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4 minutes | May 21, 2022
On May 17, 1910, the Grand Forks Herald took a forthright stance in defense of rhubarb. Its editorialist had tolerated recent Chicken-Little reports about the deleterious effects of the tail of Haley’s Comet, but when alleged scientific authorities commenced expounding on the dangers of rhubarb, he had enough.
4 minutes | May 7, 2022
The Bachelors of Mt. Carmel
It was December 1916, just about the end of a leap year, in the rural Cavalier County community of Mt. Carmel. A local wag decided to offer some free advice to single ladies of the community who might wish to exercise the waning prerogative of the leap year and latch onto a likely bachelor.
5 minutes | Apr 30, 2022
The Railroad Corral
Where does a folksong come from? When I was a folkie, way back in the last century, we were pretty definite about being indefinite about that. A song like “The Cowboy’s Lament” or “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim” was a feral thing. Nobody owned it.
4 minutes | Apr 23, 2022
Lord Byron No. 2
“Lord Byron No. 2” - yes, that’s the way he signed his work. An otherwise anonymous poet of the West River, writing for the Dickinson Press. His epic ballad was published on 13 March 1897. His subject: coyotes, or rather, the destruction thereof.
5 minutes | Apr 16, 2022
Breakfast at Six
Anna Oien came over in 1907 from Norway to her uncle’s place at Halstad, and after celebrating her seventeenth birthday, promptly went out to work as a hired girl on the prosperous farm of another Norwegian immigrant. The scholar who interviewed her in 1954, Leonard Sackett (the interview transcript to be found in the collections of the Institute for Regional Studies), records that every night Anna took to her cot in an upstairs hallway and “cried in the dark for fatigue and homesickness.”
4 minutes | Apr 9, 2022
Murder at the Cook Car
Early October of 1906, the sheriff of Emmons County came out to a threshing site near Milton and arrested William Smith, a member of the crew, resulting in thirty days in jail for Smith. According to press reports, Smith had “threatened a woman in charge of the cook car with death if she didn’t drink out of a cup he offered her.”
4 minutes | Apr 2, 2022
Respectable Girl Wants Work
The primary narratives from the hired girls--women, really--who staffed the cook cars and fed the working men on the threshing crews of the Great Northwest are engaging, even charming, but a little unsettling. They offer upbeat local color, but I feel like they may not tell the whole story of their lives as working women deployed to dispense meals to rough men in open country.
4 minutes | Mar 26, 2022
The Atmosphere of Excitement
When, a full generation ago, I published my book about harvesting and threshing in the days of steam, Bull Threshers and Bindlestiffs, I devoted some pages to the work of women in feeding threshing crews. Now I review that work and realize how blinkered my view of the subject was.
4 minutes | Mar 19, 2022
Cracker Crumbs for the Sparrows
As the English sparrow, a.k.a. the house sparrow, Passer domesticus, made its way from New York, where it was introduced in the 1850s, to Dakota Territory in the 1880s, prairie folk braced themselves for the invasion. The US Department of Agriculture, in a 405-page farmer’s bulletin of 1889, warned them of “the obnoxious character of the English sparrow.”
5 minutes | Mar 12, 2022
The Obnoxious Character of the English Sparrow
Just a few years ago—2018, by my notes—I was wondering what had happened to the English sparrows, a.k.a. house sparrows, that I had cussed for years as they cleaned out my bird feeders. A quick internet search disclosed that the sparrow disappearance was a global phenomenon, some sort of plague that had swept across Asia and Europe and North America. Not to worry, the sparrows are back now and as voracious as ever.
4 minutes | Mar 5, 2022
The Observations of Mr. Wheatley
You may know by now that I am getting obsessive about my quest to discover and regenerate the ballads and balladry of the Great Plains. Many a dark morning I carry my coffee with me through digital portals into that world where the Canadian settlers of Emmons County are writing and singing their own homesteading ballad, or where picnicking Grangers are breaking into choruses of “The Farmer Is the Man.”
5 minutes | Feb 26, 2022
Proper Punctuation in Winter
Angie the History Dog is driving me nuts in mid-winter. Out for a hike or a snowshoe, we cut a deer track, and she thrusts her chubby nose deep into a hoofprint, ruminating indefinitely until spoken to harshly--upon which she proceeds eighteen inches ahead and repeats the same ritual with the next print. In a frozen landscape, she is struggling for olfactory stimulation.
4 minutes | Feb 19, 2022
The Devil's Lane
People sometimes ask me where I get all these stories about life on the prairies. My typical reply is, Why, there’s one up every section road. That’s actually understating things a bit. There are several good stories up any section road, and they intersect and entwine one another.
4 minutes | Feb 12, 2022
Talking Back to Bachelors
It’s not like I have any experience in the matter, but there are fellows who really need a smart woman around to let them know when they are behaving badly. A few weeks ago I was talking about a remarkable ballad that originated in Minot in 1908, “A Bachelor’s Lament.”
5 minutes | Feb 5, 2022
Adventure Beyond Locality
Chapter 4 of Molly Rozum’s masterwork of Great Plains history, Grasslands Grown, opens with Kjersti Raaen on a train. Kjersti was the sister of the well-known writer Aagot Raaen. They were daughters of Norwegian immigrant settlers in the Goose River valley of Dakota Territory. Had not Kjersti died young, I think she, too, might have been celebrated.
5 minutes | Jan 29, 2022
The first time Molly Rozum started telling me about the genesis of her book, Grasslands Grown, I said, "Molly, stop! You’re making me cry." She was talking about the importance, to boys and girls growing up on the prairie, of going barefoot. And many of you hearing this know exactly why that might move me to tears.
5 minutes | Jan 22, 2022
The Northern Blizzards
In 1997 an English scholar published a paper on the origins and use of the word, “blizzard,” and concluded, “The etymology of the word is still speculative.” Well, no, I don’t think it is. In a previous essay, I started up the road toward the origins and dissemination of the term. And I hinted it might have something to do with baseball.
4 minutes | Jan 15, 2022
The Grizzly of the Plains
Laundresses in Bismarck in December 1874 found themselves in a cost-price squeeze, as they were being charged fifty cents per barrel to have water hauled up from the Missouri River. As reported by the Tribune, "'Tempering the wind to the shorn lamb' was the way the Bismarck washerwomen put it when Missouri River water advanced to fifty cents a barrel, and the next day’s blizzard piled a big snow drift near her back door."
5 minutes | Jan 8, 2022
The Heart of Any True Scotsman
“The merry-makers then joined hands in a circle and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne.’” Thus closed last week’s Plains Folk essay, which marveled at the depth of energy and the sense of community exhibited by New Year’s celebrants in Emmons County in 1885. By this time not only had the custom of singing “Auld Lang Syne” established itself on the prairies, but its manner of observance--holding hands at midnight in teary comradeship--was a commonality of such occasions.
5 minutes | Jan 1, 2022
Holding Hands on New Year's Eve
New Year’s Eve, 1885, at the Williamsport Schoolhouse, Emmons County, the crowd was less than expected on account of rough weather, but all that was promised as far as community and conviviality. Thirty-some neighbors answered the call of Dan Williams for a night of festivity.
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