by no means terminated. The crops were promising, but we observed that rust set in on the grain and again we realized only a half harvest. We had availed enough wheat for bread and starvation was consequently not imminent. It was more difficult to appease the devilish greed of some so-called Catholics, detestable usurers, who, begrudging the settlers their slender fortunes after two years of starvation, now conspired to wrest from them their dearly purchased homesteads. Like lightning out of a clear sky came an order from Washington that all preempted lands must be paid for; in default of payment they were to be sold at auction on a specified day. This was indeed a death blow to the Stearns County colony. Every settler must raise at least $200 within ten weeks. But how? Means of intercourse with other places were cut off. Our oppressors had formed a ring and pressed the price of wheat to 25 cents. At this rate we must sell 800 bushels in order to clear money to pay for our farm, and there were scarcely a farm that could boast of 200 bushels. We priests exerted ourselves to restrain the people from rash compliance. Many took no counsel and abandoned themselves to the usurers. In those days there was current a considerable number of land warrants which were issued to veterans of the Mexican war as pensions. Such a warrant ensured 160 acres which could be purchased at a nominal figure by the soldiers. The usurers had supplied themselves with such warrants, and the settlers were induced to surrender their 80 or 100 acres in order to secure such a warrant and procure a small home. We were solicitous for the temporal welfare of our parishioners also and had sent Father Clement to Washington, if possible to have the peremptory order recalled. There he was shown the report of our oppressors who had stamped their fellow-citizens and brethren in faith as swindlers and had petitioned for an early sale of the land in question. No alteration was made. I received a hint from a reliable source as to how some relief might be given the settlers, and I valued the hint. All the lands, I was told, not sold on the specified day were open to preemption for another year. I instructed as many as I considered trustworthy. On the day of sale an armed posse patrolled the surroundings of the land office, no one except the land officer was permitted to enter. No purchaser could approach. Here they watched all the day. No land was sold and on the following morning we had the satisfaction to preempt our farms for another year, in consideration of one dollar. Thus the usurers were minus their booty and we had an extension of time for another year.

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